When you are pregnant, you’ll likely have many questions about what you can do to prepare for your baby’s arrival. One of those questions may be, “Can you pump before giving birth?”
Here is some general advice about pumping before pregnancy, but it’s important to note that these tips do not replace your physician’s expertise.
Can You Pump While Pregnant?
Pumping before you give birth is generally not advised. However, you may have different situations where you need to pump while pregnant such as storing your breast milk, nursing another child throughout your pregnancy, or having a baby with medical circumstances [*].
Benefits of Pumping While Pregnant
Pumping during pregnancy has several benefits. These relate to nutrition, inducing labor when a pregnant person is at term, or in special circumstances. Some benefits are:
Stored milk can provide nutrition for your baby without formula feeding because your breast milk is healthy for your baby’s growth. If you’re worried about having enough milk for your baby, pumping before birth can help ensure breast milk is stored and ready for use. Storing your milk can help reduce the chances that you won’t have enough, leading to feeding your baby formula.
However, according to Dr. Crystal Berry-Roberts, a board-certified OB-GYN at Austin Regional Clinic, pumping while pregnant is not advised unless you are pumping to feed a nursing child while you are pregnant [*]. Your healthcare provider can help you assess your child’s needs and decide whether to pump milk.
Another reason for pumping before birth is to induce labor. Pumping milk at 38 or more weeks can ripen the cervix and induce delivery. You should only do this under the care of your healthcare provider because inducing labor without a doctor’s guidance can lead to complications.
Breast milk could be especially beneficial in some circumstances. In these cases, pumping while pregnant could help ensure you have everything your baby needs.
- A person who has a child with a cleft lip or palate identified during the pregnancy
- A person with a child with congenital conditions such as Down syndrome or heart problems
- Someone with a child diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction
Other circumstances will require consultation with a doctor. These are:
- A person taking beta blockers to control high blood pressure
- Someone who had diabetes during pregnancy or has a history of diabetes
Risks of Pumping While Pregnant
Pumping during pregnancy may also have risks. You should speak with your healthcare provider before pumping during pregnancy. The risks of pumping during pregnancy are premature labor and milk supply problems.
The most significant risk of pumping during pregnancy is causing premature labor. When you stimulate the breast tissue through pumping, you increase a chemical hormone called oxytocin in your body. Oxytocin can start milk let-down and uterine contractions. These uterine contractions can induce labor and possibly endanger your child’s health through an early birth. You should avoid pumping during pregnancy if you:
- Have a high-risk pregnancy, such as being at risk for preterm labor
- Are carrying multiple fetuses
- Have been advised to avoid sex during your pregnancy
- Are having uterine bleeding or uterine pain during pregnancy
- Are on bed rest for your pregnancy
Effects on Milk Supply
Pumping before birth does not negatively influence your starting milk supply, according to a study from the National Institutes of Health [*]. However, relying on pumping for your baby’s milk supply can decrease your milk supply, according to lactation specialist Ginna Wall. Nursing will help keep your supply as high as possible, says Wall [*].
How to Pump While Pregnant
Studies on pumping during pregnancy have only been conducted with women using their hands to pump milk, not with a mechanical pump. Given the limited data about pumping milk, you should avoid using a pump to express milk before birth unless necessary. This isn’t to say it is dangerous; a 2017 study published in The Lancet found that you can safely hand pump milk if you have a healthy pregnancy [*]. It simply means there isn’t enough data to recommend for or against a mechanical pump. If you choose to hand pump, here are some steps you can take.
Use a sterile cup or breast milk storage bottle, ideally glass or hard plastic, although you can use freezer bags designed for milk collection. Sterilize the container by washing it in hot, soapy water. Then, rinse and dry it.
Get into a comfortable position in a quiet place, supporting your back while pumping. Put a warm towel on your breasts and lightly massage them. Place your hand in a C-shape with your thumb on top of your breast and your fingers underneath about two inches from your nipple.
Put a clean container under your breast, with your nipple above the container. Gently, so you don’t bruise it, push your breast back against your body with your hand. Bringing your thumb and fingers together, make a rolling motion to move your hand forward. Lean forward to catch the milk in the container, being careful not to touch the container with your hand or nipple. Avoid touching the milk with your hands to keep the milk clean.
Length of Time
Pump until your milk doesn’t flow, around fifteen to twenty minutes per breast. If pumping is not comfortable or productive, talk to a lactation consultant about your problems.
Storing Pumped Milk
You should be aware of several factors when you’re pumping and storing milk. These tips can help you do it safely:
- Temperature. Label the milk containers with the date you pumped the milk and place it in the freezer as soon as possible after pumping to prevent bacterial growth. You can safely store breast milk for up to 6 months in your freezer at 0° F [-18° C] or at -4° F [-20° C] for up to 12 months [*].
- Location. Store milk at the back of the freezer where the temperature is most stable, not at the front or on the freezer door.
- Thawing. Use the oldest milk first. Thaw milk in the refrigerator overnight, or place the container under warm running water when you’re ready to use it. You should not microwave milk or heat it on a stove top to thaw it, and never refreeze milk after thawing.
Can You Pump Colostrum Before Giving Birth?
Yes, when you pump your milk while pregnant, you are pumping colostrum. Colostrum is the thick, first milk you produce before and immediately after you give birth [*]. This substance is sometimes called “liquid gold” because it contains nutrients and antibodies that protect your little one from infections. Babies who get colostrum are healthier and grow better than those who do not.
When Should You Start Pumping?
In general, you shouldn’t pump milk during early pregnancy because you could increase oxytocin in your body. Oxytocin helps muscles contract around milk cells to push the milk down through the milk ducts to the nipple. It also triggers uterine contractions, which could make premature birth or miscarriage more likely.
Later in your pregnancy, after 37 weeks, milk pumping is possible. If you have a high-risk pregnancy, it is not recommended. Contact your healthcare provider with questions about pumping while pregnant to choose the safest time to begin.
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The Bottom Line
Pumping milk before birth is something you may have considered while exploring feeding options for your baby. Although there are a few benefits to pumping while pregnant, you should be aware it also comes with risks. To make sure you and your baby are safe, speak with your doctor before deciding to pump while pregnant.