How to Survive Exclusively Pumping (Because You Can!)
Very few people go into a pregnancy expecting to be an exclusive pumper (although some do), but exclusively pumping is exactly the situation I found myself in three times. I’m pregnant with my fourth and I have a feeling we’ll be going down this road yet again. If you’re reading this, you may have found yourself in the same situation.
People choose exclusively pumping for a variety of reasons
–none of which I will dissect here. The purpose of this post is to help you survive on your exclusive pumping breastfeeding journey.
Exclusively Pumping vs. Breastfeeding – Way Fewer Resources
My oldest is almost seven, and I’ve found that the resources for exclusively pumping breastfeeding moms have increased drastically since then. Back in 2012, when I found myself exclusively pumping unexpectedly, I found enough information online to muddle through (mostly, a few brief posts on Kellymom), but two important things were missing entirely:
1. What to do with your baby WHILE you’re pumping
–and, something I didn’t even consider until I had my second child (and then third)…–
2. How do you exclusively pump when you have other kids at home?
If these are challenges you’re facing, I hope this post is just the resource you’ve been looking for. Read on for helpful exclusive pumping strategies, exclusive pumping schedules, and tips and tricks for managing other kids while you exclusively pump.
*Please be aware that this post may contain affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission on purchases made through these links, at no additional cost to you. Please see my privacy and disclosure page for further information.*
Exclusive pumpers need a good pumping schedule
Lots of sites will tell you that you need an exclusive pumping schedule to maintain an adequate supply of milk, and this is absolutely true. However, you also need a schedule so you can plan your pumps for times that will cause the least drama.
In the middle of Family Dinner? Nope.
The time of day when your baby is the most needy (side-eye to you, witching hour)? Definitely not.
When your older kids (if you have them) are just getting off the school bus? That’s another no.
So when should you pump? (Because if you’re exclusively pumping, you’re pumping often)
First, you need to determine how often you’ll need to pump in order to get the “right” amount of milk, and this number is different for everyone. I have looked at a friend’s milk supply and been green with envy, but I have also been the envy of other friends with less milk than me.
Exclusively pumping, like the rest of motherhood, is weird.
If this is your first baby, and/or your baby is still very young, you will probably need to pump often to maintain an adequate supply. In the early weeks with my first, I had to pump around ten times per day to make enough milk.
I’m not going to lie, pumping that often was really difficult, both physically and mentally. Fortunately, after two months or so, I was able to dial that back some.
I also found that supplementing with 1-2 ounces of formula each day allowed me to cut out a pumping session entirely. This solution may not be ideal for everyone, but it was definitely worth it to me for my sanity.
If you’ve survived exclusively pumping (or nursing/breastfeeding) before, you will probably get more milk from fewer pumps.
The other good news is that, if you’ve had other babies before, your milk-making factory is already somewhat primed.
I found that with my second and third babies, I was able to make the same amount of milk (or more) with fewer pumps (closer to 4-5 pumping sessions per day).
Exclusive pumping 4 times a day is a much more manageable pumping schedule than pumping 8 times a day!
My suggested exclusive pumping schedule (for the early days)
If you have an “easy” baby, identifying ideal pumping times will be easier. If you have a needy baby (yes, all babies are needy, but you know what I mean), this can be more difficult.
Here’s a sample exclusive pumping schedule that I recommend for someone pumping eight times per day (with some explanations below it), but you will obviously have to decide what works best with your family.
Even eight times can be tough to swing, but I find this number to be the most “common” pumping number for women in the early weeks (if they are exclusively pumping and trying not to supplement).
You may need to add (or remove) pumping slots and you may need to shift the times.
**If your baby is very young, they will typically feed every three hours, even at night. This means you also need to be pumping every three hours, even at night. This can be extra tough because you will need to pump AND give the baby a bottle. It’s double the night duty of a normal breastfeeding mom.
For this to work, it really is important to recruit your partner’s (or grandma’s, or whoever’s) help with this in the early weeks as much as possible.
Pumping while baby is sleeping
For our family, my husband would give the baby a bottle while I pumped at least once per night in the earliest weeks. Once my husband was back at work, I tried to manage both the pumping and the feeding myself.
To do this, I would set my alarm and sneak out of the bedroom to pump. Babies can smell milk and if you try to pump next to your sleeping baby, well, chances are he or she won’t be sleeping for very long.
This pumping schedule includes eight pumps, but I definitely recommend trying to get down to 6-7 pumps per day as soon as your body/milk supply will allow for it (again, every mom is different). That is a much more manageable, long-term exclusive pumping schedule.
