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When can I start pumping my breast milk?

Some experts feel that if you start pumping and giving bottles too early — before your baby is used to breastfeeding — your little one might have "nipple confusion" and may decide that the bottle is the quicker, better option than the breast. While some babies experience this confusion, others have no problem transitioning between a bottle and the breast.

If you're returning to work after maternity leave, it's a good idea to start trying to pump a couple of weeks beforehand. If you wait until the day you go back to work, you may be frustrated to learn that it's not always easy to get your body to respond to the pump, which isn't nearly as cute and cuddly as your baby. In fact, it may take some practice and patience before you're able to produce enough milk without your baby's help. It also may take time for your baby to get used to taking a bottle.

Depending on how heavy their milk flow is, some women can fill a bottle in one pumping session, whereas others may need to pump two or three times (and sometimes more) to get a full bottle.

As frustrating as pumping might be for some women at first, giving your baby a bottle of breast milk can allow you to get some much-needed rest and can let your partner, or other family members, participate in the bonding experience of feeding your baby. It also can allow you to continue to provide breast milk for your child when you return to work.

What type of pump is best?

Breast pumps can be purchased from lactation consultants, hospitals, retail stores, and online. A lactation consultant will give you detailed instructions and be there for you if you have difficulty.

Which kind of breast pump you opt to use is really up to you. Some women find manual (or hand-operated) pumps to be more portable, more discreet, and easier to use. And they're definitely cheaper than electric pumps (manuals are usually under $50, whereas electric models can cost hundreds of dollars). But other nursing mothers may find that the effort required for manual pumps is too much. And it is slow! A manual pump is fine for occasional pumping, but usually not for returning to work.

Despite their expense, electric (or automatic) pumps can be easier to use than manual ones because they don't require you to exert much physical effort. And many models allow you to pump both breasts at once. Using models that allow you to pump both breasts at once is a real time-saver and may increase milk supply.

Some women find the noise of the electric pumps to be a little much (especially if you're pumping at work or away from home). And though they often come in easy-to-carry bags (such as backpacks or arm bags), the weight and bulk might be somewhat cumbersome.

Also keep in mind where you might be using the pump. Some electric pumps can be plugged in or battery-operated; others can't. So, unless you want to have to find a comfortable spot and an electrical outlet every time, you might want one that offers both options. It's also important to consider a back-up method, such as a battery-operated or manual pump, in case of a power outage.

Find out which type of pump (if any) your insurance will help pay for. If you don't have the money to buy a pump or don't receive one as a gift, contact the governmental organization Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to find out about their pump program and to see if you qualify.

Are used pumps OK?

Doctors, lactation consultants, and pump manufacturers will tell you that it's not a good idea to borrow or buy someone else's used pump. Why? Because bacteria and viruses from the previous owner can get trapped inside the pump. They are potentially hazardous to your baby's health, even with thorough and repeated sterilization and cleaning.

Some hospital-grade pumps, though, are meant for multiple users, each with their own accessory kit.

How can I make pumping easier?

As with nursing, it's important to be comfortable when pumping (which doesn't always seem possible while you're attached to a machine). It can be hard, especially at first, for your body (and your mind!) to become accustomed to producing milk without your baby's help.

Often, women's milk will "let-down" (or start to be released) when they see or hear their babies cry. So, when faced with an object instead of the welcoming face of your little one, you may find it hard to pump.

If you're having trouble with let-down, it could be helpful to hold something that reminds you of your baby — a picture, a blanket, a favorite toy. Your let-down also can be affected if you're frustrated, embarrassed, or rushed. Try relaxing in a comfortable chair or couch and don't stress out too much about producing enough milk.

If your breast just doesn't seem to fit the pump correctly, the pump may come with different sized flanges or you can buy a smaller or larger flange to place over your breast.

If you're pumping at work, try to find a discreet and comfortable place to do it. Many companies offer their employees pumping and nursing areas. If yours doesn't, ask fellow employees or the human resources department about an office or other private area that might be suitable. As a last resort, if you have to pump in a bathroom, find a large one with a comfortable chair and some type of privacy barrier.

If your employer doesn't provide an adequate nursing or pumping area, ask that they do, reminding them of the benefits of breastfeeding.

Also, just like when you're nursing, it's important to place the breast shield of the pump correctly over your breast, covering your nipple and areola (not just the tip of your nipple), and getting a good seal. If you place the pump incorrectly, it can be uncomfortable and you'll be much less likely to get the milk you need. And if you're using an electric breast pump, make sure to adjust the speed and suction to the level that's comfortable for you to help prevent unnecessary discomfort.

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