Working and Breastfeeding: My Experience with Hand Expression

female nurse looking at the camera, smilingHanna N. Wetzel, Cincinnati, Ohio

Like most women who plan to go back to work after baby, I bought a breast pump before giving birth. Unlike most, it has sat untouched in my closet. I remember receiving it at my baby shower, thinking that it would be one of the most important gifts and that I would use this little device to pump amazing mama’s milk for my baby even while I was back at work. My mother (an active La Leche League member from the 1990’s) shook her head a little and said something to the effect of “I never really used those things; I just did it by hand.” I didn’t really believe it, because I’d heard so much about pumping and I thought it was really the only way that I could go back to work without having to give up breastfeeding.

My beautiful little boy fought his way into the world following a grueling 36-hour induced labor, and my breastfeeding journey began. I was terrified I was starving him (I wasn’t) because he would only nurse for a few minutes at a time instead of the 20-30 minutes the lactation consultant told me was normal. She suggested I try pumping some colostrum and feeding him from a syringe if I was really worried. I liked the idea, but the hospital grade breast pump placed next to my bed was more than a little intimidating, and the idea of hooking my tender postpartum breasts up to that harsh looking machine was not terribly appealing. Instead, at my mother’s recommendation, I cupped my breast and gently rubbed my thumb down the top towards my nipple. Lo and behold, drops of thick yellow colostrum appeared, and I was able to easily express them into the syringe.

The habit was formed. It felt so much more natural to me than the mechanical, complicated looking pumps. I built my stash through hand expression only. I could easily fill a 4-5 ounce bag in about 20 minutes. It was messy at first (I recommend starting with a nice wide mouthed bowl), but I got better. Before I returned to work at three months, I could hit a milk collection bag with reasonable accuracy and had a few weeks worth of milk stored up.

I only worked about 16 hours a week at first: one full day and two half days teaching a few chemistry classes at our local college. My son traded off staying with my mother, my mother-in-law, and my husband. Instead of dealing with cleaning pump parts, worrying about sterilization between pumping sessions, and transferring between bottles and bags, I just brought a small ice pack in a lunchbox and kept a towel (I do recommend this — even with great aim, misses do happen), and some milk storage bags in my office.

I was lucky to work in an incredibly supportive environment. I expressed in between classes and kept the milk in my cooler until I could freeze it at home. Of course, there were a few hiccups; for example, I forgot my towel once and completely soaked my lap with an errant stream of milk. I also forgot my cooler and stored the milk in a large soda cup filled with ice. Overall though, things went very smoothly. Currently, my 16 month old has naturally weaned during the day when I’m at work and nurses on my days off and at nights.

Hand expressing has made my breastfeeding journey so much easier. I hate washing dishes, so the added stress of keeping a pump clean and in working order might have broken me during those early, hormone-hazed days. Hand expressing felt more natural to me from the start. Additionally, I struggled with mastitis so being able to efficiently hand express while in the shower was quite useful.

Everyone is so surprised when I reveal that I never “pumped”, yet still provided milk while I was at work. When I say I “express” at work instead of “pump”, it almost always requires clarification. I would love to see this brought back into our culture. Instead of immediately hooking women up to machines in the hospitals, let’s walk them through all the options and teach them the techniques they would need to succeed if they feel hand expression is for them. I understand it wouldn’t work for everyone, but many people aren’t even aware that it’s an option, and it really is a great one.

Editor’s Note: For more information about hand expression, go to

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