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How to Hand Express Your Breast Milk

Article By
Published On
24 May, 2023
Read Time
5 minutes

Learning how to hand express breast milk does require some practice, but it's a valuable skill to have. Once you're confident, you can express milk without a pump, which is ideal for life on the go. It can also help to increase your breast milk supply and promote a successful latch.

We've written this guide to help new parents understand how to hand express breast milk. So, read on for some key steps to follow, plus some handy tips to help ensure you have all the information you need to express with ease.

What does hand expressing milk mean?

Expressing breast milk by hand involves delicately compressing your breast to release milk, which you can then collect into a sanitised container for storage or feeding your little one. It can be useful if you don't have a breast pump or want some quick relief from engorgement.

You can start expressing colostrum by hand before your baby arrives from around the 36th or 37th week of your pregnancy. It's common for some parents to only collect a small amount of breast milk at first, but practising hand expressing during pregnancy can be beneficial for when their milk supply fully comes in.

A step-by-step to successfully expressing milk by hand

Although using an electric breast pump speeds up the process of expressing breast milk and can help you express more milk, some parents find that expressing breast milk by hand is also a convenient and comfortable option.

Let's run through the process step by step.

1. Wash your hands and get a clean container ready

Before expressing or handling breast milk, it's important to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water. After washing, be sure to dry your hands with a clean towel.

Then, make sure you have a sterilised cup, bowl, or baby bottle to collect your expressed breast milk in.

2. Find a comfortable spot

Sit in a comfortable seat where you feel at ease and grab a drink. You might find it helpful to hand express while listening to a podcast or catching up on your favourite TV show.

3. Massage your breasts gently

Oxytocin is an essential lactation hormone that helps to release your breast milk. It can also help you to feel calm, and it's released when you gently massage your breasts or breastfeed your baby.

4. Use the C-shape method

Position your finger and thumb opposite one another, with your thumb at 12 o'clock and finger at 6 o'clock on your breast. This is known as the C-hold.

5. Press your thumb and finger together and use a rhythmic movement

Try to be patient and build up a rhythm that's comfortable for you. It might take a few minutes for your breast milk or colostrum to start to drip out.

6. Move your finger and thumb around your breast

After your milk starts flowing, try switching up your hand placement to express from a different area of your breast.

7. Move back and forth between the breasts

You can repeat the hand expression process as many times as feels comfortable. Once you have finished expressing milk from one breast, move on to the other side and then return to the first breast to ensure you've expressed all the milk possible.

8. Feed your expressed milk right away or store it for later

Finally, you can feed your baby the expressed milk right away using a bottle or safely store it in the fridge or freezer to be used at a later date.

How long does expressing milk by hand take?

The amount of time it takes to hand express breast milk varies from person to person. The truth is, every experience is unique!

If you're looking to express milk for quick relief, hand expressing may take only five minutes per breast. However, expressing enough milk for a full feed could take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes per breast.

The benefits of hand expression

  • It can relieve breast discomfort: If you have clogged milk ducts or your breasts have become uncomfortable and engorged, hand expressing can offer quick relief.
  • It can encourage baby to latch: Expressing a small amount of milk before a feed can encourage baby to latch on as it softens the breast and makes it easier for baby to feed.
  • It's free: Breast pumps are very clever. They come in various shapes and sizes and vary in price. But using your hands to express breast milk means that you don't need any equipment except a hand and a suitable collection container. Sometimes, keeping things simple just works.
  • It's convenient: You can hand express anywhere, any time.
  • It can increase supply: Hand expressing after a feed or even after a pumping session can encourage more milk to be produced.
  • It's better for immediately after birth: Milk is sticky and still features a high amount of colostrum which can get stuck to the sides of the pump. Hand expression is great because you catch everything and can feed every drop to your baby.

How do parents feel about hand expressing?

Hannah said that "during the last few weeks of pregnancy, [she] was diligent in expressing colostrum ready for [her] boy's planned arrival at 37 weeks. Even though [she] didn't get masses, [she] had enough frozen to use for those first few important feeds while [she] was recovering".

Natasha told us that "mastering the art of expressing was not easy - a manual pump was not working, and [she] found an electric pump worked on one breast but not the other. However, when [her] mother expressed for [her] using her hand it would always work".

Top tips to help you hand express

Before we wrap up our discussion on hand expressing, let's run through some valuable tips that can help to make it as easy and effective as possible.

Do it in the morning

Some people produce more breast milk in the morning.

Put a warm compress on your breast

Warmth encourages breast milk flow.

Use gravity

Leaning forward while expressing can encourage the flow of more breast milk.

Get your partner involved

No one is going to complain here! Partners can massage breasts while you're hand expressing to encourage more breast milk to flow.

Try different areas of your breast

Try squeezing different places on the breast as some areas may push out more breast milk than others.

Make sure you have everything you need before you start

Expressing is hungry and thirsty work and it's important that you stay hydrated and energised. So, make sure you have a drink and a snack close by.

How to hand express FAQs

Does hand expressing increase milk supply?

Hand expressing alongside using a breast pump can be a great way to boost breast milk production. Research has found it could boost breastmilk output by as much as 48%.

Expressing breast milk by hand can be a more reliable method for some people. It's less expensive, quieter and can sometimes offer more privacy.

However, the most important thing is that parents and babies both find an approach that works best for them. This can include a mix of hand expressing, pumping, and breastfeeding. Whatever works for you is best!

To help establish breast milk production if you're not breastfeeding a newborn, you should aim to hand express between eight and 12 times a day, including at least once through the night.