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Pregnancy and baby

Expressing and storing breast milk

Expressing milk means squeezing milk out of your breast so you can store it and feed it to your baby later.

You might want to express milk if:

How do I express breast milk?

You can express milk by hand or with a breast pump. How often you express your milk, and how much you express, will depend on why you are doing it.

Sometimes it takes a little while for your milk to start flowing. Try to choose a time when you feel relaxed. Having your baby (or a photo of them) nearby may help your milk to flow.

You may find it easier to express in the morning, when your breasts can sometimes feel fuller.

Expressing breast milk by hand

Some women find it easier to express milk by hand than to use a pump, especially in the first few days or weeks. It also means you won't have to buy or borrow a pump, or rely on an electricity supply.

Hand expressing allows you to encourage milk to flow from a particular part of the breast. This may be useful, for example, if one of the milk ducts in your breast becomes blocked.

Hold a sterilised feeding bottle or container below your breast to catch the milk as it flows.

These tips may help:

  • Before you start, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.
  • Some mothers find gently massaging their breasts before expressing helps their milk to let down.
  • Cup your breast with one hand then, with your other hand, form a "C" shape with your forefinger and thumb.
  • Squeeze gently, keeping your finger and thumb near the darker area around your nipple (areola) but not on it (don't squeeze the nipple itself as you could make it sore). This shouldn't hurt.
  • Release the pressure, then repeat, building up a rhythm. Try not to slide your fingers over the skin.
  • Drops should start to appear, and then your milk usually starts to flow.
  • If no drops appear, try moving your finger and thumb slightly, but still avoid the darker area.
  • When the flow slows down, move your fingers round to a different section of your breast, and repeat.
  • When the flow from one breast has slowed, swap to the other breast. Keep changing breasts until your milk drips very slowly or stops altogether.

Expressing milk with a breast pump

There are two different types of breast pump: manual (hand-operated) and electric.

Different pumps suit different women, so ask for advice or see if you can try one before you buy.

Manual pumps are cheaper but may not be as quick as an electric one.

You may be able to hire an electric pump. Your midwife, health visitor or a local breastfeeding supporter can give you details of pump hire services near you.

The suction strength can be altered on some electric pumps. Build up slowly. Setting the strength to high straightaway may be painful or damage your nipple.

You may also be able to get different funnel sizes to fit your nipples. The pump should never cause bruising or catch your nipple as it is sucked into the funnel.

Always make sure that the pump and container are clean and sterilised before you use them. 

See tips on sterilising your baby's feeding equipment.

Storing breast milk

You can store breast milk in a sterilised container or in special breast milk storage bags:

  • in the fridge for up to five days at 4C or lower (you can buy cheap fridge thermometers online)
  • for two weeks in the ice compartment of a fridge
  • for up to six months in a freezer

Breast milk that's been cooled in the fridge can be carried in a cool bag with ice packs for up to 24 hours.

Storing breast milk in small quantities will help to avoid waste. If you're freezing it, make sure you label and date it first. 

Defrosting frozen breast milk

Breast milk that's been frozen is still good for your baby and is better than formula milk.

It's best to defrost frozen milk slowly in the fridge before giving it to your baby. If you need to use it straightaway you can defrost it by putting it in a jug of warm water or holding it under running warm water.

Once it's defrosted, use it straightaway. Don't re-freeze milk that has been defrosted.

Warming breast milk

You can feed expressed milk straight from the fridge if your baby is happy to drink it cold. Or you can warm the milk to body temperature by putting the bottle in a jug of warm water or holding it under running warm water.

Once your baby has drunk from a bottle of breast milk it should be used within the hour and anything left over thrown away.

Don't use a microwave to heat up or defrost breast milk. This can cause hot spots, which can burn your baby's mouth.

Breast milk if your baby is in hospital

If you're expressing breast milk because your baby is premature or sick, ask the hospital staff caring for your baby for advice on how to store it.

Read more information about breastfeeding a premature or sick baby

Having difficulty expressing?

If you are finding it difficult or uncomfortable to express your breast milk:

How do I express my milk?

Media last reviewed: 20/03/2014

Next review due: 20/03/2017

Page last reviewed: 02/10/2016

Next review due: 02/10/2019

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Expressing and returning to work

In this Best Beginnings video, we meet three mothers who express their milk for different reasons and who learnt how to do it in different ways. We also find out how mothers continue breastfeeding when they return to work.

Media last reviewed: 22/10/2014

Next review due: 22/10/2016