For any number of reasons, you may have found yourself needing to pump breast milk for some or all of your baby’s feedings. And, if you’re like most parents, you were probably unaware that there’s a whole world of techniques, equipment, and routines for partial or exclusive pumping—right up until the moment that you found yourself in desperate need of them.
That was certainly the case for me. My son was born with a severe tongue tie, and the days right after his birth were a blur of appointments and failed attempts to feed at the breast. On day 5, I clearly remember the horrified expression of the Lactation Consultant who looked at my chest and sent me home with strict orders to start pumping, now. This was the first time, but definitely not the last time, that I tried power pumping.
Power pumping is the act of pumping breast milk for an extended period, usually an hour, with timed breaks. Since breastmilk works on the supply and demand principle, the more a baby asks to feed and drains the breast, the more milk is produced—which is what is happening when an infant cluster feeds, for example (it's the simulated equivalent of cluster feeding). By power pumping, you tell your body to create more milk. Though results vary for each person, as does the amount of time needed to achieve them, it's almost certain to increase your breast milk supply by some degree.
If you are exclusively pumping, as I ended up doing, you may need to power pump at the very beginning of your baby’s life as well as every time they experience a growth spurt. If you have to drop a feeding or a pumping session due to something like work commitments, you may need to power pump at a different time of day to help keep your supply up.
You may also experience a drop in breast milk supply because of a period of heightened anxiety, illness, taking decongestants, dehydration, the return of your menstrual cycle or changes in your baby’s routine. Even if you can’t pinpoint exactly what caused your drop in milk supply, power pumping can help you increase it again.
You may wish to see a Lactation Consultant to look at your chest- or breastfeeding techniques and rule out any other problems.
The simple answer is yes. But how much it works will depend on each person’s unique situation and body.
Dr. Fiona Jardine, whose PhD research focused on the experiences of exclusively pumping parents, found that out of 1714 survey respondents, almost 60% had tried power pumping. The parents who had tried rated it as very effective, with only 17% reporting that they were unsure of the results. Less than 1% reported that it made their supply worse.
“It’s a zero risk way of attempting to increase your milk supply, with a relatively high rate of success,” she says.
Other methods of increasing breast milk supply that scored higher included more pumping and stricter pumping, changing pump parts or getting new pump parts, drinking more water, and domperidone.
Reasons that power pumping may not have worked included not having enough support, lack of knowledge about power pumping, and past breast reduction surgery. It’s important to note that in the case of a breast reduction, the results are limited; it does not cause your body to create more glandular tissue, but rather stimulates the mammary glands that exist.
Dr. Jardine says many survey respondents said they wished they’d known about power pumping sooner: “People should be given this information before they even give birth.”
Thankfully, power pumping is not complicated! It is sometimes called cluster pumping for how it mimics cluster feeding. The typically advised pattern is 20 minutes pumping, 10 minutes rest, 10 minutes pumping, 10 minutes rest, 10 minutes pumping -- for a total of 1 hour.
Of course, feeding at the breast is not so exact, and so power pumping doesn’t have to be exact either. When I power pumped, I would often loosely follow the timing guidelines while also following my body’s inclinations. If I was still producing milk at the 20-minute mark, or if a letdown didn’t start until minute 8 of a 10-minute pumping session, I would keep pumping until the letdown was finished, regardless of the time.
However, if you are following the schedule and no milk is coming, keep going. This is an essential step in signalling to your body to create more milk. While some breastfeeding parents see a difference in just a day or two, you may find it takes several days or a week to see a significant increase in breast milk supply. This is normal; give your body a chance to respond to the process, and try to find a routine that is sustainable for you.
As often as you need to, want to, and are able to. Anytime your supply seems to drop below what your baby is demanding, you can use power pumping to catch up. Even if your supply is on par with your baby’s appetite, you may choose to power pump to create extra supply to freeze for later. If you are exclusively pumping, you may need to power pump more often as supply tends to dip more often in exclusive pumpers; if this is the case for you, you may even choose to power pump once a week to get ahead of any issues.
Amanda Glenn, founder of ExclusivePumping.com, says you should be able to get what you need from power pumping once a day.
“My personal opinion is that once a day is good. That’s a full hour of pumping, and that’s just one of your pumping sessions out of possibly 8 that day. If you are doing it 3 times a day, there’s a decent chance you’ll get burnt out”, says Glenn. “The point is to mimic cluster feeding, and that typically happens once a day.”
Remember that the key is to empty the breasts. If you feel like this isn't happening, you may try to power pump for longer than an hour to fully empty your breasts, or you can try doing it twice a day.
Keep in mind that your mental health is paramount above all else. This is definitely a situation where “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” applies, and if you're feeling overwhelmed, find a frequency that you can handle.
Glenn offers an important tip for measuring milk supply changes through power pumping: “When we talk about evaluating milk supply changes, I always want people to look at what they get over 24 hours, not what they get at certain sessions.”
“Milk supply varies so much over the course of the day because prolactin levels vary over the course of the day.”
The best way to measure effectiveness is to measure the baseline of how many ounces of milk you pumped over the course of a week without power pumping. Then you can compare that to the ounces of breast milk you expressed over one week when you include power pumping sessions.
“If you are getting 1-2 extra ounces a day, I would say that it worked,” says Glenn, “And then you can decide if that’s worth it to you.”
Once you are happy with the increase, Glenn recommends looking at how you might be able to stop power pumping. For instance, if power pumping helps you remove 26 ounces of milk, you may be able to alter your normal pumping schedule to remove those 26 ounces without a power pumping session. You could achieve this by pumping slightly longer at each regular session or doing breast compressions during sessions. This may help you transition away from power pumping while keeping the results.
As mentioned, your mental health is more important than power pumping. Remember that there is so much more to parenting than breast milk. If supplementing with formula creates a happier bond between you and your child, then that may be the right decision for you.
“Your baby loves you the same whether you pumped 5 milliliters in a day or you pumped 50 ounces in a day”, says Amanda Glenn.
“The fact you are power pumping at all means that you care a lot about your baby and are a great parent.”