Breastfeeding

6 things to do if your pumping output drops

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.

handsonpumping13. Use hands-on pumping.

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.

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17 comments

  1. Thank you for writing this! I deal with panicked moms over this very issue on a weekly basis. I’m sharing this on all my social media ports. Everything you wrote supports what I’ve been sharing plus some extra info that I’ll be adding to my agenda. Thank you, thank you, and thank you again!!
    Sarah
    A lactation peer counselor

    Drop by sometime: http://difficultureshock.blogspot.com/

  2. Great post!! For me, heat compresses always did wonders for my output. I used them before, and sometimes during, pumping sessions. This also helped to relax me a bit since my compresses were filled with lavender. I am hoping they will help others as well via milkmomology.etsy.com.

    Love keeping up with all your posts!
    -Heather

  3. Good post. I tried pumping for 6 months and it never worked. The most I ever pumped with electric pump and hand expressing was about 1 oz per breast. My daughter nursed on demand exclusively for 6 months and is still nursing at 3 yrs. Some women just can’t pump doesn’t mean baby isn’t getting what they need

  4. Excellent tips for level-headed measures to address a common but fear-striking phenomenon!

  5. Thank you, this debunked a lot of my go to solutions during a period of low output. I am going to call the bf resource center tomorrow to find a solution.

  6. I could wish that there had been a foreword on whether pumping is necessary at all. Almost every “breastfeeding” mother now is scared into pumping in case of low supply – but it can really interfere with direct suckling! There is no need to pump at all when mother and baby are not going to be separated! In fact, unhindered access to direct suckling establishes and automatically regulates supply. If there is a perception of low supply, check on baby’s output, whether s/he is having a growth spurt, whether mother is a bit anaemic (very common but little-known reason for low supply), whether the latch is correct. A visit with an LC is recommended before resorting to pumping to solve problems which can be easily fixed most of the time.

    1. I know I’m late to the party on this, but please keep in mind that many mothers pump because they must return to work and are trying to still feed their child! I’m dealing with a measurable decrease in pumped supply that means I am not keeping up with what my daughter eats while I am at work, and because I don’t have a huge stash (I’ve always been a borderline underproducer and worked with an LC when she was a newborn ), I either have to address it ASAP or I will have to supplement her with formula so she doesn’t go hungry. Certainly not everyone is in this position, but the last couple of days I have pumped three times a day at work and ended up with enough total for 1 1/2 of her 4 bottles during the day. Not enough. I also pump after she has gone to bed and in the stupid hours of the morning attempting to keep up, but with this current drop, I still won’t be. I’m hoping that some of these suggestions will help! Thank you very much for the article!

      1. I’m in the exact same boat. I thought my milk came in well and I started pumping in the hospital (jaundice) but ive been back to work for 8wks and can’t keep up with what he needs (and no, daycare is not overfeeding).

        1. The only reason I’m keeping up now is because I pump overnight while she is sleeping, and when ever I can sneak it in over the weekends when she leaves me feeling full. What I pump at work recovered slightly, but not enough. As long as I can work in the extra times, though, the overall is maintaining (fingers crossed!!), even if my sleep is lacking. 🙂 I hope you are able to work in extra times… I had to supplement with formula in the beginning, so I know logically it isn’t the end of the world, but I sure hate to do it if I don’t have to! I hope you are able to work it out!

  7. […] 7. If you suddenly start pumping less milk, your pump may need a tune up (see #1 on this list). […]

  8. Amen Heather! Pumping is very necessary for many (not just working mums) and a sudden drop can be frustrating and demoralizing. I have to pump and finding good, supportive, non-judgemeantal info has been a challenge. This article has been not only helpful, but kind. And I didn’t have to try and filter the info because my kiddo is breastmilk fed, but not directly.

  9. Do you suggest asking caregivers to reduce the amount they are feeding the baby, even if she is asking for more? I am concerned about doing this, but I know my 8 month old is taking more solids and my supply reduction is related to that. On days when I nurse her, she never complains that she isn’t getting enough. Or, is it better to offer formula as supplement on days I am at work.

    1. I usually suggest several options. One is to have that conversation about feeding less during the day. As long as your baby is getting about an ounce an hour, that’s an appropriate amount. Another is to suggest feeding more solid food in addition to what you’re currently bringing. Another is to change up the drop off/pick up routine to add more breastfeeding into the day. And then there’s the option for using formula as well as breastmilk.

      1. Tipper, Thank you for your response!

  10. Hi, I’ve been exclusively expressing since my son was 6 months, he’s 11 months now and I’m determined to make it to a year. For the last few months I have had problems using a pump, no matter what flange size I use my nipples would tear so I’ve been hand expressing every feed. I don’t get a let down this way and my supply has dwindled to less than he takes so I’m wondering, would it be more effective to use a pump just till I have a letdown or does it not matter either way as long as milk is removed? I’m increasing frequency at the moment but can’t quite bring myself to get up through the night. I don’t get enough sleep most night as it is.

    1. If you’re able to get sufficient quantities of milk with hand expression, there’s no need to use a pump. What matters most is the volume of milk removed, and not as much how it’s removed.

      One suggestion I have is that you may have some sort of infection or other condition that is contributing to skin breakdown and you may want to see a doctor for an in-person assessment.

      Good luck, and congratulations on making it to almost a year of exclusively expressing your milk! That’s a major accomplishment.

  11. OMG. Thank you!!! I am the mother of a preemie, born at 27 weeks. I had a fabulous supply, until I was encouraged to breastfeed. His suck wasn’t strong enough and he tired easily. I heard swallows. Assumed all was well. Then my milk supply dropped. No one told me I had to pump afterwards, not even the lactation consultants. My supply was 340-400 ml per day, then it dropped to 100. After cluster pumping and lactation cookies, we are in the 200s after about three days or so. My son is now given 460 ml per day and he is 39 weeks.

    I have one big concern. I don’t pump that much milk. On one hand common sense seems to say that newborns don’t automatically get 400 ounces per day, and he is not quite at newborn age. If I go to exclusively breastfeed, will it be detrimental? I hope to be in the 300s when he comes home.

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