Hand Expressing: What is it and how does it help?

Learning about breastfeeding, feeding schedules, pumping, formula, etc. is daunting for any new mom. I remember diving into the google vortex of all things feeding related and losing track of how many articles I had read. So when my doctor mentioned hand expressing at an appointment late in my pregnancy, I was surprised that I hadn't read or heard much about it. 

Hand expressing of breast milk is a low-tech, no fuss technique that was incredibly useful to my babies and I during our feeding journey. It helped me in various ways, from collecting colostrum to relieving pain from breast engorgement. Below are five things you may not know about hand expression: 

1. It's a Gentle Massage

It’s basically a gentle massage you give yourself on your breasts. By cupping your breast and gently doing a repeat over motion, you’re able to express breast milk. It’s definitely a little awkward at first and takes a bit of practice. But after a few days (doing it everyday), I noticed that I had built almost a muscle memory - it felt  like a natural motion and my body knew what to do.

Your doctor or midwife will be be able to provide some detailed instructions and guidance on technique. 

2. It's Simple

All it requires is clean hands and a clean container for you to express the milk into. I recommended a wide mouth cup or a funnel in a cup. That way you catch every precious drop of breastmilk! I liked using small mason jars/salsa jars as they were the perfect size for me and easy to sterilize in a batch.

Because hand expressing is low fuss, this was particularly helpful if we were out of the house and I didn't have my pump on hand. 

3. Allows you to Collect Colostrum

Colostrum is the golden concentrated breast milk full of good proteins and it is nutrient dense. It comes in during the last weeks of your pregnancy and even without hand expression, you will notice it as you begin to lactate and leak a bit. You definitely remember the first time you leak a bit of milk! It lasts until a few days after you give birth. 

Because it's a highly concentrated dose of goodness, colostrum can be fed to babies to help them gain weight and provide much needed nutrients when they're sick. When collecting colostrum, I would use a small plastic syringe to collect the expressed breastmilk and freeze it for future use. Your doctor or midwife will be be able to provide some detailed instructions and guidance on technique. 

4. It Can Help Increase Milk Supply

While breastfeeding, you can hand express to really give baby a full feeding. You can also hand express after a feeding to get out every last drop of breastmilk, which then sends a signal to your body to make more milk. This was particularly helpful during my last feeding of the night before bedtime when I knew I wasn't going to be feeding for a couple hours. 

5. It Can Help Relieve Engorgement and Pain

Because your body knows to make more milk after a feeding to prepare for the next one, your breasts can become engorged if you skip a feeding or have too large of a break in between (out of routine). Your breasts will become physically hard and it can be quite painful. When this has happened, I found hand expressing was a gentle way to relieve the initial pain, as sometimes my breasts were too sensitive to hook up to the pump right away. 

Similar to point #2 above, this helps when you're away from home and need to relieve the pain.

Bonus tip: If you're feeling breast pain consider what you're putting on your body. There is nothing worse that a scratchy bra or top on already sensitive skin. In my last pregnancy one of my favourite items to wear was the Pia sweatshirt for this exact reason!

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