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Expressing and storing breast milk

12-minute read

Key facts

  • If your baby is not breastfeeding you can still give them breast milk by expressing and using a bottle.
  • You can express breast milk by hand or with a pump.
  • Your breast milk can be stored in the fridge or freezer.
  • Keep your pump and feeding equipment clean.

What is expressing?

Expressing is a way to get milk from your breasts when your baby is not breastfeeding. You can express milk by hand or with a pump. There are manual pumps and electric pumps available. Not everyone will need to express breast milk.

Why would I need to express?

Being able to express breast milk is useful in several situations. Such as if your baby

Expressed breast milk (EBM) can be offered in a bottle, syringe or cup by you or another carer.

Sometimes babies refuse to feed at the breast for a while. Expressing can help you to maintain breastfeeding.

Expressing can be a short-term solution to a breastfeeding problem, like trying to increase breast milk supply or relieve engorgement.

Expressing and offering expressed breast milk is an alternative to offering formula.

How do I express my breast milk?

Before expressing breast milk always wash your hands with soap and water and dry them well. Find a comfortable private place. Have a glass of water handy.

Hand expressing

You will need a clean, sterilised container, bowl or bottle to collect your breast milk. Once your milk starts to flow hold the container under your breast.

Try these tips to help you express your breast milk:

  • Think about your baby so you can stimulate the let-down and help the milk start to flow.
  • Massage your whole breast working towards the nipple.
  • Place your thumb and forefingers in a C shape on your breast, about 2cms behind your nipple.
  • Gently roll your nipple between your index finger and thumb and gently squeeze inwards towards the centre of your breast.
  • Rotate the position of your fingers/thumb on your breast so all of your milk ducts are emptied.
  • Try and mimic your baby's sucking rhythm.

Be patient and try to relax. It can take time to let down and for the milk to flow when hand expressing.

How to hand express breast milk

Step-by-step guide on how to hand express breast milk.

Using a pump

There are several types of breast pump available including hand pumps or electric pumps.

Manual pumps are good for short term or infrequent use. Electric pumps can express milk from both of your breasts at once. These can be purchased or hired.

Here are some tips for using a breast pump.

  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to clean, use and assemble the breast pump.
  • Practise using the pump so you get comfortable with it before you need it.
  • Start with using a low suction and then increase as you feel comfortable.
  • Pump until your breast is softer or your milk flow stops. This may take 10-15 minutes.
  • If expressing is painful ask your health professional for advice.
  • You could try expressing one breast while your baby is feeding on the other.

How do I store my breast milk?

You can store expressed breast milk in the fridge or freezer in clean glass or plastic containers, including sealable plastic bags. Don’t refreeze milk that has been thawed.

The tables show how long you can store breast milk.

Breast milk that was freshly expressed into a clean container

How long you can store breast milk that was freshly expressed into a clean container.
At room temperature up to 26°C No more than 6-8 hours.
Use the fridge if you can.
In the fridge up to 5°C No more than 72 hours.
Store in the back of the fridge.
In the freezer
  • 2 weeks in the freezer section of a fridge (-15°C).
  • 3 months in a freezer with a separate door (-18°C).
  • 6-12 months in a deep freeze (-20°C).

Breast milk that has been thawed in fridge and not warmed up

How long you can store breast milk that has been thawed in fridge and not warmed up.
At room temperature up to 26°C No more than 4 hours once thawed.
In the fridge up to 5°C No more than 24 hours.
In the freezer Don’t refreeze breast milk which has already been thawed.

Breast milk that has been thawed and warmed up for a feed

How long you can store breast milk that has been thawed and warmed up for a feed.
At room temperature up to 26°C Throw out what the baby doesn’t drink.
In the fridge up to 5°C If the baby has not begun feeding store for up to 4 hours in fridge.
In the freezer Don’t refreeze breast milk which has already been thawed.

6 tips for storing breast milk

  1. Write the date and time you expressed on the container.
  2. Use fresh expressed breast milk to feed your baby if possible.
  3. Freeze milk that will not be used with 2 days.
  4. Use a new container each time and avoid adding expressed breast milk to already stored milk.
  5. Use the oldest expressed breast milk first.
  6. If your baby has started a feed don’t put the milk back in the fridge or freezer.

What’s the safest way to defrost frozen breast milk?

The safest way to defrost frozen breast milk is in the fridge. If you don’t have time you can defrost the expressed breast milk in a jug of warm water.

Storing expressed breast milk

Guide on how to store expressed breast milk.

What’s the best way to feed my baby expressed breast milk?

A bottle is the easiest way to offer expressed breast milk to a young baby. Sterilise the baby bottle and teat and offer the expressed breast milk when they are ready to feed.

You can offer your baby cold or warm expressed breast milk.

If your baby is used to breastfeeding, they might need some support to suck effectively on the bottle. Be patient and calm as they learn what’s involved.

Some babies refuse to suck on a teat but will accept expressed breast milk from a small cup or a teaspoon.

How do I clean my expressing equipment?

Hand wash your equipment after use with hot soapy water and rinse well. You could also use a dishwasher set on the hottest cycle.

You don’t need to sterilise your expressing equipment if your baby was born at term and is healthy.

Learn more about cleaning and sterilising baby bottles and equipment.

Resources and support

Read more about feeding your baby.

Many breastfeeding issues can be solved with the right support. For help and advice on feeding your baby, you can contact:

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2023

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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

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