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5 Secrets to Breast Pump Success

Welcome Aboard

If women logged hours on a breast pump the way pilots log hours in airplanes, I’d be doing long-haul flights to Beijing by now. Seriously. By my rough estimates, at this point in my nine-month-old’s life (and this is not math I recommend doing), I have pumped at least 3,000 ounces of breast milk for her and her older sister, neither of whom have been given formula. That’s a whole lot of hours hooked up to the milk machine.

From hour one, I loved nursing—the closeness, the convenience, the feeling of being able to provide exactly what my baby needed, whenever she needed it. I also loved my job, and the benefits it provided—like, you know, food to eat and a roof over my head. So, like most over-educated mothers who waited probably until they should have known better to have babies, I spent a lot of time reading everything I could about how to pump milk for my baby once I went back to work.

There’s no shortage of advice about what works, and that’s great—get all the advice you can. But having been through this a couple of times now, I’ve learned several things that are the opposite of everything I read about successfully giving a baby breast milk without the breast. Here’s the advice that no one gave me.

Baby’s First Bottle

You might actually be the first person to get Baby to take a bottle.

When my older daughter, Charlotte, was born, we paid close attention to all the recommendations about how to introduce a bottle to a breast-fed baby. Rule No. 1: Make sure that Mommy is somewhere far away, because Baby will turn up her nose at a bottle if the original café is around. And so one day, once breast-feeding was well-established, I waited until she was starting to get hungry—but not too hungry—and pumped some milk in the other room. Then I sneaked out, leaving a nice warm bottle on the kitchen table for my husband to give her.

It was a complete and abysmal failure. Tears would be shed—and not only Charlotte’s, either. My husband tried several times, on several days, over several weeks, to get her to take a bottle. My sister tried. The neighbor tried. Then one day I put Charlotte in the sling and went out for a walk, and on a whim grabbed the bottle my husband had been trying to give her. She loved to nurse in the sling, so once she was outside and relaxed, I stuck the bottle in her mouth. Before I knew it, she’d sucked down the entire thing. We had a similar experience with Leah, my younger daughter. My theory is that both girls were used to my being around at feeding time, so they ate. Maybe I was more relaxed about it, too. After all, I had two secret weapons as backup—underneath my shirt.

Let-Down at the Pump

You might get a better let-down if you don’t think of the baby while you pump.

The way most experts tell it, you practically need to meditate your way into a good let-down at the pump. Visualize the baby, they say. Look at a picture of the baby. Smell something that smells like the baby. Call your care provider and check on the baby. Baby baby baby. Here’s me, back at work my first week. Baby is at nursery school, and I miss her something fierce. I have 2,700 unread e-mails. I’m hooked up to the pump, looking at a picture of the baby, clutching her kitty-cat PJs and imagining her three miles away, playing with toys I didn’t pick out, snuggling someone else. This is supposed to make me feel relaxed? The milk dribbled out. Maybe I wasn’t smelling hard enough. I inhaled deeply, thinking milky thoughts, rivers of milk, fountains of milk, waterfalls of milk. Nothing.

Well, I figured, might as well just enjoy the next 10 minutes. I picked up The New Yorker magazine and started reading. I completely forgot about the baby, forgot about the 2,700 unread emails, and just got immersed in reading. The next time I looked down at the pump? Geysers of milk. It must work for some women to think about their babies while they pump, but for me, what works best is to think about whatever I normally think about while I’m nursing the baby. Maybe this makes me an inattentive mom. But it makes me an inattentive mom holding four more ounces of white gold.

Milk Production Schedule

Your milk production might actually go up, not down, during the work week.

Mondays are terrible days for me at the pump. This used to really stress me out, because the experts always warn that your milk production will diminish over the work week. The theory is that your body gets used to making lots of milk when your baby is around. Then, when you start pumping, because the breast pump is less efficient than your baby, your body makes less milk. By Friday, the theory goes, your body makes a lot less milk, which means you pull out even less.

At some point I quit worrying about Mondays, because I realized that my milk production actually increased during the work week, peaking around Wednesday. I think my body gets acclimated to the pump, to the mwah-mwah sound, to the fabric of the chair where I sit, to the hour I take the break. Mondays are sad days for me, too. The days without my baby stretch ahead; piles of work loom. By Wednesday, I’m in the groove.

Which Pump to Use

A “better” pump is not always preferable.

The first time I pumped was a few days after my first daughter was born. She had been readmitted into the hospital for jaundice, and I didn’t want her getting formula. But the nurses in the NICU got all twitchy when I took her out from under the bilirubin-busting ultraviolet lights, so they told me to pump instead. I holed up in what I remember as a broom closet and attached my breasts to a hospital-grade pump. After 20 minutes, I had maybe half an ounce, and sore nipples.

Later, as I was researching breast-pumps to buy, I learned that hospital-grade pumps were the most effective type. I was horrified. Hoping for the best, I bought a luggable electric pump—the strongest one you can buy at the baby-supply store. And you know what? It was fine; it was plenty. Patience, experience (and loads of fluids) are much more important than the kind of pump you use. You know what else? To this day, I still use a cheap-o little hand pump for my first pumping session of the day. It’s quiet, I’m in control, and it’s just so nice to be unplugged.

Learn from Experience

A “better” pump is not always preferable.
The first time I pumped was a few days after my first daughter was born. She had been readmitted into the hospital for jaundice, and I didn’t want her getting formula. But the nurses in the NICU got all twitchy when I took her out from under the bilirubin-busting ultraviolet lights, so they told me to pump instead. I holed up in what I remember as a broom closet and attached my breasts to a hospital-grade pump. After 20 minutes, I had maybe half an ounce, and sore nipples.

Later, as I was researching breast-pumps to buy, I learned that hospital-grade pumps were the most effective type. I was horrified. Hoping for the best, I bought a luggable electric pump—the strongest one you can buy at the baby-supply store. And you know what? It was fine; it was plenty. Patience, experience (and loads of fluids) are much more important than the kind of pump you use. You know what else? To this day, I still use a cheap-o little hand pump for my first pumping session of the day. It’s quiet, I’m in control, and it’s just so nice to be unplugged.

You’ll have to learn everything again with No. 2.
Although I worried about pumping with my older daughter, when Leah was born, I didn’t give it a second thought. I figured, I worked it out last time, so it’ll be no problem this time. But … no. It took several weeks before my body adjusted and I was able to settle into a reliable routine. Even then, though, I was only able to get about two-thirds of what I needed, so I had to add an extra daily session while Baby was home. What’s more, I was consistently getting a half-ounce less milk on one side than the other—something I was certain hadn’t been the case before.

Strange, right? Wrong. My husband insists that both things were true the last time as well; I’d just forgotten. I tend to believe him. Like so much of babyhood, pumping breast-milk is all a blur. So pour yourself a glass of water, sit back, and relax. It will be over before you know it.

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