How to express and store breast milk

Everything you need to know about pumping and storing expressed milk so your baby can always benefit from breast milk

In Newborn

    5-minutes read

    At a glance

    Expressing milk lets someone other than mum feed the baby

    Try expressing breast milk first thing in the morning  


    Don’t express too often or your breasts could become engorged and painful  

    The colder the temperature the longer you can store breast milk 

    Expressed breast milk lets you provide all the benefits of breast milk when breastfeeding isn’t possible. Perfect for when mum needs to be away from baby — for work, or even just for a well-deserved break.

    There are many reasons to express:

    • Helps boost mum’s supply when baby is not feeding well or often
    • For temporary relief of full, uncomfortable breasts
    • Gives tender nipples a break without disrupting feeding
    • Allows the partner or a family member to help with feeding

    How to express milk

    There are three ways to express breast milk: by hand, by manual pump, or by electric pump. Once you’ve worked out the method that works best for you, you’ll soon find it’s fairly simple.

    • It’s best to wait until breastfeeding is well established – usually about six weeks, unless advised by your healthcare professional
    • Before you start, sterilise everything that will come into contact with the milk and wash your hands
    • Pick a moment when you’re relaxed. First thing in the morning is often when breasts are fullest but it varies from mum to mum
    • Try a warm shower before to increase the blood supply in your breast, and it sounds strange, but keep a picture of your baby nearby to stimulate hormones
    • Have a drink on hand as you'll get really thirsty
    • Try not to express too much to prevent engorgement – swollen, tender breasts. If this happens, stop expressing and breastfeed as normal while it settles down

    Expressing milk by hand

    • With clean hands, cup your breast and feel with your finger for where the texture changes between your nipple and breast
    • Gently massage or squeeze this area between your thumb and forefinger
    • Release the pressure and then repeat until you get a good rhythm going – but don’t slide your finger over your skin
    • As the milk flows, express it into a bottle or breast milk freezer bag or any sterilised container
    • If your milk doesn’t flow, try moving your finger and thumb closer to the nipple or further away until it does
    • Practice makes perfect. If you ever need help contact your midwife or breastfeeding advisor

    “Hand expressing during the interval really helped relieve the pressure in my breasts.”


    How to use a breast pump

    • Breast pumps mimic your baby’s sucking action to produce breast milk. Both manual and electric pumps do this with suction cups placed over the nipples
    • A manual pump works by repeatedly squeezing the handle, while an electric pump uses an automatic vacuum. The pumps collect the milk in an attached container or bottle
    • You can hire breast pumps as they are quite expensive to buy. Contact your local National Childbirth Trust or hospital for more information

    “Once I got the hang of it, I could pump on one side while my daughter filled up with the other.”

    How to store breast milk

    Expressed breast milk can be kept in the fridge or the freezer in sterile bags, bottles or containers:

    • Just pop it into the fridge or freezer as soon as possible after expressing
    • Write the date on the containers so you know when to use it by
    • Use a thermometer to check the temperature of your fridge and freezer
    • The colder it is, the longer you can store your milk in the fridge or freezer

    How long can you store breast milk?

    Here are some basic guidelines for storing breast milk:

    • At 5°C, you can keep your milk in the fridge for up to three days
    • Cooler than 4°C, you can store your milk between five and eight days
    • You can store your milk in the freezer box for up to two weeks
    • At -18°C or lower, you can keep frozen breast milk for up to six months

    “Don’t make the mistake we did. Ten bags, no dates written on them. Had to get rid of the lot.”

    How to defrost breast milk

    • Thaw the frozen breast milk in the fridge and use within 12 hours of thawing
    • For faster thawing, stand the container in tepid water and use it immediately after thawing
    • Make sure it is completely thawed and check the temperature before feeding
    • Don’t microwave your breast milk – it can cause hot spots that could scald your baby
    • To reheat expressed milk, stand a bottle in warm matter until the milk reaches the desired temperature
    • And never refreeze breast milk – throw away any left after a feed

    IMPORTANT NOTICE: The best way to feed a baby is to breastfeed, as breast milk provides the ideal balanced diet and protection against illness for your baby and also many non-nutritional benefits for both baby and mother. We recommend that you speak to your healthcare professional when deciding on your choice of feeding your baby. Professional guidance should also be sought on the preparation for and maintenance of breastfeeding. If you do choose to breastfeed, it's important to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Infant formula is intended to replace breast milk when mothers choose not to breastfeed or if for some reason they are unable to do so. A decision not to breastfeed, or to introduce partial bottle-feeding, will reduce the supply of breast milk. If for any reason you choose not to breastfeed, do remember that such a decision can be difficult to reverse. Using infant formula also has social and financial implications which must be considered. Infant formula should always be prepared, used and stored as instructed on the label, in order to avoid risks to a baby’s health.


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    Important advice to mothers

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life. SMA® Nutrition fully supports this and continued breastfeeding, along with the introduction of complementary foods as advised by your healthcare professional.