What You Need to Know to Succeed as an Exclusively Pumping Mom

woman holding two breast pumps

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The words “exclusively pumping” take me back to some pretty dark days where I was trying desperately to get newborn Jack to nap anywhere other than my chest so I could pump and have enough milk to feed him. My days were filled with desperation, engorgement, frustration, and oh God, SO many tears. But here’s the thing: exclusive pumping doesn’t have to be so bad.

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As I learned more about how to exclusively pump, I realized that there were actually many benefits to this process of feeling like a factory dairy cow, constantly hooked up to a machine. By pumping breast milk, I was able to have a happy, breastfed baby despite his inability to latch to my boob.

When Husband was home or anyone visited to care for Jack, pumping instead of breastfeeding gave me some desperately needed “me time” with empty arms and emptying breasts.

Many moms find themselves exclusively pumping with heavy hearts, having desperately wanted to breastfeed. I exclusively pumped for the first 3 months of Jack’s life because he had micrognathism, or newborn recessed chin, that made it impossible for him to latch.

But other moms choose to exclusively pump, and that’s pretty amazing.

Some of us love it, and some of us hate it. I’m here to help you do it successfully, but with one very important caveat.

Exclusive pumping is not for everyone. If you can’t stand it, and the struggle is a detriment to your mental health, there is nothing wrong with choosing to wean from it when it feels right to you. You do what you need to do for yourself, mama.

But if you want to go down this exclusive pumping road, here are all the things I wish I’d known.

Exclusive pumping: What you need to know

If you’re exclusively pumping, it’s essential to have a good, double electric pump, so that you’re double pumping. That means you’re expelling breast milk from both sides at the same time. We’ll discuss my favorite pumps in more detail in another section.

Struggling to select a breast pump from the massive number of options? Check out our article on how to choose a breast pump.

It’s also important that you have everything you need to make cleanup easy, as you’ll need to clean pump parts and bottles, which is more dishes than you’ve ever imagined.

I’ll give you the details on all of these products, plus my experience-based tips to get you through it.

hand holding up a breast pump with the bottle filled with breast milk

How to exclusively pump

It sounds so easy, right? Hook up to a breast pump and go.

But there’s SO much more to being an exclusively pumping mom than meets the eye, especially as you navigate issues like staying home alone with your child, returning to work, and figuring out schedules.

After making sure you’re stocked with all the right supplies (these are coming, I promise), you’ll want to follow a good schedule.

Exclusively pumping schedule

A schedule is important because it helps you build supply and tells your body when to produce milk.

Ultimately, you’re mimicking what would happen if you were breastfeeding your baby naturally–you would (ideally) produce milk at the times when they need it most.

In reality, a schedule may not be so easy to create.

After all, when your baby is  hungry, hooking up to a pump does little good. As a general rule of thumb, moms of newborns will need to pump regularly to help build their supply.

Here are some general guidelines for pumping:

  • Newborn: 8-9 times in 24 hours (15 minute pumping sessions) including a middle-of-the-night pump around 3am (this middle-of-the-night pump was the hardest part of exclusive pumping for me, but my lactation consultant was adamant that it was important for my supply, and when I stopped doing it, my supply dropped). If you struggle with low production as a new mom, many people suggest pumping 12 times a day for a few days to get your production up!
  • 3 months: 5-6 times in 24 hours (15-20 minute sessions). If your baby is sleeping through the night and you’re producing well, you can drop the middle-of-the-night pump. 
  • 6 months: 4 times per day (20 minute sessions). You’re likely starting your baby on solids at this point, so their milk intake will start to decrease.
  • 8+ months: As needed. You’ll know your body by this time, and any schedule I give you will make you scoff because you know better. And you do. So listen to your body. Also, you’re a total badass for exclusively pumping for so long!

Exclusive pumping benefits and drawbacks

If I’m being honest, for most people, there are far more cons to exclusively pumping than pros.

Most mamas simply can’t stand it.

