There are a lot of resources out there for moms who breastfeed. There are even a lot of tips for moms who breastfeed at home and then pump at work. But for those of us who have to exclusively pump, even if we’re home all the time, there’s not so much advice. Some, yes – and I definitely benefitted from those who had gone before me. I spent a lot of time in those dark early days frantically researching on the internet to see if it was really a real thing I could do, feeding my babies solely on breastmilk but not direct from the source.
It is a real thing. People do it. It’s incredibly hard, but it’s worthwhile. Even if you can’t produce enough milk for every single drop they drink, even if you’re supplementing, any breastmilk is great for babies, particularly in the first three months.
Here’s what I learned in four months of exclusively pumping for my twins. Obviously, this is all just the things that worked for me, and you shouldn’t take it as anything but anecdotal evidence from somebody who writes stuff on the internet.
The most obvious advice – and the advice most available – is to make sure that you have the right size pump flanges. The pump comes with a set of flanges, but they’re just the ‘average’ size. Let’s face it: nobody’s nipples are normal. Pick up a set of the other sizes (if you see a lactation consultant, they may be able to help you find some) and make sure you get the ones that fit you.
The other advice you’ll see a lot is to get an extra set of flanges, so you can switch them out; many people say to pop your used flanges in the fridge in a plastic bag for the day, so you can reuse without washing them. This is bullshit. Flanges are dirt cheap. Buy as many sets as you have pumping sessions in a day, plus one. As you use them, toss them in a bin by the sink. Every evening, stick them all in the dishwasher and run it overnight. Your extra set is for the first pump of the next morning – after that pump, you’ll unload the dishwasher from the night before and be set for the day again.
On to the practicalities. Your pumping sessions, particularly early on, will be about twenty minutes. I found it easiest to simply set a timer and go for exactly twenty minutes; even if no milk was coming out by the end, I went the full twenty minutes to stimulate my supply. Thus, I frequently got second, third, and fourth let-downs, and built a good supply. If milk was still coming out when the twenty minute timer went off, I kept pumping until it stopped – usually just another minute or two. I tried never to stop pumping when milk was actively coming forth – I didn’t want to risk a clot from it getting backed up.
Pump every time the baby eats. You’re convincing your body that you’re feeding that baby (or babies); there’s no better way to do that than to simply follow the baby’s eating schedule. This was by far the hardest part of pumping for me, emotionally – I never really got to sit and cuddle my babies after they ate, because I had to go pump.
Which leads into my next point, and this one is really pretty specifically for the stay-at-homers, because it goes counter to a lot of advice I read. I found that I pumped most effectively if I got away from the babies. I was fortunate enough to have help most days, and I would leave the babies to nap or play with my helper while I went upstairs to the quiet and calm of my bedroom to pump. It worked for me because it made me able to sit still and relax. However, I know at least two other twin moms who are able to pump while they feed their babies, so it’s not an issue for everyone. (To be frank, the reason I couldn’t do this is that my boobs are too big; even with a pumping bra, I had to sit quite still to stay secure and not detach and/or spill.) Moms who pump at work are frequently told to look at a picture of their baby to stimulate letdown, so my advice to get the hell away from your baby to pump is pretty counter-intuitive. Sorry.
Here’s the big one, and the thing that made the most difference for me. It’s super simple. Gulp down a bunch of water right before you pump. Either right before you hook yourself up, or even right after you turn the machine on, while the letdown cycle is going. For me, this inevitably triggered letdown more quickly. Whether it was all mental or not is up in the air, but I read somebody who called it ‘priming the pump,’ and it seemed an apt description. A little burst of hydration just seems to stimulate liquidity.
If you find yourself in a situation where what’s best for you and your baby is dropping those tear-filled, frustrating attempts to latch and simply pumping, don’t feel bad. You’re joining a community of super-committed moms, and you’ll find a lot of support everywhere. And when it seems really hard and the future is stretching out in front of you grimly, here’s my last tip: set tiny, tiny goals. Grit your teeth and pump for a week. You can do a week. Try for two. See if you can make it to a month. Feel great about every milestone, and give yourself permission to fail. We agreed that if at any time, I just couldn’t do it anymore, we would switch to formula and not worry about it. The feeling of every day being another milestone, and every small goal met being more like a bonus than a life-or-death matter, kept me going. I felt like I was being super-mom, going above and beyond, and the ego boost got me over more hurdles than I really should publicly admit.
Pumping is one of the hardest things I have ever done. It will be one of the hardest things you ever do, too. But you can do it. You’re great.