Nearly every single new mother I see asks this question. I’m going to answer the question, dispel some myths, and hopefully provide some clarity in your breastfeeding journey.

The basics:

Your body starts making colostrum at around 20 weeks into your pregnancy. You’ll make colostrum until about 10 days after delivery. Your breastmilk will “come in” somewhere between days 3-5. This means that your breastmilk will be mixed with your colostrum and will appear thicker and more yellow until about day 10 after delivery. The volume of colostrum that you’re making in the early days is small, which coincides with the small size of the baby’s stomach. However, the colostrum is very concentrated. Once the milk comes in, the volume increases significantly.

Recap:

  • Colostrum from about 20 weeks pregnant until about 10 days after delivery
  • Mature milk comes in somewhere around days 3-5 after delivery
  • Colostrum and mature milk mixed until day 10, appearing thicker and more yellow
  • Volume of colostrum is very small, but highly concentrated
  • Volume of mature milk much greater

Milk Supply:

Your milk supply is largely based on demand. In the first three days after delivery, before your milk comes in, frequent breastfeeding sends the message to your body that it should prepare to make lots of breastmilk. Think of it this way: You’re putting in the order now so that when the milk comes in, you’re making plenty.

Once the milk comes in, it’s the frequent stimulation and milk removal that keeps the supply going. This is achieved by the baby breastfeeding often and emptying (or mostly emptying) the breast at each feeding. If the baby is sucking but not removing any milk, or is too sleepy to even suck and therefore no stimulation is happening, your milk supply will be negatively affected. Whatever milk is removed from your breasts will be replaced. However, any milk left behind will send the message to your body that the milk is excess and that milk will be reduced. This is a good thing. You don’t want to be very full all of the time. You want your breasts to fill up when it’s time for the baby to eat, and be softer by the end of the feeding.

Recap:

  • Supply is based on demand
  • Early supply is determined by frequent stimulation in the early days
  • Supply is maintained by frequent stimulation and milk removal
  • Whatever milk is removed will be replaced
  • Whatever milk is not removed will send the message to reduce the supply some

Pumping:

So now that you understand how milk supply works. How do you know when to start pumping?

These are the most common reasons to start pumping in the early days:

  • separated from baby
  • baby not feeding well or unable to feed

If you’re separated from your baby, you’ll want to ensure frequent stimulation. Remember: putting in the order now so that you’ll be making plenty when the milk does come in. Hand expression has been shown to be most effective. However, the pump is great stimulation, as well. Read here about hand expression.

If your baby is not feeding well, you’ll want to ensure frequent stimulation, but you also will hope to collect some milk to use as a supplement. You may only collect drops initially, but as you continue the volume should increase.

These are NOT reasons to start pumping in the early days:

  • to make the milk come in faster
  • to see how much you’re making

The milk coming in is a hormonal process that cannot be sped up. While it can happen quicker in mothers who have given birth and breastfed before, in a first time mother it generally takes at least 72 hours before you’ll see any signs of the milk coming in.

As for seeing how much milk you’re making, this simply won’t work. The pump doesn’t work like the baby, especially in the early days when you’re making colostrum. Hand expression has been shown to be more effective at removing the colostrum than the pump, but even once the mature milk is in, the pump isn’t as effective at removing the milk from the breast as the baby is. Therefore, the general rule is that the pump is not a true indication of your milk supply.

Other instances to start pumping:

  • Engorgement: If your breasts are painfully full after breastfeeding, and you are breastfeeding frequently/ on demand, you can pump just enough to make your breasts more comfortable. You don’t want to pump to empty. Remember: whatever is removed will be replaced. When the milk first comes in and you’re making more than you need, you want to leave some behind so your body gets the message to reduce the supply some to make you more comfortable. (*Don’t worry. This won’t lead to “not enough milk”.)

The moral of the story:

  • The amount of milk you’re making is based on demand
  • If your baby is breastfeeding well, there is no reason to start pumping
  • If you are separated from your baby or your baby is not feeding well, begin hand expressing or pumping to protect your supply and collect drops to feed to your baby
  • You can pump to make yourself more comfortable if you are painfully full after breastfeeding
  • Pumping will not bring in your milk faster
  • Pumping is no indication of your milk supply

If you decide to pump, pumping with manual compression of your breasts is most effective. Watch this video to learn how.

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