They hate being tied to a machine, losing bonding time with their baby in arms, spending double the time on feeding because they have to pump and bottle-feed their baby, and the dishes make them want to scream because there’s already SO much to do.

In the early postpartum days, exclusively pumping moms often get less sleep because they have to feed their little one in the middle of the night and pump. This was the hardest part for me.

And if this is you, and you just can’t stomach it, that is a perfectly appropriate decision to make. Your mental health matters so much during this time, mama!

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But if you want to be an exclusive pumper, I can tell you that there are a lot of benefits to the process, as well:

  • Me time: I spent my pumping time playing games on my phone or texting with friends, getting out of the overwhelmed new mom headspace as much as possible.
  • Other people get to feed baby: While I fully believe that moms need to make decisions that are best for themselves and their health, I see lots of dads, partners, and grandparents struggle with a desperate desire to feed a baby they cannot feed (because the mom is exclusively breastfeeding). If you want your baby to drink breastmilk, pumping allows other people to pick up the slack. This gives your partner time with the baby as they can handle a middle-of-the-night feeding while you pump.
  • Freedom of time and movement: While exclusive pumping often feels like being tethered to a pump, it also provides freedom in many ways. When my mom wanted to send us on a date night and keep Jack, I didn’t need to worry about him. He had milk; I wore nursing pads so I didn’t drip through my shirt; and Husband and I were able to get out of the house! Yessss.

Exclusively pumping tips

To make exclusively pumping work for you and your family, I have a few specific tips to help get you through it.

(1) Find a pump that works for your body.

Many women say their bodies don’t respond to pumps, and for some women, this may be true.

But in many cases, breast pumps don’t work because mama is using the wrong pump for her body.

Pro tip: Avoid the Medela Pump In Style. All my lactation consultant friends bemoan this pump, which just happens to be the most popular breast pump. They swear that it’s TERRIBLE for milk production. I tried it, and my breast milk oversupply rapidly turned into an undersupply.

(2) Invest in a bottle sterilizer

You are going to have so many more dishes to do than bottle-feeding or exclusively breastfeeding moms. You’ll want to wash your parts with Dapple soap because it’s the BEST at breaking down the proteins of human milk that like to stick to everything. Still, there’s so much to keep clean that you’ll want to be able to pop it in the sterilizer once you’ve done that.

Boiling water is too complicated if you’re exclusively pumping, and you’ll go through far too many steam bags. I promise this is worth the investment.

(3) Get the full Kiinde breastmilk feeding system

I cannot rave about this system enough. I was livid when I learned about it a few months in and realized that NO ONE HAD TOLD ME!!!!

TL/DR: This system allows you to pump milk straight into the storage bags that you’ll use for feeding.

Longer explanation: This system has milk storage bags with an attachment to hook them straight to ANY breast pump. You pump straight into the bags, store the bags, pop them into the included warmer, add a bottle nipple, and feed baby straight from the bottle.

Date the bags, obviously, and use them oldest-newest.

This system saved me 2+ hours a day on dishes. I’m not exaggerating. The one major downside is that the pouches aren’t reusable, but they are recyclable. I asked for them as gifts and reminded myself of the money I wasn’t spending on formula.

Definitely add this to your list of baby registry must haves!

(4) Buy a manual breast pump!

I know, I know. I can hear you now.

“But you said I needed a double electric pump. I have this fancy system. Why would I want a cheap little manual one?”

Here’s why. Because your power will go out. Your pump will break. You’ll find yourself desperate to pump but without time to hook up and do it. You’ll need to pump while you’re in a restaurant.

Trust me. Something will happen where that manual pump will be your best friend, probably multiple times. Have it on hand!

(5) Use a hands-free pumping bra

This allows you to do things like HYDRATE while you pump, which is super important for milk supply. Also, you can do crazy things like feed yourself, which is huge.

woman wearing bra with breast pumps attached

Holding flanges onto your breasts is absolutely unnecessary; there are bras that will do this for you! Please don’t put yourself through it.

