When I had my son, I was convinced I needed the fanciest, most-expensive breast pump. I used it maybe three times at home before my timid Rottweiler hid it under the bed — he hated the noise. Could I have just hand expressed my milk? Is hand expressing safe?
According to La Leche League UK, hand expression is as simple as it sounds. It's the use of the nursing mother's hands to express and collect milk as opposed to using a mechanical pump. (Also, in the instructions it reads "encourage milk flow" several times. I kept thinking of cheering on my boobs. Maybe it's like talking to your plants.)
But first, what would be the risks? With anything, there's a risk of germ transfer, hence why breastfeeding policies always emphasize hygiene, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Tera Hamann, BSN, RN, and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) posits to Romper that it may cause problems with over-production in especially sensitive women, but that the risks are very low, and the benefits are numerous.
Hand expression, according to La Leche League International's Breastfeeding Today, is not only safe, it's a great way to increase supply, and embolden women to gain confidence in breastfeeding. A Stanford article noted that hand-expression of colostrum, combined with spoon-feeding during the crucial first days of a newborn's life, stimulates production, and allows the baby to receive all of the benefits of the colostrum during the period wherein a newborn is just learning to nurse.
The Stanford article also noted that mothers of preemies, or those separated from their newborns, need to start pumping within hours of delivery, and that they sometimes find it a challenge to pump colostrum with a mechanical pump. Hand expression for these women provides them with a comfortable and more frequently successful form of expression to get their milk flowing.
A study at the University of California, San Francisco, found that women who used self-expression of breast milk versus machine expression were likely to nurse longer, and with more comfort in social situations than their counterparts who used an electric pump.
And these studies aren't even discussing the utter practicality and frugality of it. Electric breast pumps range in price from $100 to $2,000 online. Grabbing your own milk makers? Definitely free. Also, your hands are silent. Breast pumps are very loud. In fact, mine terrified my dog. Convenience? There is nothing to lug around or charge. Yes, you'll need storage materials and a cooler, but you'd need those anyway.
Alyse Lange, IBCLC, RLC, tells Romper that she always encourages her mothers to learn the technique because it can be so helpful in emergency situations. She notes that if you're separated from your child, and begin to have your cups runneth over, hand expression is really . . . handy. She also notes that going too long between pumping can become a health concern. I know that personally, if I went too long between feedings, I ended up with painful plugged milk ducts. Also, it made my boobs look like a pair of nylons filled with rocks, which is not my preferred aesthetic.
So is hand expression safe? All signs point to yes, according to the AAP. But be sure to reach out to an IBCLC for the correct technique so you can lower your risk of injuring yourself. If you cannot hand express for some reason, such as having a disability that prevents you from doing so, don't feel pressured. Just know that feeding your baby is what really matters, in whatever way is easiest and best for you.