How can I keep up my milk production long term?

Many employed mothers who pump at work worry about meeting their long-term breastfeeding goals. One mother told me: “I have a 6-week-old and just returned to work. I pump once every 3 hours and am pumping more than enough milk for my baby. But I am fearful of pumping less. Given my son’s eating routine is still getting established and will likely still change, how do I keep my milk production stable?”

Since she was breastfeeding exclusively and her baby was thriving, I suggested she begin by thinking back to her maternity leave. On average, how many times every 24 hours did her baby breastfeed? She can think of this as her “magic number.” For example, if her answer is 8 (which seems to be average), assume that to keep her milk production steady long-term she would need to continue to drain her breasts well at least 8 times each day. If she’s pumping 3 times each workday, this means she would need to breastfeed 5 times when she and her baby are together.

Another factor that can affect milk production is the longest stretch between breast drainings (breastfeedings or pumpings). Ideally, to keep milk production stable, it is best not to regularly allow her breasts to become uncomfortably full, as that gives the signal to slow milk production. For babies who sleep long stretches at night, I usually suggest going no longer than about 8 hours between breast drainings. Despite the social pressure for babies to sleep through the night as young as possible, for most mothers it is easier to keep long-term milk production stable if they continue to breastfeed at night.

It’s important to focus on more than just on the number of pumpings at work. Mothers also need to keep their eye on the number of breastfeedings outside their work hours. Many of the employed breastfeeding mothers I talk to pump often enough at work, but as the months pass, the number of breastfeedings outside of work gradually decreases. It’s not just how many times you pump at work that determines milk production. More important is the number of breast drainings every 24 hours.

Nancy Mohrbacher, IBCLC, FILCA, Lactation Consultant, Ameda Breastfeeding Products
Coauthor of Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers