The love/hate relationship many have with their breast pumps tilts toward the “hate” side when pumping output drops. For better or worse, our bodies are not machines that churn out milk on demand at the flip of a switch, and fluctuations do happen for many different reasons. Here are some actions to take if your pumping output drops.
1. Give your pump a tune-up.
It’s very common to assume that because pumping output has decreased, milk supply has dropped. While that can happen (see #2), consider that our bodies have made milk for millennia, and electric breast pumps have only been around for a couple of decades. If your pumping output has suddenly taken a dive, examine your pump. The membranes and valves need to be replaced on occasion, and definitely need to be replaced if there are any rips, tears, chips, or other signs of damage. Some pumps have filters that may need to be changed, especially if they happen to meet milk or other moisture. Tubes can become filled with condensation or milk, and can be stretched enough that suction decreases.
The pump itself can be defective or experience wear and tear, as well. Some breastfeeding clinics or lactation boutiques are able to test a pump’s suction. Motors can and do wear down, which is one reason why using a secondhand pump is not recommended.
Sometimes replacing the replaceable parts of a pump is all you need to boost your output. If you suspect stretching tubes, you can sometimes trim off the ends (if there are not permanent attachments that fit onto the pump or bottle) and make them good as new.
2. Go back to basics: how often are you breastfeeding? How often are you pumping? Is milk being removed effectively while breastfeeding and pumping?
The basic principle of milk production is that you make milk by removing milk. When milk is allowed to sit in the breast, something called feedback inhibitor of lactation (or FIL) tells the breast to slow milk production. It makes sense—why would your body keep making milk if it’s not being used? If you’re not breastfeeding or pumping enough (which is, generally speaking, at least 8 times per day for the first year), or not breastfeeding or pumping well enough, your milk supply will decrease, and your pumping output will as well.
I always suggest talking to or seeing a lactation professional or peer any time you suspect your milk supply is low, for reassurance or to develop a plan to fix the issue. It’s common for people to turn galactogogues (foods, drinks, herbs, or medications to increase milk supply) instead of expert help, but these are not a good long-term solution.
When you’re ever in doubt about your milk supply, offer your baby more chances to nurse; I don’t think your baby will complain, and the additional breastfeeding may provide just the boost you need.
Put some muscle into it! If you simply put the flanges upon your breasts and turn on the pump, you’ll be leaving a significant amount of milk in your breasts. It’s estimated that hands-on pumping yields almost 50% more milk than mechanical stimulation alone. Here’s my tutorial on hands-on pumping.
4. Consider the ounces.
Do you really need the amount of milk you think you need? Between proud pumping moms posting pictures of 8-ounce bottles full of their efforts, the emphasis on having a large freezer stash, and expectations of some care providers, there can be a misconception about what normal pumping output looks like. Our bodies also adjust our milk production as hormones change and babies age. If you have an oversupply, for instance, you may find yourself pumping a large volume of milk at first, and then lower—but still normal—amounts later. Babies consume, on average, 1 to 1.5 ounces per hour, and this amount decreases as they take more solid food. If you’re pumping that, you are on the right track.
5. Take a deep breath.
Stress is almost integral to the parenthood experience, and we all freak out a little when we must meet quotas (“I must pump 12 ounces!”) and deadlines (“By tomorrow!”). And, because nature isn’t always kind, stress hormones inhibit the milk-ejection reflex. This means that the more you stress out, the less milk you might release from your breasts, which can make your pumping output and even your milk supply drop—no pressure, right? Do what you need to do to lower your stress level: Sit comfortably. Make sure you feel safe where you pump, and aren’t on edge waiting for someone to barge in. Watch a happy TV show or listen to favorite tunes. Eat and drink something (whatever you want!). Have a small stockpile of pumped milk you can fall back on, whether it’s yours or someone else’s. Have formula around as a backup, if you’re comfortable with using it.
Some people have used pictures or videos of their babies, clothes worn by their babies, or recordings of their babies crying to help elicit letdowns at the pump. Those are more things to try. (Personally, hearing a baby cry sends my cortisol levels through the roof, so no thank you!)
6. Talk to a lactation pro.
And, of course, I will always suggest that if you have concerns, you seek out trained lactation support. Certain individuals may have more experience with pumping than others for various reasons—an IBCLC who has worked with families in the NICU vs. a La Leche League leader who primarily works with parents who do not pump, for example. It can be really beneficial to have someone watch you pump and give you in-the-moment guidance if you need additional support.
While pumping is not a good way to gauge milk supply—a baby’s growth and diaper output are much better indicators—sometimes a decrease in pumping output, or low pumping output, can be related to milk production, and a lactation professional is the best person to assess this possibility.