IS EXCLUSIVELY PUMPING REALLY POSSIBLE? YES! HERE'S HOW TO MAKE IT WORK
If you’re pregnant or a new mom, there’s a chance you may have heard the term ‘exclusive pumping’. It’s a term that’s been gaining popularity over the last few years and there’s a good reason - it’s a great option for many moms who want or need to provide breast milk to their babies without nursing.
So what exactly is exclusive pumping? Simply put, exclusive pumping (or EPing) is when a lactating parent provides breast milk to their baby without putting the baby to the breast. Milk can be expressed through hand expression, electric pumps or manual pumps and can be fed to the baby by a bottle, syringe, supplemental nursing system, or even a cup! And just because we use the word ‘exclusive’ doesn’t mean that it has to be all breast milk. Exclusive pumpers often supplement their milk with formula and/or donor milk, depending on the situation.
There are many reasons why a mom may want to exclusively pump instead of nursing (and we’ll go over them below).
But the truth is, it doesn’t matter what your reason - if you think that exclusive pumping is the right path for you, then it is!
It’s not always the easiest path, but it’s incredibly rewarding and there’s a great community of exclusive pumpers waiting to support you.
In this post, I’ll attempt to cover as much as I can about how to be successful while exclusively pumping. I will cover the following:
1. Should I Exclusively Pump?
2. How Milk Production Works
3. Can I Maintain My Supply with Just Pumping?
4. What If I Don’t Make Enough Milk? Supplementing Breast Milk with Formula
5. How Often Should I Pump? Do I Have to Pump in the Middle of the Night?
6. How to Explain EPing to People Who Just Don’t Get It
7. I Know I’m Doing Something Great For My Baby, So Why Do I Feel Guilty?
8. Where Can I Find Support?
If you’re looking for more technical information on exclusive pumping (like what kind of pump to use, creating a pump schedule, and safe milk storage) check out my post on How to Pump for a Newborn: Pumping 101.
Of course, you can also contact me with any questions if they’re not answered here.
Should I Exclusively Pump?
The decision to exclusively pump is a very personal one - no one can make it for you. For some moms, it’s a choice they make before even having their baby. While they want to provide their baby with breast milk, they are uninterested in nursing. While this is a less common option, Hospital Lactation Consultants and Nurses are starting to see this more often and are offering more support for moms who choose to pump right from the beginning.
Other reasons why you may exclusively pump from birth are:
-Your baby is in the NICU and is unable to nurse
-Mom is sick and cannot physically be with the baby
-Baby has early trouble latching due to ties or other physical complications
In these situations, exclusive pumping may be temporary and it may be possible to work with a lactation consultant to start nursing later (if that’s your goal).
Other women may start off nursing, but decide to make the switch to exclusive pumping. Some of these reasons include:
-Persistent nipple pain
-Insufficient weight gain
-A tongue tie that either can’t be corrected or the correction is not successful
-Returning to work or school
-Difficulty nursing multiples
-The desire for more control over feedings
As I said before, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what your reasons are for exclusively pumping. If you think it’s the right path for you, then it is! And the right support and mindset can make it possible.
How Milk Production Works
When pumping, it’s important to understand how our bodies make milk. Milk production begins as a hormonal process. About half-way through pregnancy, the body starts to create colostrum, newborn milk. Colostrum is a very thick, very concentrated form of breast milk and we make it in small quantities. This is on purpose - newborn babies have very small stomachs. After delivery, progesterone (the pregnancy hormone) drops and prolactin levels (milk hormones) rise and trigger mature milk to come in. This process occurs whether we want to breastfeed or not and milk will come in approximately 3-5 days after delivery. As mature milk comes in, the process changes to supply and demand. More milk removal triggers more milk production. This is why milk will eventually dry up if a mom chooses not to breastfeed.
Throughout the first 12 weeks postpartum, our bodies respond very sensitively to the supply and demand process. When nursing, it is important to nurse frequently and on demand so that our bodies adjust to our baby’s needs. At around 12 weeks, our bodies regulate, meaning that our body understands how much milk baby needs, and at this point it becomes much harder to increase or decrease supply.
Can I Maintain Supply with Just Pumping?
In the past, pediatricians, OBGYNs and even Lactation Consultants would say that it isn’t possible to maintain supply by exclusively pumping. They would tell you that eventually your body will wean, whether you want it to or not. We know now that this just isn’t true. It is absolutely possible to maintain your supply by pumping alone. But maintain supply doesn’t necessarily mean provide 100% breast milk to your baby 100% of the time. It just means that you can maintain making milk for your entire pumping/breastfeeding journey.
