Since Alex and Nathan couldn’t nurse right away, I pumped exclusively for several months. Me and pumping had a rocky relationship. I’ve heard of lots of women who pump for a short while and quit because it’s so challenging, and honestly, that was almost me. Pumping can be an extremely daunting task. It’s time consuming, uncomfortable, and often painful. Having to pump 8-10 times a day means planning your entire day around pumping times. I had to do things like leave birthday parties and dinners out early to go home and pump or look up movie runtimes to make sure I wouldn’t be away from my pump too long. Compounded with the stress of having NICU babies and some lingering postpartum blues, there were days when I cried when my pumping alarm went off because I couldn’t bear the pain, frustration, and sleepless nights of pumping around the clock.
I googled “tips for pain during breast pumping” and found little help. Everything either told me “Breast pumping should not hurt!” (Well, IT DOES. HELP.) or was geared toward new moms feeling pain during nursing. That didn’t help either – my pain wasn’t being caused by my baby’s improper latch, since my baby wasn’t latching on at all. I found there were little resources for moms who exclusively pumped.
Eventually, with the help of my lactation consultants and some trial and error, I figured out how to make it work. By the end of the two months, when my boys were put on hypoallergenic formula, I was a pro, and while it still wasn’t much fun, pumping was easy and painless, no more difficult than brushing my teeth.
Here are the steps I took to make pumping bearable and much, much easier:
1. Get a good pump – hospital grade, if possible.
Through my insurance, I was able to buy a Medela Pump In Style Advanced (PISA) with a $70 out of pocket cost. My PISA was compact and quiet, but being a personal (single-user) pump, it lacked the variety of speeds and suction levels that a hospital grade pump did. So even on the lowest setting, with my already sore and cracked nipples, I literally gripped a pillow in pain whenever I switched it on. Eventually, I was able to get my hands on a hospital-grade pump. There are a few places that rent them out, like hospitals, lactation offices and baby stores. I got mine through our local WIC office. I was able to check out a Medela Lactina and all of the personal attachments for free. Being able to start on a very low intensity setting and work my way up made all the difference in comfort.
2. Lubricate – coconut oil is your friend.
This was a suggestion from my LC. I started putting coconut oil on the inside of my flanges, around where my nipple would be pulled through by the suction. This made them glide through easily and eliminated the painful friction and sensation that my nips were being yanked off of my body.
3. Get flanges that fit.
Most standard pump kits come with size 24mm flanges. My LC took one look at my nipples while I used them and informed me that I would need a bigger size. I tried 27mm, 30mm, and 36mm flanges just to see what fit the best, and ended up getting several pairs of 27mm. Too small flanges cause your nipple to rub against the side of the flange (ouch) and too large flanges cause excess areola to be pulled through the flange (ouch). Flanges that fit allow your nipple to be centered and move freely.
4. Buy as many sets of extra pump parts as you can afford.
Pumping sucks. Having to wash pump parts all day long sucks more. I ended up with eight sets of everything – flanges, valves, membranes, connectors, plus tons of breast milk bottles (the NICU provided them for me as long as the boys were patients.) Pump parts are pretty inexpensive, so stock up so you always have clean parts. I ended up only having to wash parts once a day. Some people throw their pump parts in the refrigerator in between pumps and then wash them at the end of the day. I never tried that, but I definitely could see trying it to cut down on washing.
5. Get your hands on some Magic Nipple Cream.
At one point, I went to my LC and told her that I was in so much pain I was about to give up pumping all together. My nipples burned constantly – I couldn’t even wear my seatbelt across my chest in the car without wincing. She got me a prescription for an ointment known as “Magic Nipple Cream,” comprised of mupirocin, an antibiotic, betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory, and miconazole, an anti-fungal. I applied a tiny amount to my nipples after each pumping session. Within days, the pain subsided and the cracking began to heal. It really does work like magic.
6. Get a good pumping bra and go hands-free.
In a pinch, you can make a pumping bra by cutting holes in a sports bra. I did this at first, but the holes ripped a little wider with each use until they couldn’t hold the flanges in anymore. Then I bought a set of two cheapo bras from Amazon. Those worked better, but the best investment was the Simple Wishes Hands-Free Pumping Bra. It was able to hold up the flanges and bottles with ease no matter how full they got. Plus, the adjustable Velcro back and zippered front made it quick and easy to take on and off and adjust to varying boob sizes. Pumping hands-free = multi-tasking. Pumping was much less of a chore when I could do it while eating, folding laundry, reading, or working on my computer.
7. Stop when you’re done. Seriously.
A lot of people recommend keeping the pump on after you’ve finished to trigger a “second letdown” AKA more milk and better supply. I tried this and often ended up attached to the pump for 30-45 minutes. My lactation consultant shut this down quick – she told me if you’re in pain, it’s not necessary. Chances are, your discomfort is preventing you from making much more anyway. Spare yourself the agony and turn the pump off when the milk stops flowing the first time. My pumping sessions lasted twenty minutes – period. No more, no less. And my supply was great regardless.
8. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Pumping is already a lot of work, and it’s even harder when you feel like you’re not producing much. Some days I wondered “What am I doing this for? Why am I going through this?” It felt like I was putting myself through hell for little results. Be patient. Your supply will increase with time and consistent pumping (and drinking LOTS of water.) If you don’t produce much, it’s okay. It’s normal not to produce the same amount every time. You are NOT a failure. Be patient with yourself and with your body and believe that you’re doing the best you can to nourish your baby. I went from wondering why on earth I was crying on the couch at 2 AM just to produce a measly ounce of milk to having to buy a deep freezer to hold all of my stores. Time. Consistency. Water. Major keys.
I pumped for a total of about three and a half months before my supply eventually decreased due to the boys going strictly formula. By the end, pumping was just another part of my daily routine. Frustrated pumping mamas out there, I promise, it does get better! But it can definitely get better even sooner if you’re prepared.