Between pumping and feeding the baby, two middle-of-the-night pumps is kind of awful for mom.
What about exclusively pumping when baby is awake? What do you do with your baby while pumping?
Complete and total exhaustion notwithstanding, as an exclusive pumper, I actually found the middle-of-the-night pumps to be the least stressful. I could do what needed to be done without having to worry much about the baby. If he woke before I was done pumping, my husband could always get up with him.
I watched a looooooooot of Netflix and late-night reruns of The Office on TBS (I still vividly remember that my first middle-of-the-night pumping session overlapped the end of The Conan O’Brien Show & the beginning of The Office almost every single night).
Pumping while baby was awake was, to me, one of the most stressful things about exclusive pumping (especially with my oldest, who was the neediest of my babies in his early days). Using the sample schedule I provided above as a guide, try to time your pumps to occur during your baby’s nap time.
For me, that meant the 9:00 am and 3:00 pm pumps happened around those times, but really it was whenever baby had fallen asleep for a full ten minutes. At that point, you can feel reasonably confident that your baby will sleep another twenty minutes or so, allowing you to squeeze in a pump.
Pump for as long as you can, even if you have to cut the pumping session short
If your baby wakes up while you’re pumping, don’t go to them unless they’re crying. Some babies are happy to hang out and stare at you (or the mobile in their crib or above their swing) for 5-10 minutes after waking.
Use that time! You may actually be able to finish up a full 20-25 minute pumping session.
If your baby is not content to hang out, it’s decision time. If baby’s doing just a little fussing and rooting, see if you can at least hit the 15 minute mark with your pumping session. That will help you maintain your supply, even if you didn’t empty as much milk from the breasts as you would have liked. Some people even find that the sound of their baby fussing helps with their letdown and increases their pumping yield (after all, your body was built to respond to your baby).
This varies widely though. For me, I found the sound of my fussing baby, even if it was minor, to be so stressful that the stress inhibited my letdown (and completely grated on my sanity). Again, like everything breastfeeding and motherhood, you have to figure out what works best for you.
Can you pump while your baby does tummy time?
Unfortunately, your baby won’t be sleeping through all of your daytime pumps. Even newborns, who sleep a million hours per day, don’t do it in the consistent, predictable stretches that an exclusively pumping mom needs.
If your baby likes tummy time (apparently, there are babies like this out there. I didn’t birth any of them, but I’m told they do exist), lay them on their tummy and pump next to them (always supervising a baby on their tummy, of course).
Make sure they’ve been fed, otherwise pumping near them is just going to make them hangry.
Have toys nearby that shake, make noises, have fun lights, etc. because at some point during your pumping session, you may need to employ them all. You may also have to sing, play peek-a-boo, make ridiculous faces, the works.
No one said exclusively pumping was easy 😉
Can you “pretend” to hold your baby while you’re pumping?
Holding a baby while pumping, especially a young baby who needs a lot of head support, is difficult, if not impossible. I found that I had to settle for semi-holding my oldest for a lot of my daytime pumps.
I would start out pumping next to him on his play mat (while he angrily did tummy time or semi-happily laid on his back on his activity mat). If he started to fuss too much, I would prop him in the crook of my leg (imagine sitting crisscross-applesauce) and lightly bounce him that way.
He felt snuggled, close, and the movement simulated being held enough that I could usually get another 5-10 minutes out of him to finish up my pumping session.
Can you pump while your baby is in the swing or a bouncer?
A swing can be a lifesaver for an exclusively pumping mom. My babies loved the swing, and they spent a lot of time swinging away while I pumped.
You can pump on the floor or in a chair next to the swing so you can take the baby out if they start to fuss, without stopping your pumping session for very long (or at all, if you’ve gotten the hang of pumping and multi-tasking).
When my babies outgrew their swing, they really enjoyed their bouncer/activity chair. They spent a good amount of time bouncing away next to me while I pumped.
Can you “fake nurse” your baby while you’re pumping?
My oldest would “latch” but his latch was ineffective and he didn’t transfer milk adequately. Essentially, he was using me as a pacifier, and maybe taking in .5 oz per feed (not enough to nurture a growing baby).
I found that allowing him to “fake nurse” on one side while I pumped the other kept him occupied and happy, and it upped my milk output on the other, pumping side.
The downside to this approach is that you can only really pump one side at a time. After 20 minutes of pumping one side, you can burp the baby, switch him or her to the other side you just pumped (since the baby isn’t really nursing anyway), and pump the other side.
