Pumping can be a frustrating experience, because most moms aren’t able to pump very much milk in each session.
There are ways to increase pumping output, but you should also go gentle on yourself. It’s normal to pump less than an ounce or up to two ounces (including both breasts) at each feeding. Even if you have a healthy breastmilk supply, and even with exclusive breastfeeding. (If you're doing exclusive pumping, you probably won't have as much trouble.)
Breastfeeding moms also worry about sudden drops in supply. But there are many completely normal causes of a supply decrease.
A low pumping output is stressful, but
A low-output pumping session does NOT reflect on your actual milk supply. Babies who breastfeed effectively are more efficient than breast pumps. So if your baby gets a lot of his milk from pumping, you may have to work harder than a mom who breastfeeds directly most of the time. You might need to pump 2-3 times to store up one complete meal for your baby.
Most of the milk you make goes directly towards your baby. If you’re trying to increase milk supply, it takes a while to establish that increase in milk supply.
Low pumping output is completely normal, but it does make it harder to build up a freezer stash. And it’s very stressful when you feel like you have to produce a certain amount of milk every day, and you’re falling short.
If you’re planning to go back to work and/or your baby is going to be at a daycare or with a nanny, then you need that supply. Feeling like you’re failing can be discouraging.
Be kind to yourself; what you’re going through is both normal and changeable. You have no reason to feel bad or to blame your breasts—they’re just doing what breasts do. Fortunately, power pumping can increase your milk supply.
Reasons why your pumping output is lower than you expected
Babies are better than breast pumps. The biggest reason is that a pump will never be as efficient as a baby who knows how to breastfeed effectively. Your baby might be getting 4-8 ounces per breastfeeding session, and then you only get 2 ounces during a pumping session.
Don’t worry—again, a low-output pumping session does NOT reflect on your actual milk supply.
Milk supply varies over time—it’s normal. Your baby’s nutritional needs vary, so your breastmilk production varies, too. If your milk supply is lower than last week, it might be because your baby simply doesn’t need as much milk. Maybe he was going through a growth spurt!
You’ve had a sudden drop in milk supply. There are many reasons for this, but if you’re making less milk overall, you’ll notice it in your pumping more than your breastfeeding.
It’s more noticeable because you can see and measure. When you breastfeed directly, you never know how much your baby is eating.
You’re using the wrong pump. There are a lot of types of pumps, and you’ll need a nice version if you’re pumping a lot.
It’s also crucial that the pump flanges fit you properly. It should be comfortable and get a nice seal. Switching to a better flange can increase your output—a nice simple solution.
A pump doesn’t smell great (hopefully it smells like nothing!). It isn’t cute, it doesn’t cry, and touching it isn’t special. It’s harder for your breasts to get in gear without all the natural signals.
Normal causes of a drop in breastmilk production
The end or beginning of a growth spurt. Babies need extra milk when they’re growing extra fast. When their growth levels out, they don’t need as much milk. If you breastfeed on demand, then your body picks up cues from your baby. If he doesn’t finish his meals for a couple days, then your body reduces your milk output to match his milk intake.
On the other hand, if he starts a growth spurt, you might feel like you can’t keep up, especially if a lot of his meals come from pumping. You might even think it’s a decrease in supply, when actually it’s an increase in demand. Don’t stress. Your body will catch up. Meanwhile, try to nurse and/or pump more often.
If you're not sure whether you're keeping up with your baby's needs, talk to your pediatrician.
Menstruation or ovulation. Hormones are wild (as you know), and any variation can affect your milk supply. Try tracking your whole cycle to see if the midpoint and endpoint correlate with your drops in supply.
Pregnancy. Same reason—crazy hormones mess with your body’s plan to keep a consistent milk supply. When you’re pregnant, your body needs more of your nutrients to build a new baby, so it’s less likely to spare some for your older baby, especially towards the beginning.
