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How to Hand Express Your Breast Milk When Needed

Medically Reviewed by Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC
Get step-by-step instructions for hand expression of breast milk.

Are your breasts full and engorged with milk? Maybe you’re having problems with getting a good milk supply. Learning how to hand express breast milk is a useful technique that you — literally — have at your fingertips.

Breast pumps are all well and good but what happens when you forget to pack it if you’re out or at work? If it’s an electric pump, what happens when the power is out?

Hand expressing breast milk is a good technique to learn for several reasons. Let’s have a look at some of them and find out how it’s done.

Why Would You Hand Express Milk?

With some of the best breast pumps available, you might be wondering why you would need to use your hands to express your milk. Yes, breast pumps are useful tools, but so is expressing by hand, or even doing both. This method of obtaining breast milk can be useful when:

  • You have a preemie or newborn and you want to collect colostrum. Colostrum is thick and produced in small quantities. If you use a pump, it often sticks to the flanges of the pumping system.
  • Your breasts are engorged and hard so baby has a problem latching on. Hand expressing some milk could make them softer and help baby feed easier.
  • Your breast pump won’t work. Maybe it’s broken, the batteries are dead, or you have no access to a power source.
  • Your breasts become engorged when you are away from your baby and they’re causing discomfort. Hand expressing some milk can relieve the pressure.

Hand expressing is free and available to you anytime and anywhere. The skin-to-skin contact from your hands on your breast can encourage your let down.

You might find that combining it with pumping will get you more milk. The motion of massaging your breasts at the same time as pumping can make your milk flow quicker. It can also be useful to get out those last few precious drops after the main flow has stopped (1).

How to Hand Express Breast Milk

Just like learning any other new skill, expressing milk by hand might take a little practice to achieve at first.

If you don’t master it straight away, don’t become disheartened. The more you do it, the easier it will become. Your midwife or lactation specialist can help and guide you.

Be Prepared

It’s important to ensure that our baby’s world is kept as safe as possible. There are a few things you need to do before starting to hand express.

First, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Then, make sure you have a sterilized container on hand, if you plan to keep the milk to feed baby later.

You might want to prepare your breasts with a warm wet towel before expressing. Giving them a gentle massage for a few minutes can also help to get the milk flowing. And finally, make sure you are comfortable and relaxed.

You can always look at a picture or video of your baby, listen to a recording of their gentle sounds, or have something that smells of them close by. This can help stimulate the “let-down reflex” (2).

What to Do

These are the steps you should follow to hand express your breast milk (3).

  1. Take your hand and form a letter “C” with your fingers and thumb.
  2. Place your thumb on the top part of your breast and your fingers on the underneath in this “C shape.”
  3. Your fingers and thumb should be about an inch behind your nipple and just touching the areola (the pinkish-brown part around your nipple). Don’t pinch or squeeze your nipple, or you’ll make it sore.
  4. Use your other hand to hold your sterilized collection vessel. This could be a cup, bowl or bottle. You might need to use a funnel to make sure no milk is wasted.
  5. Make sure your nipple is directly over the collection vessel.
  6. When you’re ready to start, gently push your breast back towards your body with your fingers and thumb.
  7. Now softly move your fingers and thumb towards each other.
  8. Using a rolling motion, move your fingers and thumb back to their starting position. This will help move the milk out the ducts.
  9. Be gentle when you are doing this — your sensitive breast tissue can be easily bruised or damaged. Don’t pull, rub, squeeze, or slide your fingers back and forth over your breast.
  10. Lean forward slightly to ensure the milk which is spraying or dripping out of your breast is collected in your container. Try not to touch the milk on its way out.
  11. Set up a rhythm, repeating steps six through 10 at a steady pace, until you have expressed all your milk.
  12. If milk stops flowing, move your hand around your breast to a different position. This could be in the “C” shape, or a “U” shape or variations of these, upward, downward, or backward. Changing positions should make sure you get the milk from all the ducts.
  13. Repeat the actions with the other breast.

Hand expressing milk from both breasts should take about 20 to 30 minutes. You can either use this milk to feed your baby immediately or store it for later. Breast milk will keep in a suitable container in the fridge for up to five days or in a freezer for up to six months (4).

Breastmilk Storage Guidelines Chart

The Pros of Hand Expressing

Hand expressing has many benefits. Apart from being completely natural, it’s also free and always available. Other than a container for your milk, you don’t need any extra equipment. Even if you don’t have a container, you can express into a sink or a tissue or cloth if that’s all that is available.

It’s also quiet, with no noisy pumps to listen to or attract unwanted attention.

Expressing breast milk by hand before pumping might produce more milk than pumping alone. It can help improve your supply of milk for your baby when they suck.

Becoming more comfortable with your breasts while hand expressing will also alert you to any changes which might need medical attention.

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The Cons of Hand Expressing

Using a breast pump might be quicker and more efficient than the time you need to invest to hand express. The technique can take a bit of practice to get right and it may take some time to get comfortable with it.

Despite practice, some women just can’t get a handle on the technique and are unable to get the milk flowing. Don’t forget to seek advice if you are struggling with hand expression.

In Conclusion

Now that you know the benefits and have read the steps you need to take to start hand expressing, you can give it a go. You might not get it right the first time but, like anything, practice makes perfect — or at least, can make it easier.

Breastfeeding gives your baby the best possible start in life. There are times when you might not be able to feed them at the breast, for a variety of reasons. Learning to hand express means they can still have all the benefits breast milk can give them (5).

It can also benefit you if your breasts become too full, or to encourage your milk to flow if it’s in short supply.

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Medically Reviewed by

Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC

Michelle Roth, BA, IBCLC is a writer, editor, and board-certified lactation consultant for two busy pediatric practices. She is a former La Leche League Leader, Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and Certified Infant Massage Instructor.