Awhile back, I shared my story of exclusive pumping and the struggles that came with that and postpartum depression. I was just re-reading that post when I decided it was time for an update.
I’m now over four months postpartum, and I’m happy to say I’m still successfully pumping exclusively. One note on that: our pediatrician has stocked us up with formula at every doctor’s visit, so we mix bottles about 3:1 breast milk:formula to help build up a freezer stash.
In the beginning, I pumped 7-8 times per day to mimic my son’s feeding schedule. This signals to the body that you’re feeding a newborn, and that signal helps you make enough milk. If you read my last post, you know I was producing barely enough to cover the amount he was eating per day. After trying all of the many recommended things to boost my supply, someone recommended Goat’s Rue.
I had never heard of it, but I was willing to try just about anything. From what I’d read, most women develop new milk ducts during pregnancy. That’s why your breasts get bigger–often a size or two larger than pre-pregnancy. For me, that never happened. I didn’t think anything of it, but I later learned that might be why I wasn’t producing very much; I just didn’t have enough ducts. Goat’s Rue is an all-natural herbal supplement that actually helps you grow new ducts. Crazy as it sounds, it’s even used by farmers to get cows to produce more milk. I was intrigued, so I ordered the Mommy Knows Best brand on Amazon:
Within just a few days of starting the supplement, I noticed a slight increase in supply. I mean, it wasn’t enough to get excited, but it was enough to think it was working. About a week in, my supply had increased measurably! Before I started taking Goat’s Rue, I was producing somewhere in the ballpark of 24 ounces per day. With the Goat’s Rue, my daily production went up to 30-34 ounces per day (sometimes even 36-38). I was thrilled! I was finally able to start getting a good freezer stash going.
I continued the supplement until it was gone (I had purchased a month’s worth), and then I didn’t know what to expect. Did I need to keep taking it to keep the supply up? Was my supply now “established” and therefore steady? By this point, I was 10 weeks postpartum. In theory, your supply is established at about 12 weeks. That means when you get to 12 weeks postpartum, you should be able to cut back on the number of pumping sessions per day and still yield the same amount.
I was still pumping 7-8 times per day (I pumped whenever he ate since I was still able to be home with him all day), 25-30 minutes per session. Now I know that sounds like A LOT, and believe me, it is! I was so worried about losing my supply, though, that I felt I had to tell my body to keep producing.
When we got to 12 weeks postpartum, I decided to experiment a bit with dropping pumps. I dropped down to six pumps per day (still 25-30 minutes per session) for about two weeks. My supply stayed the same, so that was a good sign. Then, when I was pretty sure I wasn’t losing supply, I dropped to five pumps per day (now going a full 30 minutes each session). Again, a couple of weeks later, my supply was still the same. Then came the big experiment–dropping to four pumps per day (still 30 minutes each session). I’m happy to say my supply still maintained! By this point, I was up to 32-36 ounces per 24-hour period.
Then I got a bit greedy and decided to try three pumps per day. After several days, my supply not only dipped a little but continued to fall. After five days of three pumps per day, I had dropped to about 28 ounces per day. That was two days ago. That’s when I decided three wasn’t going to work for me.
They say every pumping mom has a “magic number,” a perfect number of pumps per day where the output is its highest. For some women, they even produce more at this number than they did when they were pumping one more session. For me, my “magic number” is evidently four and not three. Ha! Live and learn.
A few days ago, I went back to my schedule of four pumps per day. So far, my output has not increased. I’ve gotten 28-29 ounces per day over the last several days. My understanding (and hope!) is that it can take 5-7 days to see your output return when adding the pump back in. I ordered another bottle of Goat’s Rue, and my husband offered to make some yummy lactation cookies. Fingers are crossed!
With my first son, I failed as an exclusive pumper. Maybe you read that story already. When I decided to pump exclusively with my second, then, I really wanted it to work. I did a ton of research–reading any forum or article I could find. I joined an awesome Facebook group, and I was determined to be successful. Looking back now on my first go-round, I know I did literally everything wrong.
With my first exclusive pumping journey, I didn’t pump often enough or long enough. I didn’t drink enough fluids. I didn’t eat the right things. I know now why it didn’t work. You’ll find tons of info out there to help you be successful should you choose the exclusive pumping route. If you want a few tips from a successful exclusive pumper, read on:
Get the right equipment.