It’s absolutely possible to keep breastfeeding while you’re pregnant, but it may take extra work.
Hormonal birth control. Yup, hormones again (this time it’s even in the name). Unfortunately the pill can make a huge dent in your supply. Try a non-hormonal form of birth control like an IUD or condoms, or ask your healthcare provider for a progestin-based pill.
Your baby is being overfed. This is a trick answer—your milk supply hasn’t dropped, it just seems like it has. If you have childcare and your provider offers an ounce more than your baby needs at each feeding, and they feed her four times, then you’re falling behind by 4 ounces a day. In reality, you’re making exactly how much your baby needs, it’s just not being fed to her efficiently.Your pump parts need to be replaced. Pumps grow old, so if yours is second-hand or you’ve used it for months, it may need a refresh. Pumps are already less efficient than a baby, and if the parts are deteriorating, it’s even less effective. Pump parts should be replaced every 3-6 months.
Sometimes, you just need to boil them to make sure they’re in excellent condition.
If your pump is older than a year, the engine may even be wearing out. In that case, you need a whole new pump (sorry for the bad news).
The supply-and-demand cycle is out of whack. If you’ve been nursing and pumping less often than usual—maybe you’re extra busy or on the go or sick—then your body will slow production. It only takes a few days of reduced demand to affect your supply pretty significantly.
You started feeding your baby solids. If he’s eating solids, then he’s filling up there and won’t need as much milk. If he doesn’t eat as much, then you don’t make as much. Even if you keep pumping to make up for his dropped feedings or smaller feedings (remember, the pump is less efficient than the baby).
If you haven’t started solids yet, try introducing them very gradually, so that it doesn’t have a powerful, immediate impact on your breastmilk production.
You’ve been ill. This throws your whole body out of whack, including your boobs. It’s especially bad if you’ve had mastitis or any other form of fever. Don’t panic—just wait it out and be patient with your breasts.
You’re dehydrated. Breastmilk is liquid. Keep up on your fluid intake!
To increase your milk production, take care of yourself
Be careful with diets. Dieting while breastfeeding is tricky. If you’re not getting enough calories, it could reduce how much milk your breasts make. Eat at least 1500-1800 calories per day, and consult Kellymom for other tips about safely dieting while breastfeeding.
It can be helpful to graze throughout the day rather than sticking to three big meals. With a sustained intake of nutrients, your body can make a sustained output of milk. Include foods high in protein.
Drink enough water. Don’t go overboard—just quench your thirst. But if you’re super busy or stressed out, you might forget to drink enough. Again, breastmilk is liquid, you’ve got to stock up on fluids! (Don’t drink past thirst—it won’t increase your supply.)
Get enough rest. No, this isn’t a joke—it might sound impossible, but it’s important to try. Go to bed a little earlier or (the classic, annoying advice) sleep while the baby sleeps during the day. I know, there are a million other things to do. But if you catch just one nap, it could help.
Reduce your stress. Another difficult piece of advice. Cut back on commitments, practice deep breathing, exercise if you can, and even consider going to therapy. Stress creates hormones (cortisol) that directly affect breastmilk production.
Avoid alcohol. Not a fun piece of advice, but alcohol can reduce your supply. (Not to mention that you’ll have to pump and dump, wasting a perfectly good pumping session.)
Power pumping and cluster pumping
Milk production is all about supply and demand. One way demand increases is if your baby gets extra hungry. But you can also increase demand artificially through power pumping, also known as cluster pumping.
The idea is to mimic baby cluster feeding or a growth spurt. When your baby is growing extra fast, she drinks more often to signal that she needs more milk. Eventually, your body makes more milk, and she can drink less often while getting enough milk. Use your pump to create the same effect.
When you pump, your breast nerves release prolactin, a hormone that signals the need for more milk. Technically, if you stimulate this hormone because you're trying to stash some frozen milk, then you're creating an oversupply (more milk than your baby needs). Pop that overage right into your freezer.
