Exclusive Pumping: What I've Learned

If you’re curious about why I turned to exclusive pumping for my son, you can read the whole wordy saga here.

Our at home set up and our car set up.

Our at home set up and our car set up.

I nursed two kids past their first birthday, so I thought I knew a few things about breastfeeding. However, after now exclusively pumping for most of my son’s first year, I’ve learned to navigate a whole new side of breastfeeding I never really knew existed. Exclusively pumping requires a lot more logistics and grit than nursing (at least it did for me!), but it’s given me a sense of accomplishment far above what I felt with my first kids. I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned here, in case the nuggets I picked up along the way could help someone else in their journey. Below I’ve outlined a few helpful things I’ve learned, but this was my very first [pumping] rodeo - so some of these may or may not apply to others. Take them with a grain of salt. :)

Always watching!

Always watching!

Your Pump Matters: Why I Loved My Spectra

As most everyone knows now, most insurance companies will pay for your breast pump. I was able to take advantage of this with all three of my babies, passing along my first Medela Pump in Style Advanced to a close friend for her second baby when she needed a new pump. I got another Medela PISA with my second, but when I was pregnant with my third I decided to do more research since it had been a good four years since I’d looked into pumps. I kept reading about the Spectra S2 (or S1, which is the same, just rechargeable and therefore can be cordless) and hearing it was an excellent choice. My insurance happened to cover it, so I decided to take a chance on it since I could always fall back on my Medela PISA if I needed to. YOU GUYS. It is a GAME CHANGER. I’m so grateful I chose it this time since I ended up exclusively pumping. The bottom line differences in the Spectra and the PISA (which is a popular choice among insurance pumps) is that the Spectra is hospital grade (meaning it’s a closed system so the milk cannot be contaminated by the air from the motor and it can be used by different moms without risk of contamination), and the extra features it boasts. You’ll get the same quality of suction (I did at least), but the Spectra is insanely quiet, has a built-in timer so you don’t have to remember how long you’ve been pumping (!!), a nightlight (with two brightness levels) for middle-of-the-night pumping sessions, and the suction speed and vacuum settings are completely customizable, unlike the PISA. I would get another one in a heartbeat. It’s been incredible. Also, for an exclusive pumper like me, it has a little built-in spot for a bottle to sit and that’s been super helpful. Since I usually feed Chip in the bouncer next to me, when he’s taking a break from his bottle I have a little place to put it. The only cons I’d mention are that it’s a bit bulky (but way more user-friendly in shape/size than the PISA, in my opinion) and there’s a learning curve to the vacuum settings. I asked my IBCLC what settings I should use, so I’d recommend others do the same. She took the guess work out of it for me. Overall, for a main pump I highly recommend considering a Spectra. It’s also nice that a lot of the pumping resources I found on Instagram also recommend a Spectra for exclusive pumping and therefore most of them offer their advice in the context of a Spectra vs. other brands of pumps.

A Few Extra Things Go a Long Way: Accessories I’ve Loved

When I switched from nursing to exclusively pumping in January, in true form I asked the Facebook peanut gallery for tips and advice. I also discovered a few other items along the way that helped a lot. I tried not to just buy everything because part of my motivation for not immediately switching to formula was financial… so while pumping is NOT free, I knew I could do it relatively cheaply and I tried not to just buy allthethings but rather just what I really needed. That being said, here are some helpful things I used:

  1. On-the-go freezer bag. My friend recommended this and it came in handy over and over again when I had to pump in the car. It also stays cold for FOREVER and there’s no hassle of extra icepacks and what not.

  2. Car adapter for pump. A no-brainer if you can’t just nurse the baby. You’ll likely have to pump in the car at some point or another. (Make sure your pump is compatible! This worked with my PISA and my Spectra.)

  3. Extra hands-free bra. I already had one, but I got another to keep in my “car bag” for pumping in the car. That way whenever we needed to leave and I was pumping on the go, I didn’t need to remember to add anything to the bag but my pump. (I also kept extra bottles in the bag.) If you don’t have one of these to begin with, it’s CRUCIAL. I truly don’t know how people get by without one.

  4. aLoo Valve. This little valve, while sometimes hit or miss, will keep backwash from contaminating breastmilk. Some people are more lenient with the “rules” about how long breastmilk lasts once it’s been contaminated (meaning the baby drank out of the bottle but there was milk leftover). If you’re a stickler, these little guys keep the milk from getting contaminated at all so you can feel confident putting that leftover milk back in the fridge and saving it for the next feeding. However - I will say, they did make my bottles leak from time to time (but for what it’s worth my bottles leaked from time to time on a regular basis even without the valve - ha - the valve just made it more likely). I ended up using them if I knew Chip was unlikely to finish a bottle, like if he’d had a big dinner right before bed and I thought he might be too full for his whole bedtime bottle. Overall though, they gave me a lot of peace of mind. (Be sure to select your bottle type when purchasing!)