Even though under-supply is one of the most common fears of breastfeeding moms, we know that the majority of mothers are able to provide enough milk for their babies when nursing. Unfortunately, even the best pumps on the market are not as effective at removing milk as a well-latched baby. This means that while your body might be completely and totally capable of keeping up with your baby’s demand when nursing, you may struggle with the pump. This isn’t to say it’s impossible to keep up with baby’s demand while pumping - it definitely is for some women. You'll find pumping moms who identity as over-suppliers (meaning they pump more milk than their baby needs), just-enoughers (meaning they pump exactly what their baby needs without being able to store any extra), and under-suppliers (meaning they supplement their breast milk with formula or donor milk).
If you can’t make enough milk for your baby to get only breast milk, that’s ok!! It’s still considered breastfeeding and still considered exclusively pumping if you need to supplement with formula. The most important thing is that your baby is fed.
What If I Don’t Make Enough Milk? Supplementing Breast Milk with Formula
I say this often and I mean it - we are lucky to live in a time where safe and nutritious formula is available for our babies. It can be literally life saving and there should be no shame or embarrassment when it comes to supplementation. The most important thing is that your baby is well-fed and anyone who doesn’t get that isn’t worth your time.
There are a couple of options for supplementing your pumped milk with formula. You can mix the two together in one bottle, you can give a bottle of breast milk and a bottle of formula at each feeding, or you can rotate feedings. All are acceptable and if you’re unsure which to do, I definitely suggest you talk to your pediatrician. Some parents feel that mixing the two together in one bottle is the easiest but there are two important things to remember if you choose this method:
1. If using powdered formula, mix with water FIRST, then mix with the breast milk.
2. Any unused formula needs to be thrown out within two hours because of contamination. So if your baby doesn’t finish a mixed bottle, you’ll have to throw out the breast milk along with the formula.
To make life easier, you can make a big batch of formula in advance. Just store it in the refrigerator and throw out anything unused after 24 hours.
There are also a few guidelines* that all formula feeding parents should be aware of. Many of these guidelines stem from the fact that powdered formula, while safe to use, is not a sterile substance.
1. When using powdered formula, boil the water first. Many parents think that if they’re using bottled water, this step is not necessary. But the point of boiling the water is NOT to sterilize the water, it’s for the formula.
2. Read the instructions carefully to make sure you are using the correct ratio of water to formula. Measure the water before putting the formula in, to ensure accurate measurements. (If you put the formula in first and then the water, your measurement won’t be accurate.)
3. Mix the water and the formula no later than 30 minutes after the water is boiled.
4. Run the bottle under cold water to cool it down and test the formula on the inside of your wrist to make sure it isn’t too hot.
*Source: The World Health Organization
When formula feeding a newborn, a preemie, a baby with a compromised immune system, or a sick baby - pre-made liquid formula is recommended to avoid potential contamination.
If you’re unsure how much formula you should be giving your baby, check with your pediatrician.
How Often Should I Pump? Do I Have to Pump in the Middle of the Night?
You’ll remember from the section on milk production that once your baby is delivered, your body starts producing milk based on a supply and demand system. So you want to tell you body to start making milk ASAP and begin expressing (either with hand expression or a pump) shortly after delivery. The ideal time frame is within the first 2 hours, but any time within the first 6 hours will optimize milk production later on. The most important thing to remember is that you have to remove milk to make it, so you’ll want to express frequently in those early newborn days.
A newborn baby will typically eat between 8-12 times in a 24-hour period. If you’re pumping, you want to try to mimic that. Pumping 12 times a day is incredibly hard, so give yourself patience and do the best you can. Anything in that 8-12 range is great!
That does, unfortunately, mean that you’ll be pumping in the middle of the night. There’s no getting around the fact that this will be difficult, but it is important. Especially in the beginning when you’re just creating your supply.
The good news is that when you’re around 12 weeks postpartum, you may be able to start playing with the number of pumps per day and even eliminating those middle of the night pumps. For example, if you’re doing 8 per day and you’re getting way more milk than you need, try going down to 7 and see what happens. You can always go back up if you need to.
How to explain Exclusive Pumping to People Who Just Don’t Get It?
I’ll be honest, this is an annoyingly tough one. On one hand, it’s no one’s business. On the other hand, you may want to explain it to some people. And you may need to talk about it to your pediatrician, lactation consultant, or even your boss.
Exclusive Pumping has become more popular recently, but it’s still not widely known about or understood. Even some pediatricians will look at your like you have two heads when you start trying to explain what you’re doing. And it’s not unusual to get comments like, ‘Why don’t you just nurse?’ or ‘It seems like a lot of work, just give formula.’ These kinds of comments can feel heartbreaking in the moment, especially when they come from people who are close to you.
