When my fifth baby decided to enter the world a full five weeks before her due date, I became an unexpected exclusive pumping mom. And for the next 10 months, I would spend my days in three-hour segments, completely basing my life around her next meal.
Full-time pumping took a lot of dedication and although I am incredibly grateful I was able to make exclusive pumping work for us, it didn’t come without its challenges. For a long time, I felt like I was making up a pumping schedule and I felt pretty lonely about how I was feeding my baby. When I found out that there is actually a pretty large community of exclusive pumping (EP) moms, it changed everything for me. I was no longer the only woman in the world who knew the pain of strapping herself to a machine to be milked every few hours like a cow—I was now part of the EP breastfeeding world!
Exclusive pumping is a world I never expected to be in, but let me tell you what: exclusive pumpers are some of the most supportive moms you want in your corner. So if you’re looking to join the EP club, let me just say—welcome. We’re so glad you’re here and as an EP mom, I’m going to give you everything you need to get started pumping for your baby.
What is Exclusive Pumping?
First things first: what exactly is exclusive pumping? Exclusive pumping is when a lactating person—for whatever reason—provides their baby with breast milk that they have pumped instead of feeding the baby directly from the breast. There are many reasons that a parent may need or decide to exclusively pump, such as:
- A schedule that does not allow the parent to be physically with the baby
- Personal reasons
- Medical needs, from either the parent or baby
- Prematurity, making it difficult for the baby to latch and learn to nurse (this was our case)
And while there is (rightfully so!), a lot of attention given to breastfeeding, there isn’t a whole lot of information given to new moms about exclusive pumping. But the truth is, when it comes to feeding choices, you aren’t limited to just breastfeeding-from-the-breast or formula-feeding your baby—instead, there are so many options you can choose to make feeding your baby in a way that works for you happen. Feeding your baby can look like:
- Full-time pumping
- Part-time pumping
- Part-time bottle-feeding
- Full-time from-the-breast
- Full-time donor milk
- Part-time donor milk
- Any combo of the above!
When my daughter was born early, I admit that pumping full-time for her didn’t even occur to me at first. But when she continued to have difficulty latching (even after several visits with lactation consultants, which is recommended if you have any trouble breastfeeding from the breast!) and I knew that providing her with breast milk was important to me, the realization that I could breastfeed her through pumping opened up a new world for me. Exclusive pumping moms are breastfeeding moms, and that was something that took me some time to realize.
How to Make Exclusive Pumping Work For You
The first thing you will need to do to make exclusive pumping work for you is settle on a pumping schedule. Your pumping schedule will most likely change as your baby grows, but if you plan on exclusively pumping, you’ll want to start pumping as soon as your baby is born. Then, you’ll want to follow an approximately every 3-4 hour pumping schedule, pumping for around 30 minutes with each session (assuming you’re pumping both breasts at the same time). You’ll want to keep pumping until your breast milk supply comes and is established. A mechanical breast pump is not the same as a baby, so it may be different for every pumping parent on what their supply look like with just pumping alone.
Over time, you may be able to experiment with spacing your pumping sessions out more once you are certain your supply has been established and won’t be affected. What’s very important with pumping, however, is to ensure that you don’t suddenly drop a pumping time—this could lead to engorgement and mastitis (an infection in your milk ducts). Instead, if you want to space your pumping sessions out, you’ll want to do so gradually. For instance, if you usually pump 6 times per day, every 4 hours, but want to get down to 5 pumping sessions per day, you could space your pumping times out to every 5 hours instead of just suddenly dropping one.
Your pumping schedule can also change to meet you and your baby’s needs. For instance, you may make the decision to supplement a few feeding sessions with formula so you’re not pumping around-the-clock. You get to decide! And although, again, every person is different, it is more difficult to “add in” a pumping session after you have dropped one, so do keep that in mind.
Storing Pump Parts
The single hardest part about full-time pumping is definitely the incredible amount of cleaning you will have to do. There is cleaning of bottles and cleaning of pump parts and flanges and tubing and little tiny nipples—and it honestly feels like as soon as you’re done getting everything cleaned, it’s time for another pumping session.
