How To Hand Express Breast Milk

Hand expressing breastmilk is a way to empty your breasts without using or needing a breast pump. Here's how to hand express breastmilk.

If you don't have a pump on hand, or don't plan to pump at all, you might still find yourself in a situation where you need to empty your breasts promptly.

But what if you're away from a pump and your baby --- how to get that needed relief?

Hand expressing breast milk may be your solution.

Today, we'll cover how to hand express breast milk in this complete guide for moms.

What Is Hand Expression?

When you hand express breast milk, you massage and push on your breasts with your hands as a way to remove the milk.

Sometimes, you'll need to remove milk from your breasts when baby isn't around.

Hand expression is an alternative to using an electric or manual breast pump for this purpose.


Why Hand Express Breast Milk?

Promptly expressing breast milk will help you avoid engorgement, clogged milk ducts, and mastitis.

This means knowing how to hand express breast milk is vital if you need to empty your breasts, are away from baby, and don't have a pump on hand.

All you need for hand expression is clean hands and a way to store the milk. Plus, you aren't dependent on a power source or working pump parts!

So, it's a great skill for any breastfeeding mom to know, just in case.

You might want to hand express breast milk for several reasons:

  • If your pump stops working or a part breaks, and you need to empty your breasts
    • You can hand express right into a bottle, and you are not dependent on parts
  • If there's no electricity to pump (the power goes out, or there's no electrical outlet nearby to plug your pump in) and you need to empty your breasts
    • No electricity needed to hand express
  • If you're away from baby and you need to empty your uncomfortable breasts --- but you don't have a pump on hand
    • Hand expressing will work in a pinch
  • If you prefer not to pump, or don't have a pump because you don't anticipate needing to pump often
    • There may be situations where you're away from baby and need to empty your breasts --- hand expressing will let you do this without needing a pump
  • If you need to relieve a clogged milk duct or mastitis
    • Hand expressing can get the clog out
  • If your breasts are hard due to engorgement
    • Hand expressing can soften your breasts before a feed, so they're easier for your little one to latch onto
  • If you'd like to maximize the milk you can collect from pumping
    • Use hand expression before you pump, to get the milk flowing
    • Or, try hand expression after a pumping session, to empty your breasts more fully
  • If you're trying to build up your stored milk supply after a feed
    • Right after a feeding, you can hand express to remove and store milk without dragging out the pump
  • If you're producing colostrum (which is limited) and you don't want to risk losing any of it to pump parts
    • Hand expressing can help you preserve as much "liquid gold" as possible, if baby isn't drinking it directly from the breast
  • If your newborn struggles to latch and you want to give breast milk from a bottle
    • You can hand express to gather this milk, if a pump is not available

How To Hand Express Breast Milk?

Here's how to hand express breast milk. For a visual guide to hand expression, please watch this video from the UK's National Health Services (NHS):

Or, follow the steps below:

  1. Wash your hands well.
  2. Grab a breast milk bag, bottle, cup, bowl, or other clean vessel to express the milk into. This way, the precious milk won't go to waste.
  3. If baby isn't nearby, it's best to have some reminder of baby where you're going to hand express.
    1. This will stimulate your let-down reflex and get the milk flowing.
    2. You could have a picture of baby nearby, hold a towel or blanket with baby's scent, or even play a recording of your baby vocalizing.
    3. If you need to hand express suddenly, pull up a picture (or video) of baby on your phone!
  4. Choose an area where you won't get distracted or interrupted. Then, sit down, relax, and get comfortable.
    1. Relaxation helps encourage let-down, so use breathing techniques, music, or other ways to release tension as needed.
  5. As another way to encourage let-down, gently massage different areas of your breasts in a circular motion, for a few minutes.
    1. Or, if one is available, apply a warm towel to your breasts.
  6. Position your hand on your breast, so it's in the shape of the letter C.
    1. Your thumb should be on the top of your breast, and your other fingers should be below the nipple.
    2. Keep all your fingers about an inch or two behind the nipple.
  7. Using your other hand, grab the bag, cup, or other vessel and hold it directly below your nipple.
  8. Gently push the breast in towards your chest, keeping your fingers in the C position.
  9. Gently compress the breast. Push your thumb and fingers inward (towards each other). Keep the fingers at the same distance from the nipple as you compress.
  10. Then, gently release the compression (so your thumb and fingers are back in the original position and you're not applying pressure).
    1. Milk should flow out as you release. But it may take a bit of time before the milk flows.
  11. Repeat the push, compression, and release pattern about five or six times. Keep a steady rhythm. The pattern should feel like a "rolling" motion on your breast, or a "circling" of your fingers.
  12. If you need to, learn forward so the milk gets in the collection vessel. Make sure the milk doesn't touch your hands.
  13. To maximize the milk flow, you'll need to change your hand position. Rotate your thumb and fingers so they're still cupped around the breast, but so your hand is in the shape of a U.
  14. Repeat the pushing, compression and release process in rhythm.
  15. Then, rotate your hand so it's in a backwards C position, and repeat the push-compress-release process.
  16. Next, rotate your hand so it's in a lowercase n position, and repeat the push-compress-release process.
  17. (You can switch hands as needed, depending on what's most comfortable.)
  18. Repeat the entire process with your other breast.
  19. Stop the hand expression session once both your breasts are completely emptied (and pain-free).
  20. If you aren't giving it to baby right away, properly store the milk you hand expressed.

How Long Does Hand Expression Take?

Hand expressing breast milk usually takes between 20 and 30 minutes, if you're emptying your breasts completely.

Yes, this is longer than an electric pump session would take. But it's still very efficient for a process that's done by hand.

Hand expressing is also more flexible, since it doesn't require electricity or a working pump.

It may take a little while to master, but as you get better at hand expressing, it will save you more time.

Try listening to music or a favorite podcast, or watching a movie or show you enjoy, as you hand express. It takes about the same time as a shorter show episode, podcast episode, or half-hour music playlist.

Will Hand Expression Work For Every Mom?

Although hand expression is useful, it doesn't work for all moms. Don't get discouraged if you can't get the hang of hand expression and aren't able to get much milk out.

If you need help with hand expression, talk to your doctor or lactation consultant. Or, you might just decide to stick with the electric breast pump, and use a manual pump whenever your electric one can't be used.

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