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Ask Dr. Sears: Pumping More Breastmilk

Q. I'm a breastfeeding mom who recently went back to work. It's difficult for me to find the time to pump as often as I should, and as a result my milk supply has dwindled. I only manage to express a half-once or ounce of milk, as opposed to the 4 to 5 ounces I produced when I first started pumping. Is it possible for me to restore my milk supply?

A. Even if you get only a half-ounce, it is certainly worthwhile to continue pumping your milk! Breast milk is not only beneficial to a baby's overall health (and intellectual development), but expressing at work will keep you connected to your baby while you're apart. If you've got a love-hate relationship with your breast pump, know that you're not alone. I remember the challenges my wife faced when she was pumping milk for our babies. One day she got so frustrated about not being able to express enough, that she threw one of the plastic pump parts at me! Rather than taking out your frustrations on your partner, try these tips for increasing your milk supply:

Think positive

Breastfeeding is often and aptly described as a confidence game. Worrying about how little milk you're able to pump will only further suppress your milk supply. Instead, focus on what you are able to express. Consider how fortunate you are to be able breastfeed at all.

Get "pumped up" yourself

There are several ways to stimulate your milk ejection reflex: Do a few minutes of breast massage and drink a couple of glasses of water right before you pump. Place your baby's blanket or a piece of his clothing close by so that you can enjoy his smell. Put pictures of him where you can see them. Many working mothers even call baby on the phone to listen to the cooing and babbling. As you take in the sights, smells, and sounds of your baby, visualize streams of your milk flowing. It's also important to be relaxed when you sit down to pump. Soothing music can help (to minimize distractions, use a Walkman or Ipod).

Pump more frequently

If possible, pump at work as frequently as your baby would nurse, preferably every two to three hours. More frequent pumping for shorter periods will stimulate your milk ejection reflex better than pumping less frequently for longer periods.

Go high-tech.

Consult a lactation specialist or a local La Leche League leader about the best breastpump for your work situation. I recommend the double-pumping system: Studies show that prolactin levels (the hormones that stimulate your milk) are higher when you pump both breasts at the same time. The newest double-pumping systems are not only more comfortable, but more efficient, allowing you to pump more milk in less time. (Moms in our practice like the Playtex Embrace.)

Set up a nursing station.

Many companies now feature lactation lounges, comfortable office areas where moms can pump their milk. Studies show that creating a breastfeeding-friendly workplace is good business: Working moms who breastfeed miss fewer work days, mainly because their infants are not as sick as often. If there are other breastfeeding mothers in your office, band together and speak to your supervisor about setting up a lactation lounge.

Breastfeed more often when not at work.

Nurse full-time when you're not at work, and eliminate bottles as much as possible. Most pumping mothers find that by the end of the week, their milk supply is lowest, but after frequent breastfeeding over the weekend they're able to pump more milk on Mondays. Your baby's sucking will stimulate your milk supply more effectively than any breast pump. If your baby has already started solid foods, always nurse before feeding him, and think of solids as just an additional supplement to the more valuable breast milk.

Set priorities at home.

Even if you can't change your work environment, try to make changes in your overall lifestyle that will enhance your breastfeeding. Ask your partner to relieve you of as many household tasks as possible. Explain that these chores, on top of your work demands, drain your energy and therefore hurt pumping abilities. Make sure he understands the importance of breast milk for babies. Hopefully, he'll be as supportive as the father of one of my patients. He once said to me, "I may not be able to breastfeed or pump milk, but I'll do whatever I can to help my wife make more milk for our baby."