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Objections about Hand Expression: Fact, Myth, or Half Truth?

Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of the “musts” of having a breast pump, and just as many objections about hand expression. And it’s no wonder: The ads are all over the “new mom” magazines, the posters are all over prenatal clinics, and everyone is saying how essential breast pumps are.

Where the objections to hand expression come from—I don’t know. (And to me, scientific facts show the advantages of hand expression outweigh the advantages of pumping.) But the first step to helping moms overcome their objections to hand expression is to identify them.

Here are the typical objections I hear.

“It’s too time-consuming to hand express.”

I’ve seen moms who are able to express about one ounce of their milk per minute. Sure, it takes a few times to develop a skill in hand expression. It takes some experience to get that certain rhythm and knack.

Let’s say the mother gets 5 ounces in one sitting, and she can do it in 5 minutes. That’s probably the same amount of time it would take to do the set up, take down, and washing involved in using a breast pump. Think about it.

“It hurts to pinch the nipple.”

If you just pinch your nipple, yes, it will hurt! But that’s not how you express your milk. Just pinching the nipple is not the correct technique for obtaining your milk. (This video is a good place to start.)

In fact, hand expression may hurt less than using a breast pump–at least, according to some moms who have done both.

“I’ve tried hand expression before, and it didn’t work.”

Wow, I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that one! But let’s think about this.

You wouldn’t say, “I tried riding a bicycle and it didn’t work” or “I tried using this new piece of software and it didn’t work” or “I tried doing yoga and it didn’t work.” Right? Often, we need to try something several times before we are completely successful.

Did you try hand expression during the colostrum phase? The technique can be different–even easier–when there is a full milk supply. And women have different sizes and different contours of the breast, so each might need a slightly different technique.

In my experience, each mom needs to feel the “sweet spot” (it feels like a little row of peas or a little string of pearls) and when they do, hand expression become much easier. And, it can also be helpful to gently massage the breast and applying a little warmth before starting the hand expression.

“I need to have an expert do it for me.”

Before pumps were born, women managed to express the milk from their breasts. It’s just a technique to be learned and mastered. If you can learn to floss your own teeth, you can learn to express your own milk.

“I have a pump. I don’t need to know how to hand express.”

There are all sorts of reasons to hand express milk. The pump isn’t with the mom, or there’s a power outage. Or  a necessary piece—like that itty-bitty membrane—is lost, and the pump is useless without it. And some people just feel icky being hooked up to a machine, as Francie Webb said in my recent radio show.

As you can see, most of these objections are just myths or misperceptions, or half-truths. But if we can present the facts, there’s a high likelihood that we can help moms to overcome their objections to hand expression.

Have you ever tried hand expressing your milk? What was your experience?

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  1. Rachel

    I have tried hand expression personally and have always found it to be messy and difficult to collect my milk without it dripping on my lap etc. Do you have any tips to make collecting the milk easier?

    • Marie

      Yes! First thing is, remember that it’s a skill, not so different from other skills that we learn, and we are often more “messy” until we get some practice. I’d say that’s a big part of it. Second, try bending forward. Next, make sure that the container has a wide mouth. An easy idea is a glass measuring cup. It has a wide opening, and also a lip for pouring. (But any wide-mouthed container would do.) My super favorite suggestion is a funnel. It used to be sold by Medela in the US, but it’s still available on the internet. I know it is available on Amazon. It’s one of the best-kept secrets I know of! To be clear: I have no relationship with Medela whatsoever, but I do love this particular product because it makes hand expression so much less messy, you really can’t miss!

      Thanks for the question, glad to see you’re at least thinking about this possibility.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      I would be reluctant to pronounce any practice as “safe” unless I knew all of the facts. And “prenatal” is a very broad term; it includes any time period between conception and birth. It doesn’t stop to differentiate between clinical situations that make it risky, versus those where it actually might be beneficial. There are some situations where you would want to avoid any breast stimulation, for example, if you had any risk factors for a preterm delivery. Like anything else in healthcare it’s always a risk/benefit decision.

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