The Pump: Breastfeeding moms who want to pump between feeds don’t need a great pump. If you’re pumping exclusively, though, the more basic, inexpensive pumps won’t hold up to that much use. Get a hospital-grade double pump. I have a Spectra S1 and love it though now I wish I’d gotten the S2. They’re the same, except the S2 has a rechargeable battery. I have a pumping station set up at home, so that’s not a big deal, but it would certainly come in handy when I’m away from home. I ended up buying a car adapter to pump on the road, and I just have to be aware of outlet locations when I’m pumping somewhere else. Cordless would be nice.
Hands-Free Bras: If you’re holding the flanges, you won’t get anything else done. As I mentioned before, I pumped and fed my little man at the same time (and still do when our schedules jive), so I needed my hands free. Invest in a few good hands-free pumping bras, so you don’t have to hold the darn things. I have this one, made by Rumina.
Get the Right Size Flanges: Your pump will come with some standard size flanges, and they very likely won’t be the right size for you. If you’re using flanges that are too big or too small, your output will be lower, and you’ll get sore. The right size is key. You’ll find lots of pictures online to show you what the right size looks like, and ya know what? They didn’t help me at all. What did help me was to actually measure!
- Pump for about five minutes (your nipples will continue to swell as you pump, so it’s important to measure at the right time).
- Turn off your pump, and remove flanges.
- Use a tape measure to measure the diameter of each nipple (they may be different sizes) in mm.
- Be sure to measure just the nipple and not the areola.
- Use flanges that are 3-5 mm larger than your nipple diameter. Again, you may need different sizes for each side.
- Note your size may change over time also. I recommend re-measuring monthly to ensure you’re still using the right size.
Note: your pump brand very well may not have the actual size you need, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. NeneSupply has tons of size options for lots of different pumps. I just searched on Amazon for my pump brand (Spectra) and the size I needed and found a compatible part.
Replace your membranes monthly.
Regardless of which pump brand you’re using, the membranes (aka duckbill valves) should be replaced monthly if you’re an exclusive pumper. Over time, these little parts will wear and stretch, and that will decrease suction. I use the NeneSupply brand with my Spectra, and they work great (and are far cheaper than the Spectra originals). Side note: as I mentioned above, NeneSupply is a great brand for “after-market” parts and accessories for your pump. Check out everything they have.
Don’t wash pump parts every time.
Pump parts only need to be washed once a day. If you’re washing every time (especially in the beginning when you’re pumping 7+ times per day), you’ll get tired of it by day two. You don’t even need to rinse them. In between sessions, toss the parts (I leave mine assembled) into a container or bag, and store them in the fridge. Wash them in hot, soapy water once per day. The necessity of sterilizing is debated, but I sterilize mine a few times per week if for no other reason than to get the milk fat out of the hard-to-reach places. Just boil the parts for five minutes, and allow them to air dry.
Understand letdown mode vs. expression mode.
With my first son, I had a Medela pump. When you first turn the Medela pump on, by default it starts in letdown mode. This mode is fast and is designed to trigger the letdown reflex, so your milk starts flowing. Once the milk is flowing, you switch to expression mode. This mode is slower to help express the milk out. Well the Spectra starts the opposite way, and I had no idea! The Spectra by default starts in expression mode, so you have to manually switch it to letdown mode to begin (that’s the button with the three wavy lines on it). Then, when your milk is flowing, you switch back.
It’s absolutely possible to get multiple letdowns (and thus more milk) per session. When your milk flow slows to drips in the expression mode, switch back to letdown mode for a couple of minutes. Then go back to expression mode. Switching back and forth will trigger more letdowns increasing your output per session.
Use your hands while you pump.
Remember how I said you’ll want your hands free while you pump? Some of that is to allow you to do “hands-on pumping.” Once you get into expression mode, use your hands to squeeze and massage your breasts. This will help get the milk moving and flowing. Move your hands around a bit to ensure you get all sides and up toward your collar bone and arm pits.
Faster and stronger isn’t better.
Pumps (especially hospital-grade pumps) will go pretty darn high for suction and speed. A common misconception is that faster and stronger suction will yield more milk. While I suppose that could be true for some women, it was absolutely not true for me. I produce more on slower speed settings and lower vacuum.
In letdown mode, I use 70/2. That means my pump sucks 70 times (or cycles) per minute, vacuum level 2 (out of 5 in letdown mode). When I go to expression mode, I use 38/4: 38 cycles per minute (ranges from 38-55), vacuum level 4 (out of 12). If I try to go higher on either number, it gets uncomfortable, and my milk flow slows. It’s important to experiment with the many different settings to find the right levels for you. It absolutely should not hurt or even be uncomfortable. If it is, turn it down.