You have officially worked really hard building and preserving your milk supply by pumping. Maybe you started pumping around the clock because you had low milk supply to start, or your baby was in the NICU but now is a breastfeeding champion, or were dependent on a nipple shield and have officially weaned off. Now your work has paid off! It is time to wean from the pump and move toward exclusively breastfeeding. As much as you would love to throw your pump out the car window and never look back, it is best to wean from the pump slowly.
As you know, your milk supply is dictated by supply and demand. All the additional pumping has artificially increased your supply beyond your baby’s needs. Now we need to down regulate your supply to just what your baby eats. If you abruptly stop pumping, you will be left with all the additional ounces you were removing with your pump as EXTRA MILK in your breast. It takes your body a few days to regulate your supply based on demand and several days to absorb unused milk. In the interim, you would be left with engorged, sore, leaking breasts… and no one wants that!
How do we wean from the pump?
There are several methods for weaning from the pump. Which method is best often has to do with your life and schedule and what you can best implement. How much extra milk you are making can also make a difference. Women with a surplus supply have a harder time abruptly dropping a whole pump session. The key with all of these methods is to let YOUR SUPPLY, be YOUR GUIDE. If you are getting uncomfortably engorged or any signs of clogged ducts, you may need to tailor your approach. This is why I personally like using a combination of each of these methods (see my protocol below).
- Dropping one session at a time
Dropping 1 session every 3-7 days is the easiest and most satisfy method. It is so gratifying to know you will get to wash your pumping parts one less time a day. Using comfort as a guide, it is best to drop one at time. As your supply regulates, you can drop another session. I recommend leaving the “wake up” session and the “before bed” session for last. These are the book ends to your day and they can help you mange oversupply issues during the day while you streamline how much milk you are making. If you pump to empty first thing in the am and pump to empty before bed, a baby that is emptying the breast well should be able to empty the breast sufficiently in between.
For some women, dropping a whole pump session at a time can leave them feeling uncomfortably engorged. Women pumping larger amounts tend to have more trouble with an abrupt pump session drop. If your breasts become really full, your baby may have a difficult time latching or keeping up with milk flow during letdown. Watch for signs of forceful letdown (choking, gagging, on/off latch, fussiness at the breast during letdown) and manage with THESE TIPS until your supply regulates.
- Gradually decreasing the amount of time you pump
Another technique is dropping 2 minutes at a time from your pump session. If you were pumping 15 minutes, decrease to 13. Every few days, you decrease another 2 minutes using comfort as your guide. This methods works well be feels tediously slow when you are ready to be done pumping. I also find that some women plateau with decreasing and have a hard time dropping all the way to 0 without discomfort.
- Gradually increasing the amount of time between pump sessions
The final technique is to gradually lengthen the amount of time between pump session. If you are pumping every 3 hours, you start pumping every 3 1/2, then 4, then 4 1/2. Gradually you will be dropping a session as you widen the gap.
- 4. The COMBO METHOD
This is my favorite method… because it is mine. 🙂 I like to use a little bit of everything to help mom decrease their pump sessions without having to deal with to much discomfort and decreasing the risk of unwanted side effects like CLOGGED DUCTS. Here is my three pronged approach:
- First decrease the amount of time you are pumping. I tell my clients to do 15 minute pump cycles so I usually recommend they drop down to 10 minute pump cycles for a few days and see how they feel. Usually, they are still removing enough milk that they are not uncomfortable doing this but it starts the down regulation cycle. It also gives baby a chance to pick up some of the slack without being overwhelmed.
- Space until you are down to 3 pump sessions per day. Increase intervals by 30 minutes every 3-7 days (let your supply be your guide). For example, If you were pumping every 3 hours throughout the day and 1 time over night, your schedule may look like:
6am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm, and 3am (7 pump sessions, 3 hr intervals)
You would space by a half hour intervals for your daytime pumps until you drop one. For example:
6am, 10am, 2pm, 6pm, 10pm, 3am (6 pump sessions; 4 hr intervals)
Keep going until you are down to 3 daytime sessions, and one night session. Your schedule may now look like:
6am, 2pm, 10pm, 3am ( 4 sessions 8 hour intervals)
- Start dropping pump sessions. First, drop the nighttime pump session, drop it like it’s hot. Everyone hates pumping at night. You can wait until you are down to three daytime sessions or you can try dropping it sooner. If you can’t make it through the night without waking up in a puddle of milk and a throbbing chest…. it is too soon. If you can make it to morning but you are just super full, give it a few days to work itself out. If your baby is sleeping through the night, consider a nighttime feed if you wake up and feel like you may explode.
Next drop the middle of the day session. At this point you should be down to your two bookend pump sessions. I like to wean down by time first then drop one and then the other. Your comfort is your guide for which session to drop first. If you wake up full in the am because your baby sleeps through the night, then keep your morning session for last.
Help! I’m getting too full!
If you transition from heavy and full, to painful and full, you need to empty the breast. The goal is not to stretch to the point of misery. That is why it is important to let your supply be your guide as your down regulate. Sometimes, you need to hold on dropping or stretching between sessions while your body decreases milk production. If you are finding you are too full, you may need through in an unscheduled pump session and get those breast empty. One unscheduled session is not going to wreck all your hard work, but a clogged duct or mastitis will.
If you are weaning from pumping/breastfeeding completely, you may consider using cabbage leaves or take sage to help down regulate your supply. Both of these treatments are VERY potent at decreasing milk production so if you are only looking to stop pumping in conjunctions with breastfeeding, I do not recommend these modalities except in extreme cases of oversupply. Consult with an IBCLC if you feel you have oversupply and need help dropping pump sessions without becoming too full.
The goal is to slowly down regulate your supply. There will be times during this process when your breast feel very full.
Encourage baby to feed often to help empty when you need to relieve some pressure.
When dropping sessions, get rid the session you hate most first. This sounds silly, but it makes a world of difference for your mental game. If you hate that 3am pump session, drop it first. It will give you a whole new outlook on life.
Take Motrin for breast tenderness pain to help manage while you are dropping sessions.
If you get too full, pump. The idea is not push yourself until you explode. One pump session to empty out your full breast is not going to reverse your hard work. Repetitive pumping will increase supply. Every now and then, you may need a reset pump. Or you can hand express while in the shower to let off some milk. Relieving enough pressure to bring comfort back will not increase your supply appreciably.
You can try using some ice or cold packs in between feeds if you are feel tender or engorged. If you are too full, you may find baby has a hard time latching or keeping up with milk flow. You may need to pump just to let off some steam before baby can latch.
Watch for signs of full ducts. If your full breast become painful or you notice red hard lumps, you may be seeing clogged ducts form from too much milk stasis. Clogged ducts often become more painful as the breast fills. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it is imperative you empty the breast. Reach out to an IBCLC for additional support.
Most importantly, remember that weaning from the pump can take time. I know it is tempting to drop your pump like a bad habit but in this case slow and steady is the best coarse of action. Each session you drop will feel like a victory.