This process takes twice as long as double-pumping, so it’s really only practical if you have no other kids at home or everyone else is napping.
Schedule as many of your pumps as possible when Dad is home
It will take some time for you to figure out the best exclusively pumping schedule for you to adequately balance your milk output, your baby’s milk intake, and your sanity.
Once you have a handle on this, I recommend manipulating your pumping schedule so that as many pumps as possible occur when Dad is home (or you have other help–a babysitter, a friend, a relative, etc.). Having back-up while you’re pumping relieves an enormous amount of stress.
Once my milk supply was sufficiently established, I would wait an extra hour if it meant pumping when my husband was home. I would get up an hour earlier if it meant I could pump before he left for work. It was just so much easier to handle.
Some exclusively pumping moms like to save their 4-5 hour stretches for the middle of the night, so they can get more sleep (meaning their daytime pumps were often closer together). This is a great pumping strategy for women who are really struggling with sleep deprivation.
For me personally, I often used my longer stretches of not pumping during the day, when it was sometimes just too difficult to fit in more pumping sessions (especially once I’d had a few more kids).
Power Pumping or Cluster Pumping for Exclusive Pumpers
Some experts recommend “cluster pumping” or “power pumping” the same way nursing moms often cluster feed a baby in the evening hours.
Such episodes of cluster pumping can help compensate for any pumps you had to skimp on or possibly skip altogether during the day, when you were on your own and attempting to pump with your baby or other kids around.
Pump while driving – No, I’m not kidding. It’s the best!
This is my #1 tip for exclusively pumping moms, especially if you are trying to exclusively pump with other kids at home. Get yourself a good pumping bra (see below), a car-charging adapter, a cover (also see below), and take your exclusively pumping show on the road!
Now, this #1 pumping tip is predicated on the fact that your baby does not hate the car. Some babies do, and if that’s the case, this tip may become a little slice of hell on Earth (I maintain that driving with a screaming baby is one of the most stressful things a person can do in life). My middle son went through a 3-4 week phase of hating the car so much that we literally stopped driving anywhere that wasn’t 100% necessary.
Assuming your baby does not hate the car, let me explain why pumping while driving is ideal. Then I’ll explain how to safely and correctly pump while driving.
Everyone is safely strapped into their carseats while you pump.
This is the main reason why this pumping tip is awesome. The baby is in his or her seat, not waking up and crawling all over things at random, but more importantly, if your baby has siblings, they too are strapped into their carseats.
They cannot harm the baby, make a gigantic mess, or fight with one another (if there’s more than one sibling).
This may not seem like a big thing, but if you’ve been exclusively pumping for very long, you likely already know what a huge win this is.
If I could have strapped my kids into their carseats INSIDE the house for the remainder of my daily pumps, I may have done so (as you can see from the photo below, Kid 3 loves that, but the other two would not have been so happy).
The kids don’t seem to need as much while you’re pumping if they’re in the car.
If you’re attempting to exclusively pump with other kids at home, besides your nursing baby, you have probably noticed that the second you get your baby situated and sit down to pump, everyone needs something.
I need a snack.
I need to go potty.
Help, I can’t reeeeeeach [insert completely unnecessary item here].
This doesn’t really happen in the car. Give each kid a snack, a drink, and possibly a book to look at and they will generally be fine in the car.
I’m not 100% sure sure why (it’s not like the car immediately eliminates the need to pee or the desire for toys), but I think it’s because they know and understand that sitting in the carseat while driving is just a part of life.
Meanwhile, kids generally do not understand mom sitting down and doing something during which she cannot be interrupted (anyone who’s ever tried to use the bathroom around small children can tell you that).
Pumping and driving: A few notes about safety
These things should go without saying, but from a legal perspective (and the fact that I am constantly amazed at the lack of common sense in the world), I feel like I need to go over a few things that are important for pumping while driving safely.
First, you need a reliable pumping bra, one that holds the bottles in place for you (more on that in the next section). You need your hands free to, you know, drive.
Second, hook up and start pumping before you leave your parking space. Once you’ve done that, driving and pumping is no different than driving and talking, singing, etc. It’s happening, but it doesn’t require any attention.
Third, don’t mess with the settings while you’re driving. Pumping and driving means “set it and forget it.” If you find you need to turn the pump up or down, faster or slower, etc., you should park your vehicle.