It can be exhausting for sure, and there’s not one “easy” way through it, but I found that the burden was eased somewhat by buying double the pump parts so I always had a spare ready-to-go if I hadn’t got around to cleaning from the first pumping session. Unofficially, I can also tell you that many exclusive pumping moms I know told me that they would store their pump parts in the fridge between pumping sessions, then wash at the end of the day to cut down on cleaning.
Officially, however the CDC recommends that you thoroughly wash, sterilize, and dry all pump parts and associated apparatus before and after each pumping session. And I can tell you while the thought of stashing my pump parts in the fridge was tempting, I could never bring myself to do it out of fear of a lingering germ getting in my hard-earned milk, so I just resigned myself to a lot of cleaning.
Breast Milk Storage
Obviously, as a pumping mom, you’ll need to get pretty pro at storing your milk and learning the safety guidelines about breast milk storage. You can check the CDC’s chart for full breast milk storage guidelines, but in general, here’s a quick glance:
- Freshly pumped milk can be left at room temperature for up to 4 hours
- Freshly pumped milk is good for up to 4 days in the fridge
- Thawed milk should be used within 1-2 hours at room temperature and within 1 day if in the fridge
- Any leftover milk a baby didn’t eat in one bottle should be used within 2 hours
- Frozen milk is best up to 6 months, but can be frozen up to 12 months
Products for Exclusive Pumping
The products you need for exclusive pumping will largely mirror those of a breastfeeding-from-the-breast mom. Here are the product I recommend for exclusive pumping success.
Hands-Free Pumping Bra
I’d recommend settling on a pump before you choose a nursing bra, because the type of pump you will have determine what kind of bra you want to pick, but personally, I loved the Larken nursing bra. This bra was buttery-soft, stretchy enough for me to put my pump in, can be used with traditional pumps, and I could sleep it in comfortably too. However, it doesn’t offer as much structured support as some other nursing bras, so if you don’t have a hands-free pump, I’d recommend a more supportive bra like the Bravado bra.
Soak it Up
One benefit I found with pumping is that I didn’t have to use breast pads as often as I did with from-the-breast-feeding because I was pumping on both sides during sessions, instead of feeding a baby from one breast while other leaked. However, I still used breast pads a lot, especially in the first few months, and during the night if I happened to sleep through a pumping session (oops). My favorite nursing pads are Lansinoh Disposable Nursing Pads because they stick to a bra or nursing tank top, they absorb a lot of milk, and they’re easy to use.
Wireless Pumping Power
Truly Mama has a full list of breast pumps you should definitely check out, but if you plan on exclusively pumping, I would definitely suggest that you at least look into purchasing a wireless breast pump. What is a wireless breast pump you ask? Good question—currently, there are two wireless breast pumps on the market: the Elvie and the Willow.
Both are double electric battery-powered pumps with the entire motor and milk collection built directly into a shell that fits into your bra with no cords attached. They are pricier than a lot of traditional breast pumps and have a smaller capacity for milk (the Elvie has the highest milk capacity, at 5 oz. per pump). Using a wireless pump means you can quite literally, pump anywhere and everywhere.
After about two months of full-time pumping while caring for my baby full-time, I broke down and ordered the Elvie for myself. And my life instantly changed. I was able to pump and hold my baby at the same time, pump while driving my older kids to school, and pump while I got chores down around the house. The Elvie was a life-changing purchase for me (and half of the cost was covered by my insurance, so check with yours!) and I credit it with helping me get to my goal of providing my daughter with breast milk for a full year. Honestly, without it, I think I would have given up on EP a long time ago.
You can also read our full review of the Elvie vs. the Willow if you’re undecided on which pump to choose.
Store It, Store It Real Good
Let me tell you what: I once tried buying the “budget” brand of breast milk bags. Never again. Those things leaked everywhere, my husband and I both spilled milk when trying to pour it from the bag into a bottle, and I definitely cried over wasting any drop of the liquid gold that I worked so incredibly hard for. Bottom line? Don’t try to save money on breast milk bags. Just get the good ones.
