Breast Pumping: Does It Just Have to Suck?!
Updated: Feb 21
by Jennifer Hafele, M.Ed., IBCLC, Mama Bear Family Care
“It was painful, it felt wrong, but I had that goal … my baby needed my milk.” This is how Anna described her initial breast pumping experience. Sadly, her story is far too common.
After three months at home with her son, she needed to return to work. That meant her baby would go to daycare. Anna got her name-brand pump through her health insurance company, opened the box, and got started. It didn’t go well. Naturally, she visited the lactation specialist at her doctor’s clinic, but didn’t get the help she hoped: “There wasn’t a lot of knowledge about the pump that I had, or even pumping in general.”
Researching on the internet and social media didn’t help either. She eventually “just figured pumping was supposed to be something that hurt. [In the end,] I felt like a failure as a mom. I felt ashamed I couldn’t find an answer.”
No one should have to say that. While pumping is rarely someone’s favorite thing to do, it shouldn’t hurt. In fact, with the right setup and support, it is possible to experience the most milk output with the most comfort, in the least time possible! Three common issues stack the deck against a positive pumping experience.
1. Inadequate “Standard” Flange Sizes. Most breast pumps come with only two standard flange sizes: 24 mm and 28 mm. If one of those is not your size, then you are out of luck from the major pump companies because they don't even manufacture many smaller sizes. For reference, 24 mm is the size of a US quarter. Unless your nipple is the diameter of a quarter or larger, you likely need a smaller size. When flange size is too large, it pulls the areola (not only the nipple) into the flange tunnel causing trauma, pain, and decreased milk production.
2. Other Sizes Not Available. Hospitals and health care clinics often have contracts with breast pump companies that limit them from stocking other sizes from “off-brand” companies. Moreover, retail locations do not stock other flange sizes. Thus, there are typically only 2-3 options available. It is kind of like going to a shoe store and only being offered size 11 or 13 shoes. When you need a size 7, an 11 is not going to work.
3. Limited Knowledge on New Guidelines. The newest guidelines for a proper flange fit are not well known. Too often clients hear from their providers, their lactation helper, or online that they need a larger size. Too often that guidance ends up in pain, decreased milk production, and discouragement.
Anna came to see me for a Pumping & Flange Fit Consult when her baby was about 16 weeks old. On her own, she had tried the limited flange sizes available but was still experiencing significant nipple damage and pain. Unbelievably, her pump sessions were lasting as long as 90 minutes!
My flange fittings are a lot like a proper shoe fitting. We start with a measurement, but then you try pumping with various sizes of flanges to see what feels the best. Like feet, it is not unusual for one nipple to be larger than the other. As such, you may need a different flange size for each side.
At Mama Bear Family Care, I have over 18 different hard-plastic flange sizes ranging from 10 to 36 mm, plus I have a variety of silicone insert sizes. Then I coach you through pumping techniques on speed, suction, positioning, etc. to maximize both comfort and output.
Anna’s flange size dropped from 24 to 17 mm. Over time, her nipples healed, and her pain disappeared. Her milk production better matched her baby’s needs. Most remarkably, her average pumping time dropped from 90 minutes to just 23 minutes per session! That gave her MUCH more time not hooked up to her pump!
Anna had a six-month breastfeeding goal when we first met, and she was at major risk for not meeting it. Her son is now 13 months old, and Anna reports to me, “We are still going strong at both pumping and breastfeeding! Forever grateful that I found you!”
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Watch Anna tell her story, or request your own Pumping & Flange Fitting Consult at MamaBearFamilyCare.com/feed-your-baby.
Jennifer Hafele, aka “Mama Bear”, is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in private practice who is active in the Chippewa Valley birth and postpartum care community. She provides professional lactation support, plus Jennifer loves leading support groups and co-teaching “Confident Birth & Beyond”, Mama Bear’s independent childbirth and postpartum education series. Connect with Jennifer on Facebook or at MamaBearFamilyCare.com.