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How to Use a Breast Pump

General Breast Pump Usage Guidelines

Regardless of what type or model of breast pump you choose, it is very important to use your pump properly.

  • Before you use your breast pump for the first time, read the instructions fully.
  • Practice assembling the parts of the pump together; the most important part is the valve - the pump will not work if the value is not correctly in place
  • Check the instructions to see how the manufacturer recommends you sterilise the parts of the pump that should be sterilised
  • Once you have the parts sterilised and assembled, pick a time and location that you are relaxed and know you will not be interrupted
  • Carefully place the pump’s breast shield over the breast, ensuring the nipple is in the centre of the shield; if the shield is not in the right place, it may hurt or be uncomfortable to use the breast pump, and the milk will not come out correctly
  • Start using the breast pump, by squeezing the pump handle of a manual breast pump or turning on the electric breast pump
  • Note - many women believe that the breast milk come out through one duct at the end of the nipple; in fact, there may be 8 or nine ducts at the end of the nipple through which the milk comes out

Manual breast pump:

    • Begin pumping by squeezing the pump handle; a few short sharp squeezes may help to stimulate the milk flow (achieve milk let down) as this mimics the way a thirsty baby starts feeding or nursing
    • Once the milk starts flowing (milk let-down has happened), try to use longer, more drawn out squeezes to maximise the amount of milk that you are expressing at each squeeze; this will also help to ensure that the breast is emptied of milk
    • Once the rate of milk flow slows down, switch to the other breast if you are pumping both breasts at this pumping session

Electric breast pump:

  • If you are using an electric breast pump, start pumping at both the lowest speed setting and suction setting; this will be the most comfortable for you
  • Once the milk has started to flow, you can adjust the speed and suction setting until you are happy with the rate at which milk is being expressed
  • If you are using a single electric pump, once the rate of milk flow has slowed down, switch to pumping the other breast
  • Pump until the rate at which the milk is expressed has slowed down to almost nothing

Hospital grade breast pump:

  • The instructions for a hospital grade pump are the same as for the electric pump - be extra careful to choose the lowest suction rate and speed setting to start off with
  • If the pump has a setting for a two phase expression, make sure to start off with the first expression phase

After you have finished pumping, regardless of what pump you use:

  • Once you are happy with the amount of milk you have expressed, carefully take the breast pump away from the breast ensuring that you do not spill your precious breastmilk
  • Store the breast milk carefully
  • Disassemble the breast pump, and wash and sterile the relevant parts - check with the manual to see the recommended washing and sterilising instructions.

Tips for successful pumping

  • Ensure that you are as relaxed as possible
  • Try to time your session so that you will not be interrupted, .e.g. when you know your baby will have a long nap, or you have someone else to mind the baby
  • Choose a quiet place in which to pump
  • Make sure you are comfortable
  • Have a glass of water or a cup of tea beside you
  • Have a photo of your baby with you, and/or an item of clothing or a blanket that smells of your baby
  • Some mothers find it helpful to have recorded the sounds of their baby gurgling or crying, then play it back when they are expressing
  • Start using your breast pump before you have to, e.g. it would be good to start using your breast pump a few weeks before you go back to work. This is a good idea for a number of reasons:
    • You will have time to practice using your breast pump so you will be familiar with its settings
    • Your body will be used to the sensation of pumping which is different to that of breastfeeding
    • You will know how long it takes to pump
    • You will be able to establish a pattern of pumping so that you body is used to producing the amount of milk you need
    • You will also have built up a stock of expressed milk so that you are not under pressure on the morning / day you go back to work to pump a certain amount
  • Time your pumping session so that you know you have milk in your breast
  • Ensure you are using your pump correctly; vary the suction strengths and cycle speeds; ensure the pump is assembled correctly, especially that the valve is in place and the pump fittings are tightened
  • Some mothers find the best way to use a breast pump or the way in which to pump the most milk is to nurse on one side and feed on the other at the same time:
    • The let-down reaction applies to both breasts at the same time so if your baby is feeding on one side, you are more likely to find it easier to pump the other side at the same time
    • This can take some practice to get used to holding your baby and your pump at the same time, so this is another reason to pump before you have to
  • If you are having any issues with your breast pump, re-read the instructions for the breast pump; they may have a trouble-shooting guide with specific help for your pump
  • Using a breast pump should not hurt! It may feel odd at first or even slightly uncomfortable but if it is actually sore then you should stop pumping and try again
  • Treat your breasts to gentle massages or warm compresses - these will help to increase your milk flow
  • Check with your hospital or district nurse for the most recent guidelines on the best way to store your expressed breast milk; these are updated regularly so ensure you know what the most up-to-date advice is.

How long should it take to use a breast pump?

The time it takes to pump will vary considerable between women and may also depend on the pump they are using. A typical breast pumping session should last about 15 minutes for a single pump, pumping one breast. A double pump should take less time to express from both breasts. 

In this 15 minute session, you should have expressed most of the milk from the breast. It is important to empty the breast when you are expressing, to prevent infection. The exception to this is if you are using the pump to relieve engorgement, and then intend to let your baby feed from the breast after removing the initial amount of milk using the breast pump.

If you find that you are not expressing the amount of milk you would like in this time, or even in 20-25 minutes, you may not have a breast pump that is the most suitable for you. Or you may not be using your breast pump correctly. Re-read the manufacturer’s instructions, check their website and ring them if you are still not happy.

Open System Pumps vs. Closed System Pumps

Are you having a hard time choosing the right breast pump for your needs? If so, you may want to read up on the differences between open and closed system breast pumps. At first glance, an open system breast pump may not appear any different from a closed system pump, but upon closer inspection, you will find that there is one major difference between the two.