Fourth, don’t unhook while you’re driving. I think it’s perfectly fine to turn off your pump (no one would bat an eye at you for hitting the power button on the radio), but don’t unhook the flanges, attempt to cap the bottles, etc.
Leave everything attached just as it is until you arrive safely at your destination.
Finally, don’t check how much output you’re getting. This is tempting, I understand, but it’s unsafe. If you can’t resist the urge to check/measure your milk output, pumping while driving is not for you.
Pumping while driving? Make sure you have the necessary supplies.
Pumping while driving is an amazing strategy for exclusive pumpers, but you need to have the right supplies. Here are a few of them:
A good nursing cover / pumping cover
I’m not wading into the debate about whether or not women should cover up when nursing. I think that is a decision for each individual woman, baby, and circumstance.
However, I don’t recommend pumping uncovered while driving (when I was typing that, I accidentally wrote “pimping” instead of pumping. This is not relevant to this post, but I thought you should know.).
It’s true that most people will have no idea that you’re pumping as you’re buzzing along the highways and byways. However, hit a stoplight and you’ll very quickly find out how awkward things can get if you’re pumping while driving without a cover.
Better yet, get pulled over for an expired tag while pumping with your toddler and newborn in their carseats. Yes, this happened to me.
[If you’re wondering, yes I was covered AND I managed to unhook and get back to “normal” before the officer made his way to my vehicle. I didn’t want to take the chance that the officer might consider pumping and driving reckless. It’s not — see previous section about safety–but if you think breastfeeding is widely misunderstood in the general public, pumping is something most people have little to no clue about.]
Here are a few nursing / pumping covers I recommend:
The Milk Snob is kind of pricey, but it also doubles as a carseat cover (for rain, excessive sun, nosy older women at the grocery store and their germs, etc.), shopping cart cover, etc. so you’re getting more use out of it than just a pumping cover.
The Skip Hop Hide-and-Chic is nice because it looks fairly normal and it has a sheer top. It’s meant so you can see your baby, but it’s helpful so you can see everything while you’re pumping. It also doubles as an infinity scarf.LK Baby Infinity Nursing Scarf is a very budget-friendly option that can double as both a cover and, as the name implies, an infinity scarf. It doesn’t have as much material, which could make it tougher to nurse an actual baby, but if you’re exclusively pumping, you don’t really need to worry about that.Of course, if you’re browsing nursing covers on Amazon in general, you’ll find that there are, quite literally, thousands of affordable, highly rated options.
A great exclusively pumping bra
Some people insist you can just cut a hole in your sports bra. I was unwilling to cut up my nice sports bras and my crappy sports bras were too flimsy to reliably hold the pumping flanges.
Feel free to give it a go if you’re feeling brave. Maybe your breasts are less temperamental and can still pump with the flanges only loosely secure, but that did not work for me.
This is probably also a more reasonable option for an occasional pumper. Exclusive pumpers are pumping often and a good pumping bra makes such a difference here.
For the Simple Wishes bra, it comes with an adjustable, velcro-based latch, so you can adjust it as your body changes postpartum. It also has a ton of positive reviews (5,401 on the day this post was published) on Amazon.
To be clear — this isn’t the type of bra you would wear all day long (you can, but it would likely look odd under most tops). The idea is that, when you’re ready to pump, you quickly strap it on over your regular nursing bra. It then holds your pumping parts in place so you can pump hands-free.
I would just leave it in my pumping bag, permanently, with all of my pumping parts, so as not to risk forgetting or misplacing it when needed.
If you want a pumping bra that you can wear all day (and night), the Essential Relaxed bra is my recommendation because it’s less clunky and fits more seamlessly under clothes.
In the early days, that doesn’t really matter because most nursing (or exclusively pumping) moms spend the early weeks basically shirtless anyway. But over time, when you make your way back to “real” clothes, I find this one more discreet.
What about exclusively pumping with your older kids around (when you’re not driving)?
You can’t time every single pump for naptime or when Dad is home. You also can’t drive around all day, every day.
So how do you manage older children, in addition to your baby, when you need to pump?
The answers here depend on the age of your kids.
When I had my youngest, my oldest was 4.5. He was able to understand (relatively) the idea that I could not respond to his every need right away while pumping. My two-year-old was less understanding. I suggest that you try to:
Recruit the older siblings to help as much as possible while you’re pumping.
Sometimes I gave them busy tasks (“please bring me a…” “Can you find the…?” etc.), but sometimes I had them help entertain the baby while I pumped.
Babies tend to love and be infatuated by their older siblings (and the feeling is typically mutual), so use this to your advantage.
