Pumping Problems: Pumping Little or No Milk

Does it mean you have low milk supply?

English: AVENT isis breast pump breastfeeding ...

It can be very discouraging to sit down at your breast pump and have a pumping problem like getting little or no milk. It’s probably the worst pumping problem to have, but does it automatically mean you have low breast milk production?

The bad news is that it may. But before jumping to that conclusion you should consider if there is something else that is causing you to pump little or no milk. This is particularly true if you have never had good results from your pump. But even if you had good results in the past, keep reading because good pumps can go bad.

Here are a list of things that can cause pumping problems:

  • Poor quality pump - pumps vary widely in quality and effectiveness. Some are like a cruise ship and some are like a row boat. Medical-grade pumps found in hospitals are the cruise ships of the pumping world. Lower quality pumps are the rowboats. A lower quality pump can work for some women, but often doesn’t work for all. Perhaps you are having pumping problems because you’re using a row boat. Many hospitals will rent a medical-grade pump so if you think your pump may be the cause, rent a cruise ship and then you’ll know for certain. If you find that your pump is the culprit it’s time to invest in your own cruise ship. If the cost is prohibitive you may want to check into your health insurance. Some insurance will cover a breast pump when it is considered medically necessary. For qualifying families, your local WIC office may also be able to help provide you with a pump.
  • Poor fit - If you tried to run a race in shoes that were 2 sizes too big, or worse, 2 sizes too small, you’d be terribly uncomfortable and your performance would suffer. Having a poor fitting pump flange is the same as having poor fitting race shoes. Pump flanges need to be fitted to the shape and size of both your nipple and your breast. Most Lactation Consultants can help with this, and some facilities that sell pumps can help with a proper fit as well. Poor fitting shoes will ruin your race and a poor fitting pump flange can be the cause of pumping no milk and other poor pump performance.
  • Malfunctioning pump – Sometimes your pump will decrease the amount of suction that it used to have. A very easy fix for this is to replace your pump’s membranes. The membranes are the thin white discs that hook into the valves inside the pumping bottles. Pump MembraneIf these discs develop a tiny whole or become misshapen at all from washing they won’t make a perfect seal and this can greatly affect your pump’s performance and cause pumping problems. Most new pumps will come with extra membranes because of this, but they can also be ordered easily. If you used to get more milk from the same pump, replacing your pump’s membranes is one of the first things to try.
  • Poor response to pumping - Some women find pumping to be unnatural and awkward and if you feel this way it’s much more difficult to get a positive response from the pump. Some women can pump two full bottles with a crummy hand pump in 8 minutes flat while some moms hooked up to hospital-grade pumps become so nervous and anxious that only a few drops come out after 15 minutes. A big part of success rests in the mother’s mind. Try to put stressful thoughts out of your mind, focus on relaxing and think about your baby. Many mother’s find it very helpful to listen to a recording of your baby’s sounds and look at photos, or videos of your baby. When you do this you may find you get a much better response from your breast pump. Try not to focus on the amount of milk you are getting. Some women who have difficulty getting their milk to let-down to a pump find they have better success using hand expression.450px-White_Wall_Clock
  • An inconsistent schedule – breast milk is a supply and demand system, and your bodylearns when the demands are, and will produce the most milk when there is regular, consistent demand. Having a random schedule can lead to pumping problems. For best results you should try to pump at about the same time every day. After about 2 weeks of pumping at the same time your body will learn that it needs to have more milk ready at that time and you’ll be able to pump more.

What Can I Do to Help With My Pumping Problems?

Ensure that pumping is comfortable:

  • Ensure that you have properly fitting flanges, there are many different sizes available.
  • Try different flange materials. Many women find a “soft shield” to be much more comfortable for pumping as the plastic is not so rigid. (But be careful about putting them in the dishwasher or sanitizer as the heat can misshape the softer plastic.)
  • Use a lanolin product such as Lansinoh to lubricate your nipple and areola prior to pumping to reduce friction.
  • Try adjusting the amount of suction you are using with your pump. More suction doesn’t necessarily equal more milk. Sometimes more suction can just equal more discomfort which can actual inhibit your let-down reflex and will actually mean you’ll get less milk! Ideally you want your pump to most closely mimic your baby’s suck.
  • Be sure that you are comfortable while you pump. There’s nothing worse than being hooked up to a pump with everything exposed and hearing footsteps and voices approaching. This kind of tension can cause your shoulders to rise to your ears, but it can also cause your milk ducts to close right up and your let-downs to cease. It is photo by Wicked Sushiimportant to be able to fully relax when you are pumping. Ensure that you are in a private place, that you can lock the door, and close the blinds. You shouldn’t ever feel like you have to pump in a bathroom stall – in fact, there are even laws that can protect you from that in many states if you are pumping at work. See this site for laws that apply to your state.

Try to achieve as many let-downs as possible:

  • Most pumps have a “let-down cycle” when you first turn the pump on the suction pattern is different; this is to trigger your let-down. When your milk flow has slowed you can turn this cycle on again to start your next let-down. Some pumps will allow you to simply press the button. Some pumps you’ll need to turn off and turn on again. Some women even find that turning off the pump and waiting 30 seconds to a couple of minutes can help to trigger an additional let-down.
  • Smells can be very powerful triggers. Try holding one of your baby’s outfits or blankets that haven’t been washed, and still smell like your baby. You might be surprised by how strong of an emotional reaction this can bring!Baby
  • Look at pictures or video of your baby. Think of the songs you sing to him, or giving birth to him. Let-downs are often triggered by emotions, or even the feeling of getting goosebumps!
  • If you have to pump because you have to be away from your baby, some women can find it more disturbing to think about their baby because it makes them so sad to be away. If this is the case, distraction may get the best results. Try calling a friend on the phone and talking away the time that you need to pump.

Really get the milk flowing

  • If you can, apply a heat compress about 10 minutes before you are going to pump. This can help to open your milk ducts and help relax everything to really get the milk flowing.
  • Once your milk has started flowing, use hand compressions to increase the flow of milk. Start with your hand by your rib cage and cup your breast with your fingers under your breast, and your thumb on top of your breast. Gently squeeze your breast between your thumb and your fingers. As you do this the milk flow should increase. When the milk flow begins to slow again rotate your hand  slightly and squeeze again. Work your way all the way around the breast, and then start moving forward toward the nipple and continue with the hand compressions, particularly focusing on any pockets of milk.

The thing to remember is that the amount of milk you get from pumping or hand expression doesn’t necessarily indicate if you have low milk supply. It may be that your supply is just fine, but you don’t know the proper way to hand express, or maybe you don’t respond well to your pump, or maybe your pump is old, weak, has poor fitment or is defective.

If none of these seem likely to explain your pumping problems, then it may be that you have a milk production problem. 

Last Edited 5/28/13

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