  5. Lansinoh Therapearl Hot/Cold Pads. I actually already owned these but had never used them, and after seeing them recommended for pumping they became a staple in my pump routine - especially for the first-morning pump. I would pop mine in the microwave for 17 seconds (that seemed to be the perfect temperature for mine) before pumping and then put them in between my skin and the flange while I started pumping. After 10 minutes of pumping I’d remove them and massage the rest of the time. For awhile I did this every time I pumped, but now I just do it for my first-morning pump since I’m so full at that one - the heat helps move the milk out.

Learn About Pumping: Helpful IG Accounts to Follow

I follow a lot of breastfeeding/pumping support accounts on Instagram, but hands down the most helpful has been @LegendairyMilk. I HIGHLY recommend following them and reading all of their story highlights. The information and knowledge shared by their account is unmatched and I probably (very literally) owe my pumping success to them. Another helpful account is @milksprouts. She does a lot of live teaching and real-time question/answer sessions. Both accounts focus on both breastfeeding AND pumping, but Legendairy Milk is especially helpful for pumping information. If you are a pumping mom and do not follow them, GO. NOW.

Find Your “Magic Number”: How to Know When to Drop Pumping Sessions

This information was a major eye-opener and turning point for me in my pumping journey, courtesy of @LegendairyMilk. At the point when I began exclusively pumping, Chip was eating seven times a day. I started out nursing him in the morning, so I was pumping six times a day. Eventually I pumped in the morning too but he also dropped a feeding, so six was my number for a long time. Six times a day was A LOT. I had several friends tell me that their output stayed the same even when they dropped to four times a day - but I was too scared to try for fear my supply would drop or, worse, dry up. Then I ran across this graphic from Legendairy Milk. Basically it’s a chart that shows how many times a day you need to remove milk to maintain supply (based on your “storage capacity” - which is determined by the highest amount of milk you’ve ever pumped in one sitting). This amazing information helped me have the courage to drop down to 3-4 pumping sessions a day and still maintain supply. That was INCREDIBLE for my morale and put new wind in my sails. This information could also be invaluable for working moms who need to know how many times to pump at work to keep their supply up.

Living the dream.

Living the dream.

The Six Month Hump: When Things Got Easier

As we approached six months (which was my original goal for exclusively pumping), Chip’s appetite grew and I felt like I was barely making enough milk to keep him satisfied. At the most, he was taking 30oz a day, and on average I pumped 28-30oz per day. There were days here and there I had to pull from my freezer stash but then there were other days I was able to add milk back to it. However, for the most part, I wasn’t able to freeze much milk until after he started solids. Six months was also around the time I found my “magic number” and decided to try dropping sessions. It was an anxious few weeks there for a bit - me, trying to figure out how often I could manage pumping to have enough milk without going crazy, and Chip getting hungrier and eating every drop I pumped. However, at his six month appointment our pediatrician agreed I was fine to scale back to just four bottles a day as long as I knew he was getting as much milk as he was before — and also mentioned that he’d take less milk as he started solids. That was a GREAT reminder for me since making “ends meet” with milk had been a little stressful at the time and I was just about ready to quit. Within a couple of weeks of introducing solids, Chip had gone back to his younger needs of 24-27oz per day and now at nine months he takes about 20oz a day. Once we made it over the six month hump and introduced solids, “making ends meet” became WAY easier and I’ve been freezing milk almost every day since. That means my freezer supply is growing and I’ll be able to ditch the pump sooner than his birthday (most likely). I guess all I’m saying is, if you’re pumping for your five month old and you haven’t introduced solids yet and you feel like you can barely make enough to feed him/her, hang in there and see how it goes after solids before throwing in the towel! It might get a lot easier.

Basically a glorified cow.

Basically a glorified cow.

Supplements: Results May Vary

I tried my fair share of supplements to increase milk supply this year. Everyone’s bodies respond differently to different things, so this is just my experience - but honestly none made THAT noticeable of a difference. Out of all I tried, Legendairy Milk’s Pump Princess made the biggest difference, but even with that it was only a couple of ounces overall. I also tried another one of theirs that caused me to have extremely low blood sugar and nearly pass out a few times — so take caution when you’re taking any supplements for a test run. I think the best thing that helped my supply was just drinking water and eating enough food. Also sleep. I noticed a HUGE difference on days I hadn’t slept well the night before.

