How to Hand Express Breast Milk

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If you're a breastfeeding mom, you probably think of your electric breast pump as your lifesaver, but sometimes expressing milk by hand is the best or only option. It takes more than just squeezing your breast to empty the milk efficiently without hurting yourself. Practice proper hand expression to comfortably empty your breasts without a pump.

Why Hand Express Breast Milk?

Manual breast pump, mothers breast milk

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With so many electric breast pump options, it might seem like expressing milk by hand is obsolete, but there are several situations that might call for the technique. Even if you don't use this method regularly, it's a good idea to have it in your breastfeeding bag of tricks in case you need it.

Hand expressing is helpful or even necessary for many reasons, including:

  • You need to relieve breast fullness when you're away from home without your pump to prevent engorgement.
  • Your pump isn't working correctly.
  • The electricity is out.
  • You don't want to invest in a breast pump because you don't express milk on a regular basis.
  • You prefer the control of hand expressing over the use of a pump.
  • You don't want to deal with assembling, disassembling and cleaning breast pump parts.
  • You are able to express more milk with your hand than a pump.
  • Your hand feels more comfortable against your breast than plastic pump parts.

Some new moms find it easier to express colostrum by hand rather than using a pump. Studies suggest that hand expressing combined with pumping can increase your milk production. If your breasts are engorged, hand expression can also be easier on your breasts than a machine.

How to Hand Express Breast Milk

The Marmet technique is often used to express milk from the breast by hand. It is an effective method and one that is relatively easy to learn. Wash your hands thoroughly before you start hand expression. A gentle massage starting at the armpits and moving toward the nipples encourages the milk to start flowing.

Once your breasts are ready, follow these steps:

  1. Position your bowl, bottle, milk storage bag or other collection container in front of you. 
  2. Place your thumb on top of your breast about one inch from the nipple base. Place your forefinger and middle finger opposite your thumb on the bottom of your breast about the same distance from the nipple.
  3. Press your thumb and fingers straight into your breast toward your chest wall without changing the distance between your fingers. 
  4. Roll your thumb and fingers forward to compress and empty the milk reservoirs in the breast. Position your nipple to direct the milk into the container.
  5. Repeat this motion by pressing in toward the chest wall and rolling outward to express the milk. 
  6. Reposition your thumb and fingers if necessary to reach other milk reservoirs to empty the breasts. 

Tips if You're Having Trouble

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Expressing milk by hand takes some practice, so don't give up if you don't collect as much milk as you hope the first time. Use these additional tips to make the process easier:

  • Focus on relaxing. When you are calm and relaxed, you will likely express more milk than you can when you're tense.
  • Keep your hand in a C shape.
  • Avoid sliding your fingers across the skin, which can make you sore. Squeezing the breasts instead of rolling your fingers can bruise them or make them feel uncomfortable.
  • Play with your finger placement to find a position that works best for you. 
  • Stop to massage your breasts during hand expression if needed.
  • Express both breasts at once to speed up the process after you get the hang of hand expressing.