How to express breast milk

Many mothers find expressing milk a bit tricky at first and it takes time to learn how to do it. The way you feel emotionally and psychologically will have an impact on how well you express your milk - so don’t worry if you find it difficult at times. In the early days of your baby’s life, it's very normal to only get a few drops. At this stage, your baby’s tummy is very small and they don’t need a large amount.

When breastfeeding, your milk starts flowing by:

  • the sight, feel and smell of your baby at the breast
  • your baby attaching to the breast and sucking

This is known as the let-down reflex. When expressing, you don’t have this so you may need some extra help.

Read about expressing breast milk for a premature or ill baby

Tips for expressing

If possible, wait 4 to 6 weeks before you start to express milk for your baby. This is to allow your milk supply to regulate perfectly to what your baby needs. Sometimes expressing before this time can lead to a problem with oversupply.

You might find the following tips helpful when you are expressing by hand or pump.

Find a comfortable place to express

If you’re still in the hospital, you may feel more relaxed with the bed curtains pulled. If you'd like some extra privacy, face away from a window or the place where the bed curtains open.

If you're at home with older children, distract them with a safe activity that doesn’t need your full attention.

Minimise distractions

Turn off your phone, TV and laptop.

Make sure you have everything you need to hand. This could include:

  • a drink
  • a snack
  • a small towel to cover up and dry any spillages

Connect with your baby

It can be helpful to close your eyes and imagine your baby is feeding at your breast. Looking at a photo or video of your baby can help you relax and connect with your baby before you begin expressing. Having their clothing or blanket with you can also help.

If possible, spend some time together in skin-to-skin contact before you begin to express.

Read more about skin-to-skin contact


Taking a warm shower or putting a warm moist facecloth (warm compress) on your breasts before expressing can help.

Massage your breasts

Massage your breasts before and during expressing. You can massage the breasts while in the shower if you wish.

Gently rolling your nipple between your fingers encourages the release of hormones and helps get your milk flowing.

Expressing milk by hand

To express by hand, follow these steps:

  1. Wash your hands carefully.

2. To help your milk flow, you can:

  • sit comfortably
  • relax and think about your baby
  • have someone massage your back and shoulders, if possible
  • warm your breast - a good way to do this is to put a warm facecloth over your breast

3. Massage your breasts. This can be done with your fingertips, as shown in image A, or by rolling your closed fist over your breast towards the nipple, as shown in image B.

Massage breasts image A
Massage breasts image B

4. Gently roll your nipple between your fingers

5. Place your thumb on one edge of your areola - where the darker part of your nipple joins the lighter skin of your breast - and your second and third finger on the opposite edge of your areola. Your hand should form the shape of the letter C, as shown in image C.

Massage breasts image C

6. You then compress and release your breast using rhythmic movements. Press, then release and a little drop of breast milk will appear. Try not to rub or slide your finger or thumb along your nipple as this may hurt. After a little while of compressing and releasing, a few drops of breast milk will appear and you can collect this into a sterile container. This will be provided by a nurse or midwife if you are in a hospital.

7. Colostrum (first milk) tends to drip slowly as it is thick. Later, milk may come in spurts or sprays. Continue then to compress, release and collect.

8. There are a number of ducts in your breast, so you can stimulate those as well by moving your fingers around the areola to release breast milk from all areas of your breast. Massage your breast as you move your hand around the areola.

9. After a while, you will notice the flow from the first breast slows down. You should then move on to the second breast. Once again, begin with heat, then massage, compress and release your breast.

10. When you have finished hand-expressing you can then place a lid on the container and put it into the fridge.

Page last reviewed: 29 November 2018
Next review due: 29 November 2021

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