As a breastfeeding mom, there are several ways to remove milk from your breasts. The most common are physically nursing your baby, using a breast pump, and hand expressing. The first two are fairly self explanatory, but hand expressing leaves a little bit more to the imagination (and requires a little more skill). What does hand expressing do and why would a mother choose to use her hands over a breast pump or her baby?
On the surface hand expressing is exactly what it sounds like. According to Baby Center, hand expressing is simply the act of removing milk from your breasts using your hands. It's more convenient than using a breast pump (no clunky bags to tote with you — all you need are your hands,) and can be just as effective if you have the proper hand expressing technique. The Baby Center article above also pointed out that there are as many hand expressing methods as there are lactating moms — so what works well for one mom may not work for you. The key is to experiment until you find an expression method that works well for you and allows you to express the most milk in the shortest amount of time.
The beauty of hand expression is that it can serve multiple purposes depending on what you need to accomplish. One of the most common reasons a mom would choose to hand express is to quickly relieve the discomfort of engorgement or oversupply. Baby Center noted that when your breasts are overly full (either caused by a skipped nursing session or a true oversupply,) it can be extremely uncomfortable and, in most cases, painful, since your milk ducts are literally filled to the brim with milk and extra blood and lymph fluids. It can be difficult for your baby to get a good latch when your breasts are engorged, so hand expressing is sometimes the most effective way to remove enough milk for your baby to comfortably latch on.
Furthermore, if an oversupply isn't the issue, La Leche League International noted that hand expressing just enough to relieve the discomfort of engorgement from skipping a nursing session will ensure that you aren't unintentionally increasing your milk supply when you want to wait until your next nursing session to remove a substantial amount of milk. Similarly, you can hand express just before nursing your baby to avoid the effects of a forceful letdown, like gagging or choking.
On the flip side, hand expression can also be used to increase your milk supply. Kids Health noted that, if done every three hours, hand expressing can help maintain your supply. You can increase the frequency as needed to increase your supply as well.
Another great thing about hand expressing is that the skin-to-skin contact of your hands to your breasts is often more effective than using mechanical parts to encourage letdown. One article from Breastfeeding USA stated that some moms are able to express more milk by hand than with a breast pump in the same amount of time as a typical pumping session. Since skin-to-skin contact helps stimulate the hormones that cause your letdown (prolactin and oxytocin,) it makes sense that your hands can be much more effective.
Whether you need to hand express to relieve engorgement, increase your milk supply, stimulate your letdown, or to express some milk for later use, using you hands is as convenient as it is effective.