One of the common questions I get as a birth professional and postpartum doula is, "When should I start pumping after my baby is born, and how much do I need to have saved?"
On FaceBook and in articles online, we see these women who have massive freezers full of thousands of ounces of pumped breastmilk. For some, that becomes the goal. However, most of the time, a giant freezer stash is not necessary. In fact, it may be problematic in some ways.
Let's talk first about the potential problems with a massive freezer stash.
1. The mother very likely has an oversupply in order to produce so much extra milk on top of what her baby is eating. Many people would say, "That's awesome! It's better to have too much than not enough." However, as an over-producer myself, I know what unique challenges come with having too much breastmilk.
An over-supply can mean problems for the baby, such as gassiness, choking due to trouble handling the fast flow of milk, fussiness (to put it mildly) at the breast, green and foamy bowel movements, and spitting up.
It can also cause problems for the mom, including sore nipples, constant leaking, breasts that always feel full and heavy, plugged ducts, and mastitis.
2. If the baby is fed bottles from the freezer stash and the mother does not then pump, or if the baby is "topped up" after breastfeeding sessions with the freezer stash milk, this can lead to a drastic decrease in the mother's milk supply. Breastmilk supply is a demand-supply system, so if the demand decreases because the baby is being fed from the freezer stash, the supply will decrease accordingly. This can undermine the breastfeeding mother's long-term goals if her goals are to continue breastfeeding for the first year.
3. If a mother is not able to achieve a full deep freezer full of milk, she may feel like she has failed and is not capable of providing for her baby, even if her baby is growing happily! Just last week, I talked with a brand new mom who was afraid that she wasn't doing things correctly because she only had around 50 ounces of milk stored up so far. That's actually more than enough, and her baby is growing perfectly!
Now, let's talk about what might be a more balanced approach to pumping and saving breastmilk.
Disclaimer: the tips below only apply when nursing is going really well and there are no concerns about sufficient supply or the baby's growth. If you have concerns, please contact an IBCLC or breastfeeding counselor. I have lots of recommended care providers, so please feel free to reach out if you need a breastfeeding specialist.
For the first week or two, if all is going well and the baby is nursing and growing fine, there is no need to pump. Sometime around week 3 would be an ideal time to start a pumping routine. Once or twice a day, choose a time to add a pumping session. You can choose to pump after your baby nurses, or at a time when they're sleeping and won't wake up to eat for at least an hour or two.
Pump for around 10-20 minutes at each sitting. If your milk is still flowing after that point, you don't need to keep going until empty! This would just trigger your body to produce more and more milk, thinking it has two or more babies to feed.
After a few days, you should have plenty of milk saved up in order to be able to leave the baby with a sitter for several hours so you can get a massage, go for a solo walk, or spend time with your partner. Just remember to pump close to the same time that the baby is having a bottle so that you don't go more than 3 hours between pumping or nursing sessions.
If your goal is to return to work and be able to feed your baby pumped breastmilk, you only need 1-1.5 ounces for every hour you'll be away from your baby. Then while you're at work, pump the milk for the next day's bottles.
If your goal is to be able to take a weekend trip away from the baby, you can figure for an average of 20-30 ounces per day. Then, again, pump while you're away to maintain your supply and replenish your stored milk.
I hope this has helped shed some light on why it's not necessary to have thousands of ounces stored up in order for someone to successfully feed their baby. For the first few weeks, relax and get comfortable with breastfeeding. It should get easier and easier, especially after the first 6 weeks. Then you can focus on adding to your stored milk!