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Expressing milk means squeezing milk out of your breast so you can store it and feed it to your baby at a later time.

Although many mothers eventually use a breast pump to express milk, in the early days of breastfeeding it is very useful to know how to hand express. Not everyone has a pump and hand expression is a gentle way to solve early difficulties such as full or engorged breasts and can be convenient as your baby grows.

Storing breast milk

Storing breast milk

You can store breast milk in a sterilised container:

  • In Kirklees we have adopted "666" as it is easy to remember 
  • 6 hours at room temperature ( obviously not in direct sunlight or over a radiator or fire)
  • 6 days in the back of the fridge (at 4 degrees C)
  • 6 months in the freezer

Breast milk must always be stored in a sterilised container. If you use a pump, always sterilise it before and after use.

See Sterilising bottles for more information.

Defrosting frozen breast milk

Defrosting frozen breast milk

If you have frozen your milk, defrost it in the fridge before giving it to your baby. Once it's defrosted, use it straight away. Milk that's been frozen is still good for your baby and better than formula milk. Don't re-freeze milk once it's thawed.

Warming breast milk

Warming breast milk

You can feed expressed milk straight from the fridge if your baby is happy to drink it cold. Or you can warm the milk to body temperature by placing the bottle in lukewarm water.

Don't use a microwave to heat up or defrost breast milk as it can cause hot spots, which can burn your baby's mouth.

Breast milk if your baby is in hospital

Breast milk if your baby is in hospital

If you're expressing and storing breast milk because your baby is premature or ill, ask the hospital staff caring for your baby for advice on how to store it.

Read more information about breastfeeding a premature or ill baby.

How do I express milk?

How do I express milk?

You can express milk by hand or with a breast pump. Different pumps suit different women, so ask for advice or see if you can try one before you buy it. Always make sure that the container or pump is clean and has been sterilised before you use it. 

You may find it easier to express milk by hand

You may find it easier to express milk by hand than to use a pump, especially in the first few days. It also means you won't have to buy or borrow a pump.

The following suggestions may help:

  • Before you start, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water, and gently massage your breast.
  • Cup your breast just behind your areola (the darker part of your breast).
  • Squeeze gently, using your thumb and the rest of your fingers in a C shape. This shouldn't hurt (don't squeeze the nipple directly as you'll make it sore and unable to express).
  • Release the pressure, then repeat, building up a rhythm. Try not to slide your fingers over the skin. At first, only drops will appear, but keep going as this will help to build up your milk supply. With practise and a little time, milk may flow freely.
  • When no more drops come out, move your fingers round and try a different section of your breast, and repeat.

When the flow slows down, swap to the other breast. Keep changing breasts until the milk drips very slowly or stops altogether.

If the milk doesn't flow, try moving your fingers slightly towards the nipple or further away, or give the breast a gentle massage.

Hold a sterilised feeding bottle or container below your breast to catch the milk as it flows.

Advantages of hand expression

Advantages of hand expression:

  • If your baby is a little sleepy s/he may be encouraged to feed if you can hand express some colostrum on to your nipple to tempt him.
  • Some quite sleepy babies may not attach to the breast but are able to lap expressed milk from the nipple.
  • Sometimes it is necessary to hand express and give the colostrum to your baby for the first few feeds until he has the energy to attach to the breast and feed himself.
  • It’s a really good skill to have when your milk volume increases. If your breasts become a little too full you may need to soften the area your baby takes into his mouth by hand expressing before trying to get him to feed.
  • It can be really reassuring just to see your milk
  • If your baby has had to go to the neonatal unit.

If you do have a pump, you may still find hand expressing easier, particularly in the early days. It can also help to get the flow of milk started before using the pump.

Click on the video below to watch hand expression:

For further information, please click here.


Off to the best start is a very information leaflet with reliable information on hand expression. Click here for more information.