How to Use a Manual Breast Pump to Maximize Efficiency and Effectiveness

There is a wide selection of breast pumps available on the market, and nursing women have very discerning tastes when it comes to their particular pump of choice, often going to great lengths to find one that is perfectly suited to their particular needs. I found myself facing that same dilemma early into my non-maternal lactation journey. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you’ll know that, as a breastfeeding mother, I wasn’t a huge breast pump fan, and I wasn’t sure that I was going to pump within my ANR. I soon discovered, however, that pumping was actually going to be a necessity, so I began to look into pump options. I first chose a single manual pump before investing in a hospital-grade electric pump.

There is a lot of debate over the manual versus electric pump. Although electric pumps can be a lot more convenient for in-home use, they aren’t always practical for active non-maternal nursing women on the go. Adult nursing is a private and discreet part of many couple’s lives, and explaining why you’re carrying an electric breast pump with you when there are obviously no little ones to sustain is simply not a viable option. Manual pumps take care of that problem; they are lightweight, easy to assemble, and can be discreetly stored away from prying eyes. And they are also much more economical than their electric counterparts.

Electric breast pumps can be expensive, ranging from about $179.00 upwards to $500.00 or more–an this price doesn’t include a carrying case. The cost of investing in an electric breast pump just isn’t in everyone’s budget.

I do love my electric breast pump; it does a lot of the work for me, as I can efficiently pump both breasts at once, and set the controls to determine let-down stimulation, suckling stimulation, and my maximum comfort level, but, with that being said, I also found that my manual pump was a true lifesaver early on, and I’m really glad that I had it on hand. It did its job very well, and has actually worked quite well to collect milk now that I am fully lactated and actively producing.

I would suggest that women new to ANR first invest in a manual pump; you can sort of “test the waters” to determine if you’ll enjoy pumping before making a very large purchase. Later, as you commit to the pumping process, begin to require more stimulation, or after you have begun to produce larger quantities of milk, you may want to consider investing in an electric model. To get started, a manual pump is really all that you’ll need.

While it’s true that breast pumps can provide very good stimulation to help with milk production, their main goal is actually to draw milk from the breast and collect it. That’s why using a pump to encourage lactation needs to be done properly. Essentially, you want your breasts to believe that there is a need for all of that beautiful  milk, and the best way to do that is to mimic the feeding pattern of an infant. You can do this easily with a manual breast pump.

Before I explain how to do this, I thought I would share a few tips with you.

1. Flange (or breast shield) size is very important. The rim of your shield needs to completely encircle your areola. If you have large breasts, you’ll notice that there is quite a bit of uncovered breast on either side of the flange. (Mr. S and I tease, calling it “overspill” or “excess boobage” ;)) Don’t worry–as long as your areola is covered, you’ll be just fine. 🙂

Your flange should not compress your breast by squeezing or pinching it; there should be no pain at all. You should only feel a deep pull against the breast.

Your flange should not pull your areola or excess breast tissue into it, either. Once you have centered your nipple into the flange tunnel, it should move freely forward–and it should be the only part of your breast inside that tunnel.

2. Suction is another important part of using a manual pump properly. Some women pump harshly, and well over their maximum comfort level, believing that the forceful stimulation is necessary to efficient milk production. It isn’t. Remember, vacuum is only used to collect breast milk; it really has nothing to do with making breast milk.

Something to avoid:

My breast shield always feels too tight, and I have trouble taking it off of my breast. I’ve been using Vaseline, and now, it slides right off.


A breast shield should fit snugly. If it feels too tight, as if its squeezing your breast, then it is probably either too small or you are pumping with too much force.

Petroleum jelly can damage the materials used to make breast shields, so I wouldn’t suggest using it as a lubricant. It’s important to remember to break your pump’s suction before removing a flange from your breast. If you still feel that a lubricant is necessary, though, coconut oil is a better choice. It won’t break down your flange, and it’s very good for your breasts.

Most manual pumps are equipped with some sort of device (a lever or a button) that allows a woman to adjust the tension and resistance of her pump handle, which helps to either simulate the let-down reflex or suckling. My Lansinoh manual pump has a small white lever on the top of the handle; by sliding it back, I can simulate let-down. To trigger let-down, adjust your pump to its highest resistance level before you begin. When you do this, the handle will tighten.

On a manual pump, maximum comfort level is typically determined by how a woman depresses her pump handle. If you press the handle  “all the way” into the pump’s collection bottle, sometimes hearing the click of the contact, the suction will be much more forceful, and you will be pumping at maximum level. You don’t  need to do this unless you want to; your pump will work just as effectively if you only depress the handle halfway in. It isn’t the force of the pumping, but the rhythm of the motions that is important.

When first put to the breast, an infant sucks very rapidly to encourage milk flow. These quick “pacifier sucks” offer no pause for a “swallow rest”. Infants provide two sucks per second when attempting to trigger let-down.

To mimic this rhythm with your manual pump, you will need to depress the handle in quick, short repeated bursts. You can do this by counting “1-2, 1-2, 1-2” to easily time the rhythm. It will be a continuous motion, fast, but steady, and you’ll need to repeat this for 3-5 minutes to ensure that let-down has occurred.

Manual pumps provide “comfort grip handles” to prevent hand and arm fatigue, but when you first begin manual pumping, no matter how “comfortable” that handle is, you’ll feel the effects. It’s strenuous to pump, but it gets a lot easier as your hands adapt to the motion. 🙂 It’s important to keep up that fast “1-2” let-down motion when pumping, but if you can’t do it for five minutes without breaking, stop and rest for a minute or two, before picking up your rhythm once more. Just remember, the rest time doesn’t count as active pumping time, so be sure to actively pump for 3-5 minutes.

When you have triggered let-down, you can adjust your pump’s tension to simulate proper suckling. When I slide my pump’s lever forward, the tension loosens and my handle becomes much easier to depress.

When a baby realizes that the time to actually eat has arrived, he slows his suckling to a content and leisurely rate, pausing to swallow in between sucks. Babies are so attuned to the breast that they will actually adjust their feeding rhythm to ensure maximum efficiency. 🙂 They will often show a ratio of two sucks for every one swallow, or even three sucks per swallow.

To pattern this suck-swallow rhythm while using your manual pump, you will do this by depressing and then releasing your pump’s handle. The two depresses represent “suck-suck”, and the rest release represents “swallow”. You can time the rhythm by repeating “1,2-rest…1-2-rest…”  or “1-2-3-rest” as you pump. The depressions will be rapid; just as with let-down stimulation, you will still depress the handle twice (or even three times) per second, but the rest will last for approximately two seconds.

You will need to continue this pattern for about 10-15 minutes, depending on the length of time you pumped to simulate let-down.

Be sure to pump each breast in the same way, for the same length of time to ensure proper stimulation.

Before you know it, you’ll be a breast pumping pro! 🙂