Everyone deals with these kind of questions and comments differently. I like to tell moms that if a casual acquaintance or friend asks you if you’re breastfeeding (by casual, I mean not your doctor or someone who needs to know the full situation), just say YES and leave it at that. Because you are breastfeeding. And to be honest, it’s none of their business anyway. If they follow up with a more specific question, you can decide if you want to go into detail or not. But you don’t have to.
Conversations about EPing with your doctor, family member or partner can be more difficult because there’s more emotional weight to these conversations.
Some people may never understand your decision. Just know in your heart that that’s ok. They don’t need to get it, because YOU get it.
You’re doing something beautiful, important and hard for your baby. As long as your baby is gaining weight well, having regular diapers, and meeting all of the milestones, it doesn’t matter if your doctor thinks it’s unusual.
If you’re really struggling with the right words, you can try this and see how it feels:
You: I breastfeed my baby by pumping. I don’t nurse directly because that just didn’t work for us. I know there are pros and cons to this method, but we’ve been successful and I’m really happy with this decision
Other person: But isn’t it annoying to have to pump all the time?
You: Sometimes, but I’m happy with this decision
Other person: Wouldn’t nursing be easier?
You: Perhaps for some people, but I’m happy with this decision
You get my point. And the most important thing to remember is that exclusive pumping is breastfeeding. Plain and Simple.
I Know I’m Doing Something Great for my Baby, So Why Do I Feel Guilty?
Find me a mom who doesn’t feel guilty about something and I’ll give you a million dollars. It’s not ok, it’s not acceptable, but it’s true. We open social media to find curated lives that seem completely perfect and it’s almost impossible not to compare ourselves. It’s something that I work on every day.
Guilt is one of the most shared emotions of exclusive pumpers. Guilt that nursing did go the way you planned, guilt that you’re not giving their baby the ‘right’ bonding experience, guilt that you’ve failed in some way.
While it’s human to feel like this, there are things you can do to alleviate some of those negative feelings.
1. Think about why you’re feeling guilty. Are you comparing yourself to others? Do you feel like you failed at nursing? Is it a loss of control? Or unmet expectations?
2. Remind yourself why you’re exclusively pumping. You are doing the best you can for your baby. And that’s enough.
3. Get support. Surround yourself with those who will support your journey. Never be afraid to switch pediatricians or lactation consultants if you don’t feel supported. And if the people closest to you aren’t supporting your decision (friends, family, or even partner) find someone on the outside who does - maybe that’s a wellness coach or a postpartum doula, even a facebook group.
4. Remember that you’re not alone. There are thousands of women exclusively pumping all around the world RIGHT NOW. It may seem like everyone is nursing, but it’s just not true. If you can’t find people in your local community to connect with, find an online community. There are facebook groups just for EPers that don’t allow talking about nursing at all. These are your people.
5. Be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling and the intensity. Scary thoughts, anxiety, and even depression are incredibly common and you should never feel ashamed to get help. Allow yourself to find a therapist if you need one (send me a message if you need help finding someone in your area).
Where Can I Find Support?
The challenges of an exclusive pumper are unique and real. Yes, the newborn period is difficult for everyone. And yes, many many women struggle to breastfeed, especially at the beginning. But pumping moms are doing double duty. You’re breastfeeding AND you’re bottle feeding. You deal with the best and the worst of both worlds.
While some moms may feel totally comfortable pumping in public, many don’t and so it may seem like you’re spending half of your life isolated from people around you. You may feel literally attached to the wall, planning your days around your pumping times. You have to clean all of your pump parts over and over again in what feels like an endless cycle. If you don’t have a good support system holding you up, it can feel impossible.
But it IS possible. And there’s something beautiful that comes along with exclusive pumping that we don’t talk enough about - pride. Pumping moms are committed, they are determined, and they feel an intense pride for what they’re able to provide for their babies. For what YOU are providing for your babies.
If you feel like you are not pumping in a supportive environment, there are places you can go to find the love, care and understanding that you need.
1. Online support groups on Facebook. There are tens of thousands of exclusively pumping moms who are just waiting to welcome you into their virtual safe-spaces.
2. Postpartum doulas offer individualized, in-person support in your own home.
3. Virtual coaching that’s tailored to your needs as a pumping mom. Taking Care of Mama specializes in helping moms feel their physical and emotional best while breastfeeding and pumping. We offer weekly sessions from the privacy of your own home, on your own schedule, unlimited text and email for all of your pumping, newborn, and postpartum questions, plus curated resources tailored to your specific needs. Click here to learn more.
If you’ve got questions about exclusive pumping, leave a comment below or shoot me an email. You can also check out my Pumping 101 one-on-one coaching that moms can take prenatally or any time after the baby arrives. It’s a great way to set you up for pumping success, no matter what your goals are.
- Sandy -