How do you hand express breast milk?

Knowing how to hand express is a must for all breastfeeding moms. It is the most convenient and economical way to relieve breast fullness, increase milk production, and provide nourishment for your baby. With no equipment to assemble, clean, or store, many moms choose to hand express rather than pump. As long as you have a breast (or two), a hand (or two), and a clean container with a large opening, you’re good to go.

Since everything you need to hand express is always available, you can hand express anywhere, anytime, anyplace—whenever your breasts feel full, whenever your schedule permits, after your baby breastfeeds, or in between feedings. If your milk supply is low, you may want to hand express more often in an effort to boost production. The more milk you, or your baby, remove from your breasts, the more milk you will make.

Here are some tips on how to hand express your breast milk:

  • Get ready. Wash your hands with soap and water and rinse well. Choose a quiet, comfortable place where you will not be disturbed. Keep a healthy snack and drink nearby. Use a clean, glass container with a wide opening that has been washed in hot, soapy water and rinsed well, or cleaned in a dishwasher. A mason jar or jelly jar works well.
  • Encourage a “let-down” reflex. Begin by rolling your nipple between your thumb and finger. Using the flat part of your fingers, gently massage your breasts in a circular pattern. It may take several minutes for your milk to let-down. Anxiety or stress can interfere with the let-down reflex, so try your best to relax. Looking at a picture of your baby; holding a piece of her clothing; listening to music; or listening to a relaxation tape can help to trigger a let-down reflex.
  • Position your thumb and fingers on your breast. Support your breast with one or both hands. Place your thumb and first two fingers opposite each other on the darker part of your breast away from the base of your nipple.
  • Press. Compress. Press in towards your chest, then slowly bring your thumb and fingers together, compressing your breast in between. Do not squeeze or pinch, and do not compress your nipple.
  • Rotate and repeat. Rotate your thumb and fingers around your breast clockwise and repeat the press/compress motions until all parts of the breast have been compressed and the flow of milk slows down.
  • Switch to the second breast and repeat. Express each breast several times, until the desired amount of milk has been collected, the flow of milk slows down, or your breasts feel soft.

Expect small amounts of milk at first

Your first attempts at hand expression may only produce enough milk to cover the bottom of the container. Don’t panic! It may take several days or several weeks before you see an increase in the amount of milk obtained. 

Put your baby to work

In the beginning, you may want to express and collect from one breast while your baby breastfeeds on the other breast. Your baby’s suckling will help to stimulate a let-down reflex and increase the flow of milk. After your baby finishes feeding on the first breast, you can still offer the “expressed” breast. While there may be less milk available, milk production is ongoing, so there will always be enough milk to satisfy your baby. Regardless of how much milk your baby gets from the second breast, the added suckling will signal your body to make more milk.

Practice and patience

Hand expression is economical and convenient, but like any method of milk expression, there is a learning curve. Much like breastfeeding, practice and patience are key to success. Mothers who express with a breast pump are still urged to hand express. Studies have shown that some mothers produce more milk when they massage their breasts while pumping than when they use only a breast pump.

(Learn more about how hands-on pumping can increase milk production here.)

Illustration by Jeffrey Scott Franklin © baby gooroo. Content excerpted from Breastfeeding, A Parent’s Guide by Amy Spangler © 2010. May not be reproduced without permission. To purchase an e-version of this book, click here for Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble NOOK, or the iTunes store.

Last updated June 1, 2020

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