I liked this milk cooler bag because it was a smaller size that would still fit in the diaper bag, plus it’s insulated, has plenty of room for up to 2 full-size bottles, or several bags of milk, comes with its own freezer ice-pack, and features a double zipper and stroller attachment for easy access. I used for both packing prepared bottles for my baby to eat when we were away from home and for storing my freshly-pumped milk in.
Truly Mama Recommendation
Every baby is different, so you should try out a variety of different types of baby bottles, but our family had great success with all of the Dr. Brown line. I was able to use their bottles for the preemie stage, then graduate to the bigger bottle and nipples sizes. I also loved the anti-colic vent and glass options (our family tries to avoid plastic, so I loved that they have a glass baby bottle option that’s durable and safe!).
Truly Mama Recommendation
I soon found out that pumping = millions of parts and accessories. Along with constantly cleaning pump parts and bottles, you need some kind of organization system to keep clean bottles available and dry. I went with this rack and it’s been perfect—the holder was great for keeping track of my small pump parts or nipples, and the tall racks held bottles. I also paired my rack with a drying mat on the counter because let’s face it: one rack can’t contain it all. And a quick note: be sure to wash and sanitize your bottle drying rack regularly too.
Truly Mama Recommendation
A big brush is ideal for cleaning baby bottles, but you really need the smaller one for cleaning clean pump parts, valves, and other small baby accessories too. Also helpful when in a pinch? A clean toothbrush.
Truly Mama Recommendation
While these bags are perfect for cleaning pump parts and bottles anytime you are away from home, the truth is, I used them at home a lot too, so I never saw the need for a separate sterilizer. I used the “sterilize” function on my dishwasher for my heavy-duty cleaning, but if I needed a bottle sterilized quickly, into the microwave it would go. One bag (the pack comes with 6!) is good for 180 uses, so it’s pretty hard to run out.
Truly Mama Recommendation
If you’re pumping away from home, pump wipes are invaluable—they let you quickly clean your pump parts and accessories, along with your pumping “station.” I used these wipes when I pumped at work as a nurse, and it made me feel so much better to know I had some defense against the germs I encountered on my unit.
Are these Milkmakers Chocolate Chip Lactation Cookies actually an essential item for pumping moms? I honestly can’t tell you that from a medical standpoint, although oats are reportedly helpful to amp up your milk supply. What I can tell you, however, is that these are delicious and when you’re a full-time pumping mom, you certainly deserve a delicious treat from time-to-time.
Frequently Asked Questions
How often and how long should I be pumping?
This really depends on your own personal milk supply and how much milk you want to supply your baby. If you plan on pumping full-time and not supplementing, it’s important you pump regularly, at least every 3 hours until your milk supply is established. If you are pumping both breasts at the same time with a double pump, aim for around 30 minutes per pumping session if possible. Your schedule will most likely change as your supply is established and you learn your baby’s needs (and what works for you).
Can I go 8 hours without pumping at night? I want to get some sleep (or at least as much sleep as my newborn will allow me to have).
Again, this will depend on your pumping goals and your own individual milk supply. In the newborn days, it is best if you can continue to pump every 3-4 hours in order to get your supply established. Then, once you know how much milk you are producing and how much your baby is eating, you can experiment with changing your pumping schedule. For me, I maintained pumping at night for the first several months, but once I knew that was able to produce enough during the day to feed her for 24 hours, I chose to cut out overnight pumping sessions so I could catch up on my sleep. Win-win! You’ll also want to be careful not to suddenly go a full 8 hours without pumping, as you could wind up with mastitis. You’ll need to adjust your entire pumping schedule and wean out sessions gradually.
Is pumping better than breastfeeding?
The only time pumping is “better” than breastfeeding is if it’s the choice that works best for you and your baby. No feeding choice is better than another—it all comes down to works best for your family. I chose to pump because breastfeeding didn’t work for us, and having been both a breastfeeding-from-the-breast mom in the past and now a breastfeeding-through-pumping mom, I can say that both have their advantages and disadvantages.
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Reviewed by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN…