how to pump more milk

Nurse, what can I do now that my baby is in the NICU?  ME

The best thing you can do for your baby is to start pumping! NURSE

These were the exact words exchanged with the nurse when Chunbao first got admitted to the NICU. I was horrendous, worried, and lost. I didn’t get to see my new baby (Chunbao was immediately transferred to the Children’s Hospital) and now you’re telling to hook up my breasts to a cold machine? I dreaded, but pumping was really the only thing I can do during the first couple of NICU days and I’m glad I did just that.

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Importance of breast milk for a NICU baby

Regardless what made your baby whisked away to the NICU, breast milk is the optimal food. It has infection-fighting antibodies not found in formula that prevents baby from getting sick. Breast milk contains just the right amount of nutrients to help the baby grow and develop. For a low birth weight baby like my son, fortified breast milk may be fed in order to make the breast milk more caloric. Chunbao was being fed my fortified breast milk through the feeding tube for almost 6 weeks in the NICU. He didn’t need a lot of milk, due to his very low birth weight, so I was able to pump up a mini freezer stash for him as he grows bigger.

How to pump more milk

Building milk supply is hard work, especially having to deal with the emotional and physical stress a NICU baby can bring. However, for me, having a sick baby gave me the extra willpower to pump. Building up milk supply does not happen overnight. It is a process that takes persistence and determination. Once I have that goal in mind, below are the things I’ve done to boost my milk supply.

Get a good double electric breast pump

Double electric pumps offer the convenience of time-saving by pumping both breasts at the same time. You also want to choose a good pump to effectively drain the breasts. The NICU most likely have hospital grade pumps for moms to use while visiting the baby so us mommies don’t need to haul our own pump when we visit. The golden standard of hospital grade pumps is the Medela Symphony breast pump. Looks familiar?

I was using the Medela Symphony pump at the NICU and switched to the Spectra S2 electric pump at home. I noticed a difference in supply output because the Medela is just a lot more powerful than my Spectra pump. The very next day, I went ahead and rented a Medela Symphony pump so I can use it at home.

The Medela Symphony pump is a $2000 beast so it’s just better for our wallets to rent it. Some hospitals loan pumps so call your hospital if you need to rent one. I rent mine at a local mother/baby shop at a cheaper price. Alternatively, if you live close to a Babies R’ Us, they loan the Medela Symphony pumps as well.

Listen to hypnotizing music

For 3 days postpartum, I religiously pumped every 2.5 hours for at least 15 minutes. Nothing came out. My nipples were dry and cracked as ever. I scoured all over the internet looking for pumping tips and came across this hypnosis for breastfeeding. I’m not the meditation soul, nonetheless a believer in hypnosis. However, I found this guided meditation music very relaxing. My milk started to come in soon after I started listening to this video when I pumped.

Drink lots of bone soup

In Traditional Chinese Medicine dated more than 2000 years back, bone soup, especially whole fish soup in combination with certain foods, is said to boost milk supply. It is a popular Asian practice that new moms drink bone soup every day for at least 3 months postpartum. The idea behind it is that since breast milk is 88% water, drinking bone soup ensures moms get enough water with added proteins and nutrients for her milk production. A popular milk-boosting soup is the pork feet soup.

Here is the recipe for the highly praised fish and green papaya soup I used to drink every day!

Fish and green papaya soup

Ingredients: Medium sized whole fish including head and tail (preferably crucian carp fish), half of a green papaya, ginger slices, handful of peanuts, 4 liters of water, dash of salt, dates (optional), goji berries (optional)


  1. Clean fish.
  2. Boil water and add ginger and peanuts.
  3. Cut papaya into squares and discard seeds. Add papaya and fish into the boiling pot.
  4. Add optional dates and goji berries.
  5. Turn down to low heat and cook covered for 4 hours.
  6. Add salt to taste prior to serving.

Mother’s tea

Every one of my mama friends drank the Mother’s Tea for milk supply so undoubtedly, I stocked them when I was still pregnant. The organic tea blend contains milk boosting herbs such as fennel and fenugreek. I usually brew a tea bag and sip it throughout the day when visiting my baby in the NICU. I found the tea pleasant by itself but sometimes, I add a bit of honey to sweeten it up. On occasion, I would drink it again after I get home from the hospital.

Pumping schedule

You probably already know that milk supply is based on a supply-and-demand basis. The more you pump (emptying your breasts), the more your breasts will produce more milk.

Some key points to keep in mind:

  • Pump as often as baby would be eating (every 2 to 3 hours).
  • It’s hard, but try to pump at least twice during the night.
  • Pump for around 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Pump for 2 additional minutes after milk has stopped flowing. Do not overpump.
  • Don’t drop pumps until your supply is established. It could take anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks until your milk supply is well established. when you see a drop in supply, increase pumping frequency until your supply is back up again.

Power pumping is another pumping technique moms often do to increase milk production. The rationale behind it also based on supply-and-demand by repeatedly emptying breast milk and signaling the body to produce more milk quickly. It takes 1 hour to do so with the schedule as such: Double pump for 20 minutes, rest for 10 minutes, pump for 10minutes, rest for 10 minutes, pump for 10 minutes.

Here is my typical pumping schedule with Chunbao in the NICU.

exclusive pumping schedule

Massage while you pump

In my post on surviving the NICU, I mentioned about massaging the breasts while pumping in order to get more milk out. It was very noticeable that more milk streaked out when I applied pressure to my breasts when pumping. Watch this video on how to do hands-free massage. you’ll also need a hands-free pumping kit in order to effectively massage breasts while pumping.


This milk boosting powerhouse is a must for any mom looking to increase her milk production. Fenugreek has been used for centuries as a galactagogue. Although a few studies have done have shown mixed results, I personally find it effective in boosting my milk supply. I religiously took 2 capsules with every meal and noticed an increase in milk production within days. By the way, I choose Nature’s Way brand because they are reputable and non-GMO.

Related post: The ultimate NICU survival guide – how to care for your hospitalized baby

Resolve plugged ducts fast

Plugged ducts usually feel like hard tender swelling in the breast that can sometimes be painful. If left untreated, clogged ducts may lead to mastitis which is a nasty infection that requires hospitalization. Plugged ducts happen with poor milk drainage from the breasts. If milk is not drained completely, how do you expect our breasts to produce more milk? Therefore, plugged ducts required immediate attention so that it doesn’t hurt our milk supply.

The number one thing to resolve plugged ducts is to apply moist heat to the breast. The moment you feel those lumps in your breasts, apply heated towel to breasts for a minute or two before pumping. How I managed to do this in the NICU? I bought a small towel and a Tupperware to the hospital. Prior to visiting my son’s room, I fill the Tupperware (with the towel inside) with warm water from the breakroom. Close the Tupperware lid and off we go to see our son.


Even with all that pumping, I tend to get recurrent clogged ducts easily. I wonder if it’s a genetic thing. Besides from applying heated towel and massaging my breasts prior to pumping, I also took lecithin every day. Lecithin lessens the thickness of breast milk, allowing the milk to flow more easily. For plugged ducts, it is recommended to take 3600-4800 mg lecithin per day for 3-4 times a day. If plugged ducts are resolved, lecithin intake can be reduced to 1 time a day. I took this lecithin 3 capsules 3 times a day. I did notice my plugged ducts went away when I took it and came back on the days I didn’t take it. The effect is pretty significant! If you are worried about side effects, lecithin is a common food additive so it’s completely safe for breastfeeding/pumping moms. As with any nutritional supplement, do not take more than the recommended dose.

Eat a protein-rich diet

The mechanism of breast milk production requires a lot of energy from the body. Every ounce of breast milk burns about 20 calories! What’s more to supplement that burnt calories? Proteins. Our Children’s Hospital offers 1 free meal a day for breastfeeding/pumping moms so I took total advantage of that! The menu offers a variety of proteins such as turkey sandwich, omelet, chili, mac n cheese, pasta, etc. Ensure to incorporate lots of protein either from meat or vegetable sources like beans and legumes in every meal. You may also feel hungry more often because of all that burnt calories. Great choices of snacks to munch on between meals are nuts, hard-boiled eggs, and protein bars.

Drink lots of water

Water is the main ingredient in breast milk so no water, no breast milk. It’s easy to forget drinking water with all that traveling to the hospital, kangaroo care, getting updates on your baby’s health, pumping, the list goes on…To ensure that I get at least 64 ounces of water a day, I got myself a 48oz tumbler to sip throughout the day. With this tumbler, I know that I need one and a half bottle full of water to get a total of 64 ounces.

Sports Drink

The rationale behind drinking sports beverages to increase milk production is similar to that of consuming bone soup as I mentioned above. You want to get in as much liquid as possible since breastmilk is 88% water. The extra minerals and electrolytes in sports beverages like Gatorade and Poweraid add extra nutrients in breast milk production. Myths have it that the red Poweraid is the best amongst sports drinks to boost milk supply so that was what I drank during my baby’s NICU stays.

It was incredibly difficult for me to pump every 2.5 hours with a baby in the NICU. But I never strayed away from my determination to pump more milk because I wanted my sick baby to get the best nutrition.  You must believe that you are strong and you can build up an abundant supply of breast milk too!

how to pump more milk

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