More lactation consultants are offering assistance to exclusively pumping parents. If you're considering exclusive pumping, here's why you should see one.

By Shannon Shelton Miller
July 15, 2021
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Nichelle Clark remembers her prenatal breastfeeding class all too well. Only two slides in the hospital-based course addressed pumping, but Clark knew she wanted to exclusively pump from the start.

When Clark mentioned her plans to the instructor, one of the hospital's lactation consultants, the response was less than encouraging. "I don't think you're going to be able to sustain that," Clark remembers her saying.

An image of a breast milk pump.
Credit: Getty Images.

Using a patchwork collection of social media posts and existing online resources, Clark exclusively pumped for her son for two and a half years. The experience motivated her to become a lactation consultant herself, and Clark now offers exclusive pumping education and consultation through SonShine & Rainbows Lactation in Chesapeake, Virginia.

"One of the biggest myths about exclusive pumping is that exclusively pumping parents can't benefit from the help of a lactation consultant," says Clark, a now international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC). "We have the same kind of issues nursing parents have, but don't necessarily see lactation consultants as someone to reach out to because of the idea they only deal with nursing at the breasts. You want to help parents breastfeed for as long as they want, but if they don't have that support because they exclusively pump, it's less likely they will."

The good news is parents can find lactation consultants who will help them on their journey of exclusively pumping—and they should feel confident with their decision, especially since they certainly aren't alone.

While research is limited on exclusive pumping, the 2005-07 Infant Feeding Practices Study II found that 85 percent of breastfeeding mothers with infants between 1.5 and 4.5 months pumped or hand expressed milk for their newborns in addition to nursing. Among that group, 5.6 percent never nursed at the breast and exclusively pumped or hand expressed from birth.

With more parents choosing to breastfeed, one can assume the number of exclusive pumpers is also growing. But Clark says she still doesn't see much information about exclusive pumping outside online forums and social media groups, making parents who exclusively pump feel they have to figure it out on their own.

Sarah Lester, an IBCLC who runs Latch Breastfeeding and Postpartum Wellness Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina, says it's important that parents receive this information from the beginning. Lester nursed her first two children from the breast but learned during her third pregnancy that her baby had a cleft lip and palate and would be unable to nurse. Lester exclusively pumped for three years to provide her daughter with breastmilk and became more intentional about offering support for exclusively pumping parents in her practice. Lester says her daughter's cleft palate team at Duke Health now shares her flyers during prenatal meetings with other cleft palate families.

"I try to normalize exclusive pumping by making sure health care providers know it's an option so they can mention it to a family having issues with latching or choosing to exclusively pump from the start," says Lester. "It's not 'game over' because you don't want to bring the baby to the breast or because you can't bring the baby to the breast. Exclusive pumping can be and is an option."

What Exclusively Pumping Parents Can Expect From a Session

A typical exclusively pumping-focused session with a lactation consultant includes a flange fitting, an electric pump demonstration, and guidance about the importance of pumping every two to three hours during the infant's first 12 weeks when milk supply is being established. Hand expression and manual pump instruction can also be included to provide additional options if electric pumps aren't immediately available.

"We often see pumping parents who experience significant discomfort and clogs, which can lead to abscesses and ultimately a termination of breastfeeding and pumping," says Lester. "If they're using the right-sized flanges and removing milk efficiently and adequately, we can make sure that supply is adequate for long-term and extended pumping."

Clark also stresses the importance of changing the pump's duckbill valves frequently to ensure optimal milk extraction. "The pump manuals don't take into account a parent who's going to be pumping every single day for every single feeding," explains Clark. "As you're replacing your parts, whatever your pump manual recommends, slash that amount of time in half if you're an exclusively pumping parent."

How to Find Help for Exclusively Pumping

If you're looking for assistance from a lactation consultant, exclusive pumping should be highlighted on their website, flyers, social media, or other marketing materials. It's important to find a professional who views pumping as another form of breastfeeding, not as a lesser option to nursing at the breast.

A pediatrician, obstetrician, midwife, or other health care providers on your birth and infant care team can offer recommendations. And online resources, including websites like Pump Momma Pump and Exclusive Pumping, can also be helpful for parents.