Feeding your baby can look different for each and every mom. Many mothers today return to work and continue their breastfeeding relationship by pumping at work. This provides milk to leave with the baby when separated, but still nurse when they are together. Other breastfeeding parents choose to pump exclusively. There is no one right way to feed your baby. It all comes down to what works for you and your family. If your milk supply dips, it affects the amount of milk you have available for your baby when you are not together. You can increase your milk supply while pumping in a variety of ways.
Establishing your milk supply is driven by hormones during the early weeks after birth. Regular and frequent milk removal sends the signal to keep making more milk. The feedback you give to your body during this time helps establish your milk supply, and after the first few weeks, your supply becomes regulated and will be driven mainly by demand.
Prolactin is the hormone responsible for making milk. In addition to being released when milk is removed, it has its own circadian rhythm and is highest during the middle of the night and early morning hours. So, removing milk during that time significantly impacts the overall milk supply. The more times milk is removed when prolactin levels are high, the more milk that is made.
Babies breastfeed an average of 8 - 14 times a day (or more). Initially, your baby will want to nurse every 1.5 - 3 hours. As they grow and become efficient feeders, it may be closer to every 2-3 hours and up to 4 hours overnight. When you follow your baby’s cues for nursing, you will discover there is no exact or set schedule. They may nurse several times, getting a “full” meal, while other times, they are just up for a snack. Offering to nurse is always ok, and it is excellent to offer before your baby is very hungry. Think about when you wait a little too long to eat; you can be a little more irritable and have a hard time thinking clearly, grabbing cookies instead of nutritious whole foods. If your baby is hungry, they will nurse. If they aren’t, they won’t. And if they are too hungry, they might nurse with such enthusiasm that they swallow air, resulting in more gas.
Whether you are pumping to replace one feeding for your baby or exclusively pumping, you want to send the message loud and clear to make a full milk supply to support your baby's needs. Pumping to remove milk every 2-3 hours around the clock with a 4 hours stretch at night hits the mark for most parents. Each of us is different, and once your milk supply is established, you can play around with the times a little more to see what works best for you. Some people have a larger storage capacity for milk and can go a little longer between pump sessions without it decreasing their supply, while other folks can’t wait so long and need to stick closer to every 3 hours. Remember, each breast may produce different amounts of milk. This is totally fine as long as the total combined from both sides is enough to feed your baby.
In one study, 39 mothers used a compress to heat one breast only and then pumped milk from both breasts. The side that had heat applied had significantly more milk output than the breast that didn’t have heat applied. (1)
So many factors influence our milk production and the amount of milk we are able to remove with a breast pump. Keeping the above basics of milk production in mind and trying some of the tips and tricks for increasing supply is a good start to maintaining or increasing your milk supply.
If you still need to increase your milk supply, contact your local SACLC / IBCLC to co-create a care plan to meet your pumping goals.
Feeding your baby is a journey, and there is no one right way to do it. Whether you choose to breastfeed, pump at work, or exclusively pump, what matters most is finding a feeding method that works for you and your family. If you're pumping and notice a dip in your milk supply, you can choose from several effective strategies to help increase it and continue to meet your breastfeeding goals.