woman expressing breastmilk

You might have decided to express milk for your baby but are unsure which method is right for you. Here’s what you need to know...

There are plenty of reasons why, if you choose to do it, expressing milk is a useful skill to have for your new baby. It can help in medical situations that mean your baby or you is struggling to breastfeed (Becker et al, 2016).

When you’re away from your baby expressing milk will keep up your supply (Becker et al, 2016). It can even be a good trick to boost your supply if it’s low (Becker et al, 2016).

Another plus of expressing is that babies learn to take a bottle or cup. This gives you more freedom to go to work, appointments or even an evening out with friends. It also allows your partner or other members of your family to become more involved in the early months (Becker et al, 2016). Here are the ways that you can start expressing your milk.

Watch our video for tips on expressing breastmilk.

Electric breast pumps

Breast pumps are useful when you need or want to give your baby milk in a bottle or cup but want to continue breastfeeding. You have two options when it comes to using a pump to express your breast milk: manual or electric.

Electric pumps use mains electricity, batteries or sometimes both. They are more expensive than hand pumps but they are usually less exhausting – a big bonus in the early newborn weeks. Electric pumps are also great if you need to express often for a baby who is in special care.

If one type of electric pump doesn’t work for you, try another one to explore the options. You could do this either by returning it for a refund or hiring a pump instead of buying from an NCT breastfeeding counsellor.

It’s good to check the fit – no-one’s nipples are the same and you may need a different-sized funnel (Becker et al, 2016). If you’re keen on efficiency you could consider ‘double pumping’. This uses a double electric breast pump so you can express from both breasts at once.

Top tip: If there are different suction settings on your pump, start on a low one. You won’t win any prizes – especially not from your painful nipples – by going straight for the hardest level. So build it up gradually.

Manual breast pumps

For some women, hand-operated pumps can seem less intimidating than electric pumps. That might in turn mean you’re more relaxed using them. If you’re more relaxed you’ll produce more milk (Becker et al, 2016). Most pumps have flanges that go over your nipple and areola (the coloured skin around the nipple) and fit the breast. This helps draw the milk out by suction as you collect it in a bottle-shaped container.

Use them when your breasts are full and you should hold your baby while you pump if possible. This helps because skin-to-skin contact makes you produce the hormones that will bring on the milk (UNICEF, 2015).

Top tip: Make sure you sterilise all parts of the pump and whatever you’re using to store your milk before you start expressing (NHS, 2016a).

Hand expressing

Your milk reaches the nipple through many different ducts. So as you press and release the breast tissue, your fingers mimic the action of your baby’s tongue and mouth, squeezing milk from these ducts. That’s how hand expressing works.

You can also use hand expressing to ease engorgement. It’s handy if you’re out somewhere without your breast pump, like a private office at work. Here’s how to do it:

  • Massage your breasts or put a warm flannel on them first.
  • Position your hands under your breast with your thumbs upwards. The exact position will differ between women and you may or may not be touching your areola. The idea is to put pressure on the milk ducts. You may need to experiment to feel where they are.

  • Try pushing in towards your ribcage before rolling your fingers inwards. Move around so you affect different areas.

  • As you start to squeeze, milk will appear. Work around each breast, releasing the milk from all parts.

  • Express from one breast until the milk flow slows down and then start massaging the other. You can switch from breast to breast until the milk flow stops.

  • At first you may not be able to produce much but usually the more you express the easier it becomes.

  • Ask your midwife, health visitor or nurse to show you how to hand express your milk (NICE, 2014).

Top Tip: Find a container like a jug that has a wide rim for catching your milk and make sure it’s sterilised (NHS Choices, 2016b). Make sure you have some sterile storage containers for storing your milk, like bags, bottles or containers with lids. (Breastfeeding Network, 2009)

(NHS Choices, 2016a)

This page was last reviewed in October 2017

Further information

Our helpline offers practical and emotional support in many areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

National Breastfeeding Line (government funded): 0300 100 021.

UK Association of Milk Banking has information on its network of milk banks across the UK.

Best Beginnings: view video footage online from 'bump to breastfeeding'.


Healthtalkonline.org provides a comprehensive library of face-to-face interviews where parents share their experiences about breastfeeding, birth, parenting and many other issues.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2011) Practical bottle feeding tips. Available from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/feeding-nutrition/Pages/Practical-Bottle-Feeding-Tips.aspx [Accessed 1st October 2017].

Becker GE, Smith HA, Cooney F (2016) Methods of milk expression for lactating women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 29:9. doi: 10.1002/14651858. Available from: http://cochranelibrary-wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD006170.pub5/full [Accessed 1st October 2017].

Breastfeeding Network. (2009) Expressing and storing breastmilk. Available from: https://www.breastfeedingnetwork.org.uk/wp-content/pdfs/BFNExpressing_and_Storing.pdf [Accessed 1st October 2017].

Healthy Children. (2011) Practical bottle feeding tips. Available from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/feeding-nutrition/Pages/Practical-Bottle-Feeding-Tips.aspx [Accessed 1st October 2017].

NHS Choices. (2016a) Expressing and storing breast milk. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/expressing-storing-breast-milk/ [Accessed 1st October 2017].

NHS Choices. (2016b) Sterilising bottles. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/sterilising-bottles/ [Accessed 1st October 2017].

NICE. (2014) Breastfeeding recommendations. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/PH11/chapter/4-Recommendations#breastfeeding-3 [Accessed 1st October 2017].

UNICEF. (2015) Guide to bottle feeding. Available from: https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2008/02/start4life_guide_to_bottle_-feeding.pdf [Accessed 1st October 2017].

UNICEF. (2018) Skin to skin contact. Available from: https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/baby-friendly-resources/guidance-for-health-professionals/implementing-the-baby-friendly-standards/further-guidance-on-implementing-the-standards/skin-to-skin-contact/ [Accessed 1st October 2017].

Further reading

NHS. (2009) Breast milk ingredients and sleep. Available from: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2009/10October/Pages/Breast-milk-ingredients-and-sleep.aspx [Accessed 1st October 2017].

NHS Choices. (2017) Benefits of breastfeeding. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/benefits-breastfeeding/ [Accessed 1st October 2017].

NHS Choices. (2018) How to bottle feed your baby. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/bottle-feeding-advice/#how-to-bottle-feed-your-baby [Accessed 1st October 2017].

Peila C, Coscia A, Bertino E, Li Volti G, Galvano F, Barbagallo I, Gazzolo D (2017) Human milk adrenomedullin is unstable during cold storage at 4°C. Breastfeed Med. 12(9):561-565. doi: 10.1089/bfm.2017.0072. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28956619 [Accessed 1st October 2017].

Science News. (2015) Backwash from nursing babies may trigger infection fighters. Available from: https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/growth-curve/backwash-nursing-babies-may-trigger-infection-fighters [Accessed 1st October 2017].

University Hospital Southampton NHS Trust. (2014) Syringe and cup feeding your baby. Available from: http://www.uhs.nhs.uk/Media/Controlleddocuments/Patientinformation/Pregnancyandbirth/Syringe-and-cup-feeding-your-baby-patient-information.pdf [Accessed 1st October 2017].

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