The difference between these two pump types is that a closed system breast pump has a barrier in between the milk collection kit and the pump mechanism, while an open system does not have a barrier of any kind. This can cause many unwanted problems, including contamination of your precious breast milk.

Open Pumping Systems

Since an open system does not contain a barrier between the milk collection kit and the pump mechanism, your milk is exposed to the outside air, which is drawn through the pump system. This allows any impurities that may be found in the air such as dust, smoke, pet dander, pollution, airborne bacteria, and viruses to contaminate your breast milk.

There is also a possibility that milk particles can be sucked into the pump’s tubing, as well as parts of the pump that cannot be cleaned. Because of this contamination possibility the breast pump’s tubing may require cleaning and sterilizing after use.

To speed up the drying process some manufacturers suggest pouring a small amount of isopropyl alcohol in the tubing. Although this technique can help to dry out the tubes quickly, the alcohol vapors can be drawn into your milk as it is expressed. Because of this possible risk some mothers prefer to attach the tubes to the pump motor while running it for a few minutes to remove any moisture.

If milk particles in the tubing go unnoticed, mold can begin to develop in the tubes, as well as the pump motor. This puts your expressed breastmilk at risk of being contaminated, since it is exposed to the mold, even if the tubes are thoroughly cleaned or replaced. Repeatedly boiling your pump’s tubes for sterilization can also cause them to become opaque, which can make it particularly difficult to see milk or mold in the tubes.

Closed Pumping Systems

When using a closed system to express milk, the barrier in between the collection kit and the pump tubing prevents outside air from being exposed to your breastmilk. By keeping outside air out of the collection bottle, you are able to preserve the purity your breastmilk for your baby.

The barrier also ensures that milk particles will not enter the pump tubing or motor. This eliminates the need to wash the pump tubing, as well as the possibility of mold growing in the tubing.

The first closed system breast pump kit, the Ameda HygieniKit was introduced to the market over 12 years ago. Ameda uses this technology in their Purely Yours Breast Pump, and many other companies have since developed double electric breast pumps including this advanced closed system feature in their pump designs.

Frequently Asked Questions about Breast Pumps

What are cycling times?

Cycling times refers to the speed at which the nipple is drawn into the funnel or flange of the pump and then released. Milk is expressed or released from the nipple only when the nipple is drawn in. This action is sometimes called the ‘suck and release’ cycle, and mimics the rate of feeding of a nursing baby. 

When choosing a breast pump, watch out for the efficiency or cycling times of the pump; they are measured in cycles per minute. Many pumps offer a range of cycling times from 30-60 cycles per minute.

Cycling times are only used to measure the speed of electric pumps; a manual pump is totally controlled by the speed 
the mother is able to pump the piston or lever.

What are open system pumps and closed system pumps? Why is this important?

An open system breast pump does not have a barrier between the milk collection part of the pump and the actual pump mechanism.

A closed system breast pump has a barrier between the milk collection part of the pump and the actual pump mechanism.

This is important because the milk in an open system breast pump is exposed to the outside air which is drawn in through the pump system. This air could contain impurities that could contaminate your breast milk.

An open pump breast pump system could also suck small particles of breast milk into the tubing of the pump as well as parts of the pump itself. It is very hard to clean the tubing and so mould often develops there. Your expressed milk could become contaminated by being exposed to this mould.

Also, if you share a breast pump, your milk could become contaminated by the previous mother’s breast milk, even if you use a new collection set and tubing.


My pump is not working - the nipple is not being drawn into it.

If your nipple is not being drawn by the pump into the pump’s breast shield then the suction is not correct. Remove the pump from the breast; switch it off if it is an electric pump and check to see if it is assembled correctly:

Did you remember to include the valve as part of assembling the pump? It will not work if the valve is not in place so check it first.

Then check the other pump parts to make sure they are all there and overall that the pump is assembled correctly. 
In the case of an electric pump, check to see the tube is connected correctly between the motor and the milk collection kit.


What is meant by a milk collection kit?

Different manufacturers will vary as to their meaning of a milk collection kit but it general it refers to the parts of a pump that come in contact with the mother’s breast or the milk, i.e. for an electric pump:

  • The breast funnel or flange
  • The milk collection bottle
  • The all-important valve which is vital for suction
  • The tubing which connects the pump to the motor
  • The lid for the bottle.

For a manual pump, the milk collection kit would usually refer to the whole pump.


I cannot get the pump to work properly - it is taking me a very long time to express a very small amount of milk.

First of all check that your pump is assembled correctly. If you are happy that it is, then please refer to our “Tips for getting the most milk expressed using a breast pump” section.

Then see if any of the following apply to you:

  • If you have a double pump, try using it as a single pump
  • If it is possible to increase the suction on your pump, turn it up by degrees until it is as the maximum level, without being uncomfortable
  • If it is possible, increase the speed or cycle settings
  • Pump when you know your breast has milk in it:
    • First thing in the morning if your baby has slept well
    • If you can tell by the weight of the breast or the feel of it that there is milk there
    • Some women pump after breast feeding to increase their milk supply; this should help your breasts produce more milk but over a course of time, not immediately - you will probably only express a very small amount if your baby has just fed.

If you have tried everything and are still not happy with the results, try contacting the pump manufacturer to see if they can help.

Some women have great success with one pump, and very little luck with others. Every woman’s let down rate is different - some may find that their milk squirts out from a full breast and they always need to have breast pads while others never have an issue with a leaking breast.