Tips & Tricks: Things That Kept My Sanity

Finally, there were a couple of things that really helped me stick it out on this crazy ride. I’ve listed them below, along with a little freebie that has helped me the past few months.

  1. Find a way to feed your baby while you pump. This piece of advice was given to me, and I’m so glad I took it. It will take literally twice as long (if not longer) to feed your baby at a separate time than you pump - UNLESS you only pump three times a day, in which case, YOU GO GIRL and forget I even said this. But until you get to that, if you’re still pumping as often or almost as often as your baby, just find a way to feed them while you’re pumping. We use a bouncer on the couch next to me, my friend used a boppy, another friend uses her carseat… whatever works. Just save yourself the time suck - especially if you have other kids like me! That way you’ve got that much more time to spend with them instead of tied to the baby or the pump. (If you’re feeding baby what you pump and aren’t ahead of bottles, maybe consider offering some formula for just half a bottle or one bottle a day to help you get ahead. Most people get samples in the mail and just a sample could get you ahead enough to be able to feed the baby while you pump which can save your sanity in the long run! Just an idea.)

  2. Wash your parts as you go. A piece of advice that was given to me multiple times was to rinse your pump parts and put them in a freezer bag and throw them in the refrigerator and then just wash them once at the end of the day. This might work great especially for working moms who don’t want to wash their pump parts in the break room or a bathroom at work. For me though, since I’m home, I preferred to wash my pump parts immediately after I was done pumping. At the least, I’d throw them in a sink of warm soapy water and come back to them within the hour. I just found it easier to keep up with it immediately and then they’d be dry by the next pumping session. I also HATED the feeling of cold pump parts on my chest. I’m cold natured anyway, so I couldn’t stand the extra chill. That’s just my two cents.

  3. Try to pump into the bottle you’ll use to feed your baby. This isn’t a huge deal, but I found that with Chip preferring Medela bottles and me pumping with a Spectra — it was easiest on me to pump straight into Medela bottles. I bought an adapter and just used Medela flanges and pump parts with my Spectra, but you can also buy all kinds of adapters for different flanges to fit different bottles. This minimizes washing and keeps your brain power usage lower. Also, most flanges fit several different types of bottles without adapters (ie: Medela and Dr. Brown’s, Spectra and Dr. Brown’s wide neck, etc.)

  4. Pump for at least 20 minutes and massage while pumping. This is one area I have rarely, if ever, wavered. It’s harder to keep supply up over the long term with a pump since it’s not as efficient as a baby and you don’t get the hormonal response of cuddling your baby like you would if you were nursing. Therefore, pumping at least 20 minutes per session and massaging while you pump ensures you’re properly emptying ALL the milk out to tell your body to keep producing it. Even the few times I’ve not massaged or stopped just a few minutes early I’ve immediately noticed a decrease in output. Legendairy Milk’s story highlights also have an excellent section on this.

  5. Keep up with your output. I used to be more concerned with how much Chip was taking than I was with how much I was making, but after starting to track my output I’ve seen first hand how slowly output can decrease and you’d never really realize it unless you were paying attention. I’m a data person, so this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it gave me peace of mind to keep a little log of what I was pumping to know - in a general sense - how my supply was doing. There are loads of apps for this, but I found it easiest to just keep a log with good ole pen and paper on my refrigerator. I designed a little chart and if you’d like to use it too, you can download it here for free! It even has a little bar at the bottom that you can divide into however many weeks/months you have left to meet your pumping goal and color it in as you go! I’m a nerd and I love to see my progress bar fill up. :) It also has a handy place to keep track of how much you have in the freezer so you don’t have to count all your bags every few weeks. The key for me with tracking output was not to get hung up if I had a weirdly low output day, but just keep a casual eye on the “total” numbers to make sure things were maintaining. This is how I noticed that pumping only three times a day decreased my supply over time, so I went back to four times a day to maintain output for a bit longer before I start supplementing with freezer milk and weaning from the pump.

Whew. That was a lot. I hope it’s helpful for at least just one person out there. I feel like I’ve gathered all of this random information from a hundred places and would love to pass at least something along to someone else who finds themself in the same grind that I was in. All moms are amazing no matter how they feed their babe, but if you’re exclusively pumping, this was especially for you girl. You’ve got this.

This post does not contain affiliate links but it probably should because man wouldn’t that be nice! Ha!