How to power pump
You don’t have to do this every day. Just get on a power pumping schedule. If you do it once a day for 2-4 days in a row, you probably only need to do a power pumping session once every two or three weeks. In between sessions, just do regular pumping sessions.
Here’s what you do. Pick an hour when you can focus on nothing but pumping, and do this:
- Pump for 20 minutes
- Rest for 10 minutes
- Pump for 10 minutes
- Rest for 10 minutes
- Pump for 10 minutes
This signals to your breasts, “Hey! We need lots more milk, right now!”
You don’t have to stay in each phase for exactly that amount of time—you can adjust it till it feels comfortable. The idea is to go on and off frequently. (Just don’t stop in the middle of a let-down.)
How to power pump with a manual pump
It’s harder, but it’s possible. You won’t take a complete break, you’ll just switch sides. Do one side for 12 minutes, then the other for 12 minutes, then 8 minutes back and forth.
Make yourself comfortable
Set up a pumping station, watch a show, read a book. It also helps tremendously if you have a hands-free pumping bra so that you don’t have to awkwardly hold the pump in place perfectly, for an hour. Try to relax.
Speaking of relaxing, ask your partner or other support person to take care of the baby while you power pump. Power pumping is enough work on its own.
Other ways to increase breastmilk supply
The general idea is to do frequent feedings or pumpings and to get more out of each feeding or pumping session.
More frequent nursing sessions. Power pumping makes a huge difference, but it’s still not as good as nursing directly. Follow your little one's cues.
Pump more often. This can be tricky if you’re back at work. But normal pumping, even for just 5 minutes, can still be really helpful. Get into a pumping routine so that it's easy to stick to a schedule.
Try a galactagogue. Galactagogues are nutritional supplements that help increase your supply. Maade’s hydration powder [more info here - and maybe a picture?].
Here’s a list of food galactagogues from Very Well Family:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Brewer's yeast
- Brown rice
And a list of herbal galactagogues:
- Milk thistle
- Blessed thistle
- Goat's rue
- Stinging nettle
Make sure you’re pumping long enough. Generally, you should shoot for at least 15 minutes. But the most important guideline is to keep pumping for 2-5 minutes after you stop producing milk. That signals to your breasts, “Yo, we actually need more than this!”
Use a better pump. Double electric breast pumps are especially effective. Pump quality has a huge impact on production.
Also, try the soft shield or shield insert (if your pump has one). If you use it exclusively, try removing it and see if that makes a difference. Different ways work better for different moms.
Try a larger pump flange, too. This helps some women increase pumping production.
Try manual expression. Hand-expressed milk is just as good as pumped milk, and some moms have better success with hand expression.
Nurse right before you leave and as soon as you get home. If you’re working, this is one of the best ways to keep your breastmilk supply up. (Make sure your caregiver doesn’t feed your baby close to when you get back.)
Ask your childcare provider to feed your baby solids during the day (if you work). That way he’ll need less milk during the day—and then he’ll be hungry for it when you get home.
Listen to soothing music or guided relaxation exercises. An interesting study showed that this increased pumping production—especially if you combine the two. For an extra kick, look at pictures of your baby while you pump.
Not only did moms produce double or triple as much milk as usual, but their milk was also higher in fat content.
Ask your lactation consultant (IBCLC) for suggestions, and ask her to check whether you're pumping correctly.
Conclusion: Pump more often, and be good to yourself
Whether that means reading a good book while you power pump or giving yourself permission to have a temporarily lower output, it’s important not to put too much stress on yourself. Your breastfeeding journey may not seem perfect, but parenthood is all about the ebbs and flows.
You can increase your milk flow, but also increase your self-kindness. Keep in mind that breastfeeding is a choice. If you hate pumping, you don’t have to do it. If you stick with it (because you want to)—even when it gets you down—then you should feel really proud of yourself.