Obviously make sure this is all done under your close supervision (I would always pump within arms-reach of my baby, unless he was napping safely in his crib).
Have special activities that are only available to your older kids during pumping times.
Offer favorite toys, play doh, paint-by-numbers, invisible-ink-coloring books–anything that you know will captivate your older kids’ attention for a solid block of time.
Make sure that whatever you choose for them, it requires no assistance from you (no opening or closing jars, refilling water supplies, etc.).
There’s also a ton of articles for how nursing moms can entertain older siblings while breastfeeding. You can pretty much adopt any of these to work for you while pumping.
Have the kids do “Simon Says”-like activities while you’re pumping.
My kids love to play Simon Says, but that game is usually only entertaining to them for about 5-7 minutes (not enough to finish a pumping session). However, I can milk Simon Says-esque games for much longer.
After they get tired of the standard game (“Simon says touch your head. Simon says sit down.”), we make things a little more exciting (and exhausting).
Jump up and down 10 times.
Who can do 25 jumping jacks the fastest?
See who can make the silliest face/ugliest face/scariest face/happiest face (this segment alone can last a while).
Walk like a crab to the kitchen and back.
See who can touch the doorknob on the front door first.
See who can slither like a snake to the table the most slowly.
And… you get the idea. I drag out the time between instructions (remember, this is a run-out-the-clock situation), entertain any and all chatter, let them offer suggestions, etc.
It’s not the quietest way to spend 20-25 minutes, but it works (most of the time).
If all else fails, pumping time = screen time.
I know screen time gets a bad rap these days, and I’m not saying to park your older kids in front of the tv/ipad/video game/phone for every pump of every day. Still, the fact is, for most kids, screens capture their attention beautifully with no intervention or assistance from you.
Sometimes, that’s what you need and there’s no shame in that.
As an exclusively pumping mom, you’re already hooking yourself up to a machine all day and night to provide for your baby. Give yourself some grace and turn on the cartoons for the older kids.
(You can always choose an “educational” show if that makes you feel better.)
Exclusively pumping is hard work, but you CAN have success with exclusive pumping
Exclusively pumping is the hardest kind of breastfeeding. It is certainly a labor of love and the commitment it requires can’t be understated.
Even with all the pumping schedules and strategies, tips and tricks, and planning, life as an exclusive pumper still presents challenges.
Your feelings about pumping will probably run the gamut from “This is perfectly fine, I can do this” to “This was a huge mistake and is the worst thing ever!” Those feelings are normal and you’re entitled to them.
Is it possible to exclusively pump and still have a life?
YES! –but it won’t always be easy. The life of an exclusive pumper looks a little different than you probably expected.
This is true for breastfeeding moms as well, but exclusively pumping moms have a few more challenges. To name just a few:
- You can often nurse discreetly in public; I can’t say the same for pumping.
- You can nurse anywhere your baby is, but you can’t pump without an outlet or battery adapter
- Nursing a baby doesn’t require extra supplies or milk storage; pumping means you need a place to wash your parts and a cooler for your milk
Despite the challenges, you can still have a life while exclusively pumping. In fact, you’ll probably find that you can do most of the things your fellow breastfeeding moms can do. You’ll just have to plan a little more carefully.
Don’t worry though — this planning gets much easier with time.
How long should you be an exclusive pumper?
If you want to pump exclusively for months or years, go for it! If you want to quit because you just can’t or it’s not worth the stress on you or your family, then quit! Only you can make the right decision for you and your baby.
The only thing I’ll say is this: Don’t quit on a bad day. This is the same advice given to typically-breastfeeding mothers, but it applies to exclusive pumpers too.
Sometimes the desire to quit is intense but fleeting, so it’s best to sit with it a while to make certain you are sure about your decision.
Plus, you need to quit gradually to ensure that you don’t end up with painful engorgement. That can lead to plugged ducts and/or mastitis (no fun)!
Regardless of how long you decide to pump, or when you decide to quit, try to quiet the outside world when making this decision. Motherhood is something that seems to open the door to everyone (and their mother– haha, see what I did there?) to offer their opinion, but only you are your baby’s mother.
You know the right decision for baby and for you. You know when the benefits of exclusive pumping outweigh the difficulties and when those difficulties surpass any possible benefits. No one else.
If you are struggling with any “Mom Guilt,” I recommend checking out my most read post of all-time (it’s been viewed nearly 10,000 times!)
I wish you all the best on your exclusive pumping journey!
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