Expressing and storing breast milk

Expressing and storing your breast milk allows someone else to feed your baby when you return to work or go out. You can express breast milk by hand or use a breast pump. If your baby is sick or premature and unable to feed from the breast, you may need to express breast milk by hand at first and then by using a breast pump. You can store expressed milk in the fridge or freezer.

How breast milk becomes available

If you want to express breast milk, it’s helpful to understand how the flow of milk becomes available. Your breast has different muscle and cell sections. Milk travels from milk-producing cells through milk-collecting ducts to reach the front of your breast to feed your baby.

Amount of breast milk in a baby’s feed

If you are breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months:

  • a baby up to three months old needs 100 to 120ml (three to four ounces) of breast milk in a feed
  • a baby between three months and six months old needs 150 to 200ml (five to seven ounces) of breast milk in a feed

Expressing breast milk by hand

Expressing by hand can be an effective, controllable and convenient way to get breast milk instead of using a pump. This method can also help you understand how your breast works.

How to express milk by hand

You need clean hands, uninterrupted privacy and a sterilised container to collect the milk.

  • Step 1

    Find your milk ducts

    Gently massage your breasts and find where the milk-collecting ducts widen, usually about two or three centimetres from the base of your nipple (you might feel a change in the texture of your breast)

  • Step 2

    Make a C shape

    Place your thumb above and finger below this point in a C shape

  • Step 3a

    Press together

    Press your thumb and finger together until the milk begins to flow

  • Step 3b

    Release and repeat

    Release and repeat in a rhythmic action so the milk sprays into the sterilised container

  • Step 4

    Move around and start again

    When the flow of milk slows down, move your fingers round to a different part of your breast and start again. Repeat the process with your other breast.

Images supplied by Health Scotland

Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative | Hand expression

Video supplied by Unicef

Using a breast pump

You can buy a hand operated or electric breast pump. Before you start expressing, sterilise the pump and equipment. The pumped breast milk:

  • flows into a funnel or shield
  • is collected in a bottle or container for storing

How to express milk using a breast pump

To start the flow of milk, massage your breasts and hand express some drops of milk. Place the pump funnel over your breast, keeping your nipple in the centre. Express from the first breast until the milk flow slows down or you have enough milk. To express as much milk as possible, massage your breasts before you switch sides and express until the milk flow stops.

Video supplied by Best Beginnings

Expressing breast milk for a baby in hospital

If you are breastfeeding a baby in hospital, you need to:

  • express immediately after the birth
  • express frequently, ten to 12 times a day, and at least once at night

Expressing breast milk for a baby at home

If you are going out and want to leave some expressed breast milk for someone to feed your baby, it’s good planning to express your milk the day before.

Storing expressed breast milk

You can store breast milk:

  • in the fridge for up to five days
  • in the freezer for up to three months

Before storing your breast milk, label it with the date it was expressed. Freeze breast milk in small, separate quantities to avoid waste. If you are expressing milk to feed a sick or premature baby, ask staff in the hospital’s special care unit about storage times.

Using stored breast milk

You should defrost milk overnight by keeping it in the fridge or standing the storage jar in cool water. Never microwave breast milk. This can heat the milk unevenly and could scald your baby. Microwaving can also destroy your milk’s immune properties.

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