Hand expressing human milk is a topic that comes up in sessions regularly. For any breastfeeding, chestfeeding, or expressing parent, it’s a really useful skill. It can help you to understand how your body works and can also make your feeding goals easier to manage. This article looks at some of the reasons to hand express, and circumstances that parents face.
Colostrum is the first milk you produce, and is a thick and sticky substance, often produced in very small quantities. Hand expressing colostrum, as opposed to using a breast pump, produces a much higher yield since you may only produce droplets which can get ‘lost’ in the mechanism of a pump; so it’s an ideal method to remove milk if you need to in the early days of feeding.
Sometimes parents are advised to harvest colostrum antenatally, particularly in the case of gestational diabetes, or diabetes where baby may need feeding before they are able to, to regulate their blood glucose levels.
All parents may want to consider colostrum harvesting antenatally. Expressed colostrum offers a ‘back up plan’ for after birth as an alternative to formula, and it can be done safely from 36 weeks in pregnancy.
NB: Antenatally expressing colostrum doesn’t take any milk away from the baby after birth, nor does it increase supply. If you attempt it and nothing comes out, it doesn’t mean that you won’t have milk after birth (releasing milk from the breasts/chest relies on oxytocin, which is often produced more effectively around your baby).
Engorgement is when the ducts becomes full of milk, so that a parent’s breasts/chest feels full, hard and heavy. It’s quite common in the early days and weeks of feeding your baby, but can also happen later in a parent’s journey if there is a longer than usual gap between feeding or expressing.
Hand expressing your milk can be a good way to manage or relieve engorgement. In some situations, you might choose to feed your baby, or do your next expressing session to remove the milk for comfort and keep your supply up, particularly in the early weeks. But if your baby has recently fed and won’t wake for more, or you have recently expressed and want to avoid oversupply, then hand expressing enables you to remove enough to prevent problems and feel comfortable, without overstimulating your supply.
Make Latching Easier
If you feed your baby and you are full of milk, the nipples can become quite stretched or taut and it becomes difficult for your baby to get a good latch. Hand expressing a small amount can soften the nipples and breasts/chest just enough to attach more deeply and feed more easily.
Encourage Your Baby to Feed
Sometimes babies struggle to latch, or may be too sleepy to latch at the breast/chest. They might even be too upset to feed. Hand expressing a small amount of milk onto your finger, and feeding this to your baby can be a good way to settle them, or entice them to feed. It can help them to calm down to make feeding easier.
If you’re trying to latch your baby at the breast/chest, expressing a small amount of milk onto the end of the nipple may help. The smell of the milk enables your baby to find their way, and encourages them to latch more easily with the taste.
Maintaining Supply and Alleviating Discomfort
Sometimes you might find yourself in a situation where you might normally pump or feed your baby, but neither your baby nor your pump is available.
Hand expressing is a useful tool for the duration of time that you are producing milk, since it can be used in unexpected situations; such as getting caught short with full breasts in a traffic jam on a motorway with nothing but a Costa cup, or at 3am in a night club when you didn’t want to take out your pump so you can express down the sink.
Hand expressing is the only way to remove milk without any equipment, so even if you don’t use the skill often, it’s handy to learn.
Hopefully this has given you some insight into the many reasons why hand expressing is a useful tool for parents, and how it can support you to prepare for birth.
To find out more about hand expressing, and how to do it, check out the UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative video here.