Pumping: what you should know before getting started

Pumping: what you should know before getting started

When you’re expecting your first baby, breast pumps are possibly one of the least exciting topics to contemplate.

But around 8 out of 10 women own a breast pump by six months post-partum. Of these, about 15% experience nipple pain or damage. But with the right information, you can make sure your breast pump helps rather than hinders your feeding journey.

In this article, you’ll discover:

  • How pumping works

  • How to choose the right pump and flange size

  • How to pump for the first time, comfortably

Let’s start with how pumping works

A pump works by repeatedly sucking your nipple against a plastic funnel until milk flows from your nipple.

In a recent survey, Milkdrop found that for every ten women using a breast pump, two have nipple damage or discomfort and eight feel like a cow. When you look at a pump, it’s not hard to see why some women experience this. But the good news is these uncomfortable feelings can be avoided.

Choosing the right pump

As a pumping mum, the advice you receive about pumping can often be based on personal experience. This can be helpful if you’re in a similar situation, but confusing if you’re not.

In 2016, researchers came up with guidelines on how to choose the “right” pump. To understand their guidelines, first let’s look at the different kinds of pumps available.

  • Manual. These are hand operated pumps, where you squeeze a handle or bulb to create suction. They’re small, and quiet (because there’s no motor), but you have to do the work yourself.

  • Portable or personal-use electric. These are electric, powered by a small battery pack. Women generally use them for a single breast at a time, because their suction can be too weak for double-pumping (both breasts at once). Many of these personal pumps are portable (you’re not attached to the wall plug), and some are even wearable (the whole thing fits inside your bra).

  • Hospital-use electric. These are larger and powered by a big motor, often plugged into a wall. They can be used by multiple people by replacing the parts that attach to your breast, so they are popular in hospitals. Some of these pumps are available to purchase, but you can rent them from the hospital pharmacy or other provider. They have high suction and can be used for double pumping. Like the personal-use electric pumps, they can be quite noisy!

So which pump is best for you?

One way to figure it out is to think about how much you need the pump, and which stage of lactation you’re in.


When you initiate breastfeeding in the 72 hours after birth, if you have a healthy infant, who is feeding about 8-12 times daily, then you likely don’t need a pump at all. This first 72 hours is a very important and extraordinary period for lactation, and if going well, is best not interrupted with pumping.

But, if during this period, your baby isn’t feeding at the breast consistently or effectively, perhaps due to sickness or pre-term birth, then you may need to start using a hospital-grade pump. This is something you should speak with your lactation consultant about, rather than just take up.

Coming to volume

This next phase is about increasing milk volume to a level needed by your baby, typically over 4-7 days after birth. Again, it is a really important period, where your milk needs to be “removed” effectively to be replaced and build up your volume. You may have heard people talk about supply and demand here.

At this phase, if your baby is feeding consistently and effectively at least 8-12 times daily, you may not need a pump at all, or you may use a manual or personal electric pump for comfort or relief from over-supply. Again, only do this in consultation with your health professional.

If your baby is not feeding consistently or effectively, you may need the hospital-grade pump, again with support from your lactation consultant.


This phase is where you and your baby settle into a lactation pattern. It is so mother-baby specific, that your pumping needs will probably be different from mums in your mother’s group or friends.

At this phase, you may choose a manual or personal electric pump to express milk to share feeding with your partner or carer to get extra sleep, take time out or return to work. If you’re pumping a few feeds a week, then a portable, or even manual pump is fine. Try to find one that is comfortable and fits your lifestyle.

If you’re exclusively expressing, which means you’re pumping to feed your baby at most or all feeds, then your pumping setup becomes very important. You will likely need a powerful, double-pump, pumping bra to hold your pump in place, multiple sets of parts, and storage and cleaning systems to make pumping more efficient and stress-free. You may want to join online communities of women who share tips and support for pumping mothers.

What’s a flange and why is it important?

Most pumps come with different sized flanges, which are the cone shaped parts that fit to your breast.

It’s important to start pumping with the right flange size. Too large, and you can pull your areola unnecessarily into the pump funnel and damage the skin and tissue. Too small, and you can rub your nipple against the plastic or block milk duct openings.

There are some nipple rulers you can download and print to find your size. Make sure to measure just your nipple diameter, not the areola (darker skin around the nipple) too. Some brands even give virtual fitting rooms. Follow their advice on choosing sizing, rather than just getting the standard size (usually 24mm).

Tips for your first pumping session

  1. Have your flange size as close to correct for your nipple as you can
  2. Start at the lowest suction level on your pump, and only increase to the highest comfortable level. More suction does not equal more milk if you’re in pain.
  3. Pump for as long as it takes to feel like you’ve expressed most of your milk, up to 20 minutes. As you get used to pumping you may vary the time, but this is a good starting point.
  4. Try some coconut oil or lanolin inside your pump funnel to allow your nipple to slide.
  5. Use a soft insert or pump attachment to soften the interface to your pump. See Milkdrop, Pumpin Pals, Beaugen or Lacteck for examples.

Pumping can be hard at first and getting the right setup and system involves trial and error. Above all - don’t push through pain or discomfort in an effort to collect milk.

Alex, Milkdrop’s founder, struggled with pumping. Being an engineer, she founded Milkdrop to find ways pumping could be easier, more enjoyable and empowering for women.

They’ve started by creating a super soft silicone breast pump cushion that protects your nipples while you pump. 92% of women who’ve used the cushion, say it’s more comfortable to pump thanks to less nipple swelling and redness.

Article supplied by Milkdrop Pumps.