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10 Reasons You’re Not Pumping Enough Milk

Brunette woman holding newborn infant on a couch.

You’re pumping your milk and you can see exactly how many ounces you’ve expressed. You’re good. Later, you start to fret: “Is this enough? Maybe not. Why am I not pumping enough milk?” There are a variety of possible reasons.

In a previous post, I described how to determine if your baby is getting enough milk when you’re pumping. That was the “baby consumption” aspect. Here, I’ll focus on the “mother production” aspect. Certainly, some of these reasons could also occur in non-pumping mothers. However, I’ll focus on issues that are directly related to, more prevalent or more obvious to mothers who are exclusively pumping.

1. Not pumping frequently enough

This is the big kahuna.

I’ve seen mothers eat carloads of oatmeal cookies, drink gallons of fenugreek tea, and do all sorts of stuff to increase their milk supply. Whether those things have any special powers is debatable.

But one thing is certain: Nothing, and I mean nothing, is an adequate substitution for frequent breast stimulation.

If you’re exclusively pumping, you need to express your milk either by hand or with a quality pump, every 3 hours around the clock, (I’ve talked about how you can save time while pumping.) Otherwise, I can almost guarantee you will have a low milk supply.

2. Not completely “emptying” the breast

The breast is never truly “empty.” But we do use that word for lack of a better one.

I don’t like to phrase emptying in terms of “duration” or “minutes.” It’s more about what you feel.

Here’s my point: If you stop pumping before you have fully “emptied” your breast, then you’re not pumping enough milk. Your body has gotten the signal not to make any more milk. That’s because milk production is based on a feedback inhibitor of lactation mechanism.

That said, be aware of what’s happening as you are pumping.

If the “sprays” start to diminish or look more like “drips,” then you have probably “emptied” your breasts. Likely as not, your breasts will also feel softer and different than before you started pumping.

3. Little or no skin-to-skin contact

Mothers and babies are meant to stay together. In modern society, there are many reasons why separations occur, either by choice or by circumstance.

The body doesn’t fully harness the power of hormones without skin-to-skin contact. The more (and more frequent) contact, the better.

This would be a good time to remind you that skin-to-bra is not skin-to-skin contact.

4. Stress, fatigue and/or pain

Your body does not perform well when it’s exhausted or overstressed. These are well-known possible reasons for low supply. Pain is often a source of stress or fatigue, too.

Let me be quick to say that stress and fatigue are almost ubiquitous among mothers who are exclusively pumping.

So let’s talk about this.

  • Are you exhausted from the whole childbearing experience?
  • Is your family giving you criticism?
  • Are you going on an extended business trip?  
  • Is your baby hanging between life and death in the NICU?

So many mothers have told me, “Oh nah, I’m good. I’m not stressed.” Then I talk with them for and find that they have multiple stressors. (Not to mention that pumping can be a stressful activity and is often attached to “performance pressure.”)

Stress hormones reduce milk supply. It’s really that simple.

5. Distractions

I think of stress as an invisible, underlying current that drains your ability to cope. I think of distractions as situational, identifiable, intermittent triggers.

You might be distracted keeping an eye on an active toddler. If you’re feeling rushed with one eye on the clock, you’re distracted. Noise from neighborhood construction might be distracting you. If you’re pumping in an employee break room, you might be worried that the door will swing opened at any moment.   

Any of these distractions can affect your let-down, which will in turn affect how much milk you see in the bottle. If you’re not pumping enough milk, these distractions may be the culprit. 

6. Inefficient pump

If you’re exclusively or nearly exclusively pumping, you need a pump that cycles about 40-60 times a minute. I’ve talked previously about finding the right pump for you. Pumps that cycle fewer times per minute are fine if you are also suckling a robust, healthy baby.  

7. The flange doesn’t fit properly

The wrong size flange is a massively under-recognized reason for why you’re not pumping enough milk.

Whether the flange is too small or too large, the result will be the same. You won’t be pumping as much milk as you could with a well-fitting flange.

A few cardinal rules here:

  • The flange size that fits today may change as time goes on. You may indeed have a correctly-sized flange the day you give birth. That size may or may not fit well 3 days later, 3 weeks later, or 3 months later.
  • The size you need on your right breast isn’t necessarily the size you need on your left breast.
  • If in doubt, go up a size.

Some women find it difficult or impossible to feel comfortable using the flange that comes with the pump. Here’s the best kept secret: Invest in a PumpinPal set of flanges.

These fit with multiple different brands. For some women, they’re like a miracle.

8. Pump malfunction

Sometimes, the pump just isn’t functioning properly.

Does your pump kit have that little bitty membrane? Ever see it slide right down the drain in the sink? Ever try to catch it with your soapy hands? Good luck with that!

If that tiny membrane is not in place, the pump won’t operate. I usually urge mothers to have spares on hand.

Hopefully that will be obvious. Some of the “non-working” situations are not that obvious.  

You might have a worn-out motor in a pump operated by electricity. A battery-operated pump is hampered by worn-out batteries. If you have an older pump with a gasket, and if the gasket is shot, you’ll find yourself not pumping enough milk. Why so?

In each of these situations, the cycling frequency and/or the negative pressure for the pump is inadequate. Those two factors are essential for the pump to adequately do its job.   

This wouldn’t be the first issue I’d chase after, but I’d certainly consider faulty equipment as a possibility.

9. Baby is having a growth spurt

You might have pumped what you thought was more than enough milk. You then discover that your baby took all the milk!

Does that mean you have a low supply or that you’re not pumping enough milk? Maybe.

But a better question is, “Is your baby having a growth spurt?”

Every baby is a little different, but generally, a growth spurt will happen somewhere around:

  • 10 days
  • 3 weeks
  • 3 months
  • 6 months
  • 9 months

Remember, too, that preterm infants have growth spurts. In my experience, it’s very tough to predict when those growth spurts will occur, but they do!

10. Other reasons

Whether you’re suckling your baby or pumping your milk, there are many reasons why you might not have enough milk. If your milk is in a bottle, you’ll be more keenly aware of the volume you are producing, because you can literally see your results.  

Pregnancy is a possibility. Estrogen levels increase during pregnancy, and estrogen is the enemy of milk production. 

A plugged duct could be another reason why you’re not pumping enough milk. If you find yourself with a hot pink spot on your breast, that’s a tell-tale symptom of a plugged duct.   

Several diseases, most notably those that are hormonally related, can reduce milk supply. The tricky part, though, is if the problem was corrected prior to or during pregnancy. If low milk supply shows up, it may not dawn on you that it’s a symptom of that problem. Some recalibration of your medical treatment may be needed.

Medication or alcohol or smoking could always be a possible explanation.

Don’t be surprised if people (including professionals) blame your water intake or nutrition. I suppose that’s a possible cause of low milk supply, but it’s highly unlikely.  

I will cheerfully concede that these 10 reasons may not be the only reasons that create worries about not pumping enough milk. But I’m confident I’ve covered the most common reasons.

Which one of these reasons have you experienced? Or which one was most surprising to you? Share in the comments below.

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