(6) Build a support system

The hardest part of pumping (for me) was being alone with Jack and needing to pump. As nap times became more regular, this got easier, but in the early days when I needed to pump more often, it was really hard to work in the session when I was home alone with him all day.

At first, I tried to build in having someone come by every day (different friends on different days) so they could hold him while I pumped. Most of my friends are teachers, so this worked well with my summer baby, but it was super hard when school started back.

That’s when I hired help–a college-age neighbor who would come over, clean my bottle and pump parts, empty my diaper pails, and do Jack’s laundry so that I could put the hands-free time into pumping, not cleaning. 

Having your partner on board is also a huge help, as you do need to pass baby off to them so you can pump. The bonding time is good for them, too!

(7) Forgive yourself

Note that I don’t specify what you’re forgiving yourself for. Just trust me, you’re going to need to forgive yourself.

Maybe it’s for not being able to breastfeed. Or for not producing enough. For hating pumping. Or being exhausted. Maybe it’s for resenting all the work you’re doing for your baby. Or resenting your partner for not having to go through this. It might be for letting your baby cry beside you so you can get just a little milk out so you don’t get engorged and get mastitis.

Maybe it’s for something else entirely.

This is a hard time, and I promise, there’s going to be something to forgive yourself for.

Best breast pump for exclusive pumping

Just so we’re clear, there’s no one BEST breast pump. But there are many great ones, so I’m going to share my favorites and some pros and cons of each.

I do think it’s worth spending more money on a pump if you’re an exclusively pumping mom. The reliability and better supply will make a world of difference.

(1) Spectra S1

This is my favorite option for a number of reasons.

Pros: Hospital grade (better for production), rechargeable battery (doesn’t have to be plugged in and is thus super portable), closed system (no need to clean narrow tubing), tons of settings (so you can find what works for your body).

Cons: Flanges can be very awkward to get into a pumping bra. 

Also, because it’s so portable, it’s easy to drop and break if you’re clumsy like me. Which is how I ended up with my next favorite pump while awaiting the warranty replacement…

*Note: The Spectra S2 is slightly less expensive and also an amazing option, but it requires being plugged into the wall and thus loses portability.

(2) Medela Symphony

This is the pump I used through most of my pumping journey because you could rent it from the hospital, making it way more affordable than paying for the full thing.

Pros: Hospital grade breast pump, proven to produce 18% more milk than other double electric pumps, the quietest and most comfortable pump I used, and holy milk supply!

Cons: Cost! I can’t imagine having paid out of pocket for this pump. Also, it’s large and heavy, so not good for travel or portability for working moms.

(3) Willow

I was a beta tester for the original Willow pump, and there were things I loved about it and things I HATED! I’ve talked to a lot of mamas, and my understanding is that the things I hated have been worked out now.

Mostly, it wasn’t as great for large-chested women as I wanted it to be (as I am one), but I’m told the new 27” flange solves that problem.

It also wasn’t as great for my supply as the others, so I needed to use it in conjunction with another pump. That may not be true now that they have a larger flange size, but I can’t test it now to be sure.

A few tips for using the Willow pump. Make sure you have the right size flange (they now have 3 size options!) Also, watch the videos to learn to use it properly, and if you experience a problem, use tech support. They’re very good.

Pros: Completely portable, wireless, under-the-bra

Cons: Pricey (but allows you to pay in monthly installments), very visible under the shirt (so not as amazing for discreet pumping as advertised)

Exclusive Pumping Summary

It’s a tough journey, but it has lots of benefits if you want to give your baby your own breast milk and you’re up for the challenge.

Buy the right supplies, enlist help when needed, and find a pump that works for your body. For long-term exclusive pumping, invest in a nice pump; it makes all the difference. If you like your pump, exclusively pumping really isn’t so bad.

What’s your favorite pump for exclusive pumping?

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