Here’s the thing about pumping: It sucks. Literally.
Between the constant cleaning, the discomfort, the alienation, and the indignity of feeling like a milk cow, it’s hard to fault anyone for throwing in the towel. That any mom, especially working moms, choose to pump instead of turning to formula or weaning should merit a medal or, even better, a sizeable tax credit. I’ve known more than one mom lament that her supply drastically went down upon returning to work, or was just unable to get the hang of pumping in general.
Now going through this lactational merry go round the second time around, I’ve discovered that some discomforts I took as par for the course are actually quite avoidable. Here are the top three tips to help you keep up your supply and not get discouraged about pumping:
- Replace your pump parts every few months or as often as the pump maker recommends. Not so much the breast shield flange part or bottle which are likely made of durable hard plastic, but the soft tubing and valve pieces. Even if they look fine. Seriously. Don’t skimp on this. Case in point: I used the same parts for the entire year I nursed my son, at first pumping exclusively due to latching issues and then eventually down to just one pump a day to supplement my nursing. Milk still came out, but I did notice the volume reduced significantly, even as I continued to crank up the speed and strength. I chalked it up to my supply drying up with time. When I pulled my pump out of storage for baby #2, the tubing had yellowed so I ordered replacement tubes but kept everything else. Things were going fine for the first couple months although I noticed that my settings were much higher than they had been for my first baby as a newborn. Then one of the valves cracked and lost suction entirely, so I ordered a new set and immediately noticed my milk flow increase. That’s when it dawned on me that the valve is the most important piece of the pump and all those months when I thought my supply was decreasing were actually due to those parts losing effectiveness! Now I make sure to replace my valves at least every couple months, and my supply has remained constant. I have more than one working mommy friend who lamented that her supply decreased after a few months of pumping, but also admitted she never replaced her pump parts. Don’t let a simple oversight affect your supply – keep your parts fresh!
- Make sure your breast shields are the right size. The hospital where I gave birth had a fantastic lactation consultant staff who visited me every day to give advice and check on my progress. One of the many ways they helped was to make sure I had a flange that fit. I took this for granted, but recently heard from another mommy friend that she didn’t have any help with pumping in the hospital and thus went home with the wrong-sized flange. This affects not only your output level, but also your comfort. A flange that is too small will cause a lot of pain, and one that is too big won’t provide proper suction. Even if you’re home from the hospital, your OB or local La Leche League can recommend a consultant to help you determine the correct size. Bonus tip: Many insurance companies cover pumps nowadays, so yours may help you pay for a flange that fits.
- Get a good hands-free bra. Somehow I made it through 12 months of pumping for my first child without having one of these. Instead I would hold the funnels to my body for fifteen straight minutes, as many as six times a day and in the middle of the night. They had to be positioned just so and not move an inch to keep the suction properly engaged, and if my hand slipped…let’s just say it’s be a messy situation. I developed carpal tunnel syndrome and early arthritis in both hands (not an exaggeration) just from the strain of having to cup my hands in the same position repeatedly for a year, not to mention the bleak feeling of being trapped in this torture device of your own choosing. With my second child, I decided to give this hands-free bra a try AND IT CHANGED MY LIFE. I love this thing! Finally, I can use my hands to do other stuff (ok mostly I’m scrolling through facebook) or even just walk around though I do have to still have to lug the clunky machine around with me. Why had I been wasting my time trying to hold the pump parts with my bare hands…Ignorance? Passivity? I seriously don’t know the answer but I’m kicking myself for not getting one sooner. Now I’ve heard you can make your own hands-free bra by cutting two holes in an old sports bra, but having a snug opening around the flange is important. I just can’t imagine how a refashioned sports bra could provide the same accommodations as a bra that has both elasticized flaps to hold the flanges tight and adjustable sizing so it’ll always fit tightly as you hopefully drop your baby weight. You could try the sports bra trick to start with, but if the flanges don’t stay put or it’s awkward to get on/off, a hands-free bra is well worth the price!
One day when our children are adults, I hope they look back at our giant clunky pumps the same way we look back at computers from the 1960s and pity us because someone will have invented a smaller, easier system in the future. In fact, at least two female-owned startups are currently developing a lighter, better pump! Until then though, we’re stuck with what we’ve got, but if you follow these three tips you’ll hopefully keep your supply up as long as you need to, using our (fingers crossed) soon-to-be-out-dated medieval torture devices.