02 Jul

Exclusive expressing: your questions answered.

Sam is a volunteer with the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, and runs a Facebook support group for exclusively expressing mums. There is unfortunately very little information or support dedicated to this subject online, so we asked her to write a guest blog post, explaining what exclusive expressing is, and giving some helpful information and pointers.

Not many parents plan to exclusively express breastmilk. Indeed, most of us find us ourselves here, not quite sure how we got here, and often without a plan, or a certain end-date. Infant-feeding conversations tend to involve two well-mapped roads: breastfeeding or formula feeding. However, there is a slip road alongside breastfeeding, that some mums find themselves taking: exclusive expressing.  

What is exclusive expressing?

Exclusive expressing is the removal of milk from the mother’s breasts, usually with a breast pump, and feeding the milk to baby via a bottle, or more suitable method, such as nasogastric tube for premature or poorly babies.

Some mums express milk for each feed, and their routine consists of pumping, then feeding that milk to their baby. Other mums prefer to get ahead of their baby’s requirements and express to a schedule. This means they are able to warm breastmilk from their fridge, whenever baby needs feeding. Some mothers have an abundant supply, which means they can freeze extra milk. This milk can be stored for their own baby, or they may choose to donate it.

Why do mums choose to exclusively express?

Mostly, they don’t choose to!

A few will have chosen this method, researched how much time and effort is required, and concluded it is the right way to feed their baby.  However, the majority are expressing their milk because baby is unable to feed from the breast. These mums know how incredible breast milk is, and all it has to offer. Their driving force is wanting their baby to receive the amazing properties of breastmilk, even though their baby cannot nurse.

These mums are usually aware breastfeeding is not just about the milk, and many feel great sadness about not nursing and missing out on that special relationship. At the same time, they are also incredibly proud of providing breastmilk for their baby who would otherwise receive artificial milk.

Some mums are expressing whilst their baby is too small or sick to nurse, but hope to begin nursing once their baby is strong enough. Other mums may be expressing for longer-term, such as for babies with cleft lip and palates who cannot form a seal at the breast. Or some mums may be expressing for babies who continue to not latch at the breast.

What do mums exclusively expressing need to know?

  1. How milk supply is established. Removal of milk from the breasts drives milk production. See here for an excellent explanation.
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  2. The first few days and weeks after the birth are when prolactin receptors are switched on. This means the early days and weeks, are when the body is most responsive to building milk supply.

    Information about first feeds happening within (ideally) 1-2 hours of birth, and frequently thereafter, applies to expressing too. Hand-expressing is usually suggested for the first couple of days until the milk begins to come in, when mums may choose to start using a breast milk.
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  3. Your time is precious. You are a new mum with a small baby, recovering from birth. You need time to cuddle your baby, rest, sleep and recover. Using a double pump-halves the time required to express, compared to expressing one breast then the other. Breast pumps can be purchased online, hired from hospitals and children’s centres or direct from suppliers themselves for a monthly rental fee.
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  4. Hands-on expressing and massage help the milk flow and the breasts drain evenly and efficiently. Some mum’s find warm compresses or help too.
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  5. Responsive feeding and skin-to-skin are just as important for a bottle-fed baby as a nursing baby. Skin-to-skin has numerous benefits for mum and baby, and can help stimulate milk supply, even if baby cannot nurse.

    Paced bottle-feeding will help to ensure your baby takes just enough milk to fill their tummy. This means they are less likely to overfill their tummy and bring up any of your hard-earned milk.

    (See the image at the bottom of this post for more info on responsive bottle feeding.)
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  6. Don’t get complacent. As mentioned earlier, milk supply will ideally increase steadily within the first couple of weeks. Some mum’s will be expressing for a poorly or premature baby who only requires tiny amounts of milk. This means there could be a surplus of milk produced each day.

    A full-term, healthy baby consumes around 570-900ml with an average of 750ml per day, between 1-6 months of age. Therefore, this is good amount to keep in mind if you wish to feed your baby only breastmilk. A mum of twins will need twice this amount each day.
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  7. How often to express? Most sources will suggest 8-10 sessions of expressing in a 24 hour period. This could be every 3 hours round the clock.

    Or it could be more often in the day, and one longer stretch of 4-5 hours overnight, meaning you only needs to get up once in the night to express. This could be at the same time baby wakes to feed, or it could mean setting an alarm if your baby is in hospital.

    You may find 8 times isn’t quite enough to meet baby’s milk requirements. Some mums choose to ‘power pump’ which mimics cluster feeding behaviour of young babies. Power Pumping involves one full expressing session, following by several short sessions of 5-10 minutes expressing, with 10 minutes rest breaks in between.
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  8. How long to express? When building supply the aim is to express until the milk stops flowing, even when adding in compressions and massage. Then keep going for a few minutes longer, to ‘ask for more.’ Some mum’s like to finish off with some hand-expression.

    Your breasts are never empty, milk is continuously produced, and you will always be able to express more with your hands. Becoming familiar with your own breasts, will mean you’ll get to know when they are suitably soft and drained, and you have reached the end of your expressing session.
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  9. Breast storage capacity varies from woman to woman. Breasts are not storage devices, they are designed to continuously produce milk, and for this milk to be regularly removed.

    Having said that, some breasts are physically able to contain more milk at any one time, and others simply don’t have room. This is nothing to do with breast size or shape – size is all to do with fat within the breast, and fat does not produce milk!

    Once milk supply is established, typically 6 weeks plus after birth, some mums are able to lengthen the time between expressing sessions, and this minimally impacts the amount of milk they produce overall. Other mum’s find they need to continue to express very regularly to maintain their output. Breast storage capacity is further explained here – you can use this information to identify whether your own capacity is average, large or small. This link explains why all capacities can work perfectly to feed your baby.

Take-home message: exclusively expressing is not a simple option. In many ways it combines the worst of both worlds – the washing and sterilising of bottles and equipment, storage and labelling of milk, and you don’t escape the potential problems that can sometimes affect lactating breasts (sore nipples, thrush, blocked ducts and mastitis etc).

For many mums, exclusively expressing is a temporary solution, whilst they work towards feeding their baby at the breast. With the right information and support, most mums and babies will manage this transition. For others, exclusive expressing can become a way of life for months or even years. It’s a journey they likely never intended to embark on yet could end up being one of their proudest achievements. If you’re part of the breastfeeding community, please extend your welcome to these exclusively expressing mums, they are probably some of the biggest advocates of breastfeeding around.

UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative guidelines on responsive bottle feeding.