The Art of Hand Expressing Breast Milk

The Art of Hand Expressing Breast Milk
The Evil Ineffective Clown-Nose Breast Pump

Yes, by hand expressing breast milk I am indeed referring to milking one’s self.  It’s something that 22 months into my  first child’s life never really occurred to me as something I would need to do until I found myself doing it.  It saved my breastfeeding relationship with my toddler that neither of us were ready to give up.

The art of hand expressing breast milk is something that every breastfeeding mom should learn.  It can be useful in the early days of feeding when breasts might be engorged and producing more milk than the new chow-hound can gulp down.  Sometimes it’s useful to relieve a bit of pressure before a feed.  Yes, you could use a pump, but sometimes at 2AM it might be useful to simply be able to relieve leaky breasts by hand rather than deal with a pump.

It can also be incredibly useful if you find yourself in a situation where your electric pump malfunctions and you need to relieve yourself and need to pump milk to nourish baby.

A few weeks back I learned how invaluable this skill is when I found myself in Nicaragua for work and without a reliable pump. Originally my husband and toddler came with me to Managua for my work.  I stopped pumping breast milk when my daughter was around 14 months old or so.  She still breastfeeds, but even if I am away from her for the day she does fine at this point just feeding at night and morning when I am home with her.

So, when my work schedule got to the point where my husband and I decided that it would be best for them to return home to Chicago for two weeks, the first thing I did was go out in search of a breast pump in Managua.  So, after I spotted and asked a local Nicaraguan mom with an infant in her arms where I could find “the thing you take your milk out with,” since I didn’t know the Spanish word for “breast pump,” she directed me to the pharmacy.

There I bought my only option available to me- a hard piece of plastic with a hard red rubber clown nose ball at the end of it that functioned much like a baby snot sucker.  It’s definitely not something I would ever count on to regularly pump, but I figured it would do to at least extract milk I would just dump each day, just to keep my milk supply going.  I’m pretty sure that the only women who have the opportunity in Nicaragua to breast pump to provide milk for their babies if they have to be away for work are upper class women who can afford to import a functioning pump from the U.S.

I was, after all, just trying to keep things flowing for the two weeks I would be away from my daughter for the first time.  I never envisioned the end of my breastfeeding relationship with her being a forced result of my work situation.  Probably neither did she.  Besides, I have been eagerly anticipating the opportunity to tandem nurse my toddler with my newborn expected to arrive this January.  I think it will be an amazing bonding opportunity, and my daughter has shown no sign of wanting to give up “mommy’s boobies.”

I made the mistake of not trying it out until after my husband and daughter departed the country a few days later.  This is when emotional mayhem ensued.  I pumped and pumped for a good ten minutes, and only a few drops of milk came out and my sore pregnant nipples stared angrily at me.  I burst into tears and immediately called my husband back in Chicago on Skype to lament what was clearly the unfair and unplanned end of my breastfeeding relationship because of work.  We had made a huge mistake having them leave.

I ferociously Googled how much time it would take for my milk supply to completely run out without a nursling or a breast pump to keep my liquid gold flowing, and discovered that most likely within 3-5 days of no demand on my milk supply my body would turn it off.  And I was a good 12 days minimum away from home and my toddler.

Thank goodness for La Leche League!  I looked up my local chapter back in Chicago and found four women’s published emailed addresses.  I emailed them all telling them of my predicament and asking them what I can do to keep my milk supply going for the next couple of weeks away from my daughter.  One of them responded within six hours early the following morning with an incredibly supportive and empathetic email, including encouragement to tandem nurse once the baby comes.

She suggested hand expressing, warning that it might be a bit awkward as it is much like milking a cow, going into detail on the mechanics of hand expression.  She also suggested that I might have my husband overnight FedEx my trusty pump from Chicago along with some supplements to get my milk flowing.  I immediately remembered the lactation consultant teaching me how to hand express shortly after my daughter was born in the hospital, but for some reason it just didn’t occur to me as an option since I really didn’t have the need to do that since Day 1.

I followed the La Leche League woman’s instructions and definitely found it awkward at first, sitting in my hotel room in Nicaragua milking myself. But, I soon realized that the more I just relaxed and focused on my end goal of keeping my milk supply up for the benefit of my breastfeeding relationship with my toddler, the easier it was.  It also made me giggle, which was welcomed considering how much stress I was under with work and being away from my daughter for such a long time for the first time ever.  I also consulted an instructional video on YouTube, which was very helpful as it shows exactly how to hand express breast milk.

So, I milked myself once in the morning and once at night for almost two weeks until I returned to Chicago.  On the first day and night my toddler showed no interest in nursing.  I lamented again to my husband it was over, not to mention the past two weeks of milking myself was for nothing.  But the next day she giggled and said good morning both to the baby in my belly, giving it a kiss, and then to “mommy’s boobies” with a huge grin on her face and went for it.

And we are still enjoying our breastfeeding relationship now, thanks to the age-old art of hand expression and La Leche League.  Now I can eagerly anticipate the opportunity to tandem nurse my toddler and newborn in what I hope will be a rewarding bonding experience for all of us.

Related Pages

I Wish I Were Homeward Bound: Two Weeks Away from My Toddler

Essential Breastfeeding Gear for Traveling Mommas

Six Tips to Successful Pumping on the Go

Guide to Getting Baby’s Liquids Through Airport Security

Expressed Breast Milk on a Plane?

Six Reasons to Choose Breastfeeding on the Go

Five Tips to Make and International Flight More Comfortable with Baby

Has the Case Been Made for Formula Feeding?

6 thoughts on “The Art of Hand Expressing Breast Milk”

  • Some people swear that hand-expressing is more effective than using a pump. I suppose it might be, given enough practice. It really is like milking a cow! 🙂

    • Yes, I definitely would have to practice my milking skills more to get enough out to fill a bottle. What I could get out was probably less than an ounce, which was just fine for the purposes of keeping my milk supply up, but I wouldn’t be able to fill a bottle with it. Although, that could also be because my toddler drinks a lot less these days, plus I think my milk supply has gone down as I am almost into my third trimester. I am sure if I tried it more int he first few months of her being born the milk would have been flowing more freely :).

  • Thank you so much for this post. Two weeks after reading this, I found myself on my first overnight trip away from my baby without a breast pump. I would never have thought to hand express if it was not for reading this. (It also saved me from buying the only ridiculously expensive hand breast pump I could find!) This is all making me reconsidering my international career but it is nice to read your example on how to balance work and family.

    • I’m glad you found this information on hand expressing useful. It definitely isn’t the first thing that comes to mind! I hope you find a solution that works well with you in balancing work and family- it is particularly challenging to do with an international career. We’re in a constant state of assessment of what is best, especially is we expect our second baby and plan for a LOT of international travel right after he is born. It’s not easy, but also not impossible. I hope you find what works best for you and your family- and if you find a magic solution, please let me know :).

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