What do I need to know to maintain my milk production with a pump?

You are now producing as much milk as your baby needs: 25-35 ounces (750-1050 mL) per day. (If not, click on “How can I use a pump to reach full milk production?”) If your baby is not yet ready to breastfeed, don’t despair. Your pump can help you keep your milk at this level until your baby is ready. To do this, it may help to understand how milk production works.

  • Drained breasts make milk faster. When breasts are drained often and well, this sends the signal to make milk faster. Lots of pumping at first “puts in your order” for full milk production.
  • Full breasts make milk slower. Mother’s milk contains something called FIL that signals the breast to slow down its milk-making. The more FIL in the breasts, the slower milk is made.
  • Different breasts mean different pumping patterns. How long it takes for breasts to feel full depends on a mom’s “breast storage capacity.” This is the most milk her breasts usually hold between feedings. The room in the milk glands (not breast size!) is the basis for this and differs from one mom to the next. Moms with a “large capacity” store more milk, need to pump less often, and get more milk at a pumping. Moms with a “small capacity” get full faster and need to pump more often to get the same amount of milk. Both moms can make plenty of milk, but the number of pumpings needed to maintain milk production can vary greatly.
  • Very long stretches between feedings can slow milk production. Because full breasts make milk slower, very long stretches between pumpings may cause milk production to slow. Cutting way back on pumping may work if you have a “large capacity.” But if you’re a mom with a “small capacity,” look out! Your milk production may drop.

When you’ve reached full production, you may be ready to pump less. Here are some tips.

  • Try cutting back to 5-7 pumpings each day. If your production slows, see the next section.
  • Try sleeping all night. With full production, many mothers pump right before bed and first thing in the morning. If you can do this without too much breast fullness, go ahead.
  • Pump for a shorter time. For most mothers, 10-15 minutes of pumping is long enough.
  • Once a week, add up the milk you pump in 24 hours. Write down this daily milk yield and compare your totals each week. You’ll know right away if it starts to drop.

If you need to boost your production, the sooner you work on it, the faster you’ll see results.

  • Pump more: 8-12 pumpings per day boosts milk production for most mothers.
  • Express milk longer: Pump until two minutes after the last drop of milk or 20-30 minutes, whichever comes first and/or hand express after pumping. (Drained breasts make milk faster.)
  • Check your pump flange fit at “Why does good flange fit matter and how can I get it.” Many women get better results with a larger or smaller breast flange. Even if you had a good fit at first, flange fit can change with time and pumping.
  • Use breast massage before or during pumping. This may yield more milk.
  • Look into prescription and herbal medicines that can boost milk production. Ask your lactation consultant to give information on these to your health-care provider.

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