This post is part of the series Pumping Mamas
As I mentioned in my previous post, one of my secret weapons — aka most effective methods — I used to increase my milk supply was to cluster pump. That means mimicking a nursing baby’s cluster feeding with my pump.
Just joining us? Discover how I increased my milk supply in 8 weeks with seven simple steps.
In the days before and during a growth spurt, nursing babies usually demand a lot more time at the breast. It may feel like they are nursing all the time! Often, these cluster feedings happen in the evenings or at night.
Milk production, after all, is a supply and demand process. Supply usually increases to meet the greater demand.
As a pumping Mama whose baby was unable/unwilling to nurse, the traditional wisdom of letting baby nurse, nurse, nurse would not work for me and my baby.
So I had to figure out how to make my body think the baby was demanding more milk using just my pump.
This is where Cluster Pumping comes into the picture.
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Supplies you need
Pumping Mama, first you need to be sure to have a good quality, hospital grade double electric pump.
I love my Medela Pump-in-Style Advance. It has been used 6-10 times a day for 10 months with my first child, 6-10 times a day for 8 months with my second, and 3-4 times five-days a week for 7 months and counting with my third.
Another electric pump with a good track record among working moms and moms that pump exclusively is Spectra S2 Plus.
If you have to money (sadly I did not) you may want to consider the wearable breast pump Willow. I wish this technology was more affordable for us working moms on tight budgets, but I hope the price will go down in the next few years.
Other items of importance include:
- Bottles that work with your pump and that have caps and nipples.
- Milk storage bags for freezing extra milk.
- Soap that cuts through the residue breastmilk leaves on pump parts and bottles.
Though not strictly necessary, a hands free pumping bra is a great investment if you are a full-time pumper. I primarily used the Medela hands-free bustier but I’ve also heard good things about Simple Wishes.
Check out this list of resources for the pumping Mama!
So what is cluster pumping? It is when you pump in shorter clusters, much like a baby might nurse, to trick your body into increasing its milk supply.
To cluster pump successfully, you need to switch three of your normal 15-20 minute pumping sessions to the following:
- Pump for 10 minutes.
- Break for 5 minutes.
- Pump for 10 minutes.
- Break for 5 minutes.
- Pump for 10 minutes.
I set the timer on my cell phone so I would remember to take the breaks and return from the breaks.
But isn’t that time-consuming?
You might be thinking: “I don’t have time for that!”
Well, I hear you. I did not think I would have the time to do this either. With an extremely needy newborn and a toddler under the age of two demanding my attention, trying to get the 15-20 minute pumping sessions every 3 hours was hard enough!
But once I started, I actually found the cluster pumping sessions were far easier to manage than my regular sessions!
That is because, when the baby started fussing, I knew I had only three or so more minutes of pumping before I could take a break and tend to his needs.
When the toddler came over crying: “Mama! Mama! Food! Wawa!” or whatever it was he wanted, I could gently say: “When you hear the beep-beep, Mama will get you food or wawa or whatever.” That quickly ended the tears and tantrums, and it became a fun game to wait and listen for the cellphone’s alarm announcing a 5-minute break!
Also when my husband shouted from the back room that there was an extremely messy diaper that he needed assistance with, I could say: “Be there in 2 minutes!” or whatever was left on the timer.
So cluster pumping in this way is possible!
Simply choose at least three of your normal pumping sessions in a row to become cluster pumping sessions and do this consistently for 2-3 days.
When I began cluster pumping, I was already on a strict 3-hour schedule with a large gap in the morning for much-needed sleep.
Remember to take care of your health, including sleep!
This is an example of what my day looked like when I was cluster pumping:
6:00 am – Normal pumping session
9:00 am – Normal pumping session
12 noon – Cluster pumping session
3:00 pm – Cluster pumping session
6:00 pm – Cluster pumping session
9:00 pm – Normal pumping session
12 midnight- Normal pumping session
I repeated this for 3 days in a row, then took a 2-3 day break where I returned to a normal pumping schedule. Then I would cluster pump again for another 3 days. I saw noticeable results in my daily milk output within a week.
“But,” you protest, “I work! I can’t do this!”
Yes, you can!
You will just have to do your cluster pumping when you are home. So if you work 9-5, you might cluster pumping in the evenings after work. If you work an afternoon/evening shift, cluster pumping in the mornings might work out better.
Make it work with your schedule!
NOTE: As mentioned in this previous post, sleep is a vital component of your physical and mental well-being. You may have noticed from my example schedule above that I went midnight to 6:00am without a pumping session.
To sum up
First I had to recover from five and a half weeks with barely any sleep (only averaging 2-3 hours a night). I needed to be well rested. In full disclosure, I also drank one cup of lactation tea a day. (My favorite, and the one I saw the most increase with, is Pink Stork’s Lactation Tea.)
Then I threw in an extra early morning pumping session around 3:00 am for about a week to help. About then my supply began holding steady (and I was working full time), and I was able to cut the 3:00 am pumping session out again to make sure I get enough rest.
You may find you have to make temporary adjustments to your schedule, too. Experiment and find what works best for you.
If you are struggling with low milk supply, you might wan to consider trying cluster pumping.* I went from barely producing 8oz a day to consistently pumping 32-35 oz in only eight weeks!
*A side note
If you are a few days postpartum and your milk supply does not come in OR you are further along in your breastfeeding journey but the advice shared here is not working for you (we are different, after all), there may be some underlying issues and causes unique to your situation. I highly recommend talking with your doctor and a lactation consultant. You may need medicinal help to jumpstart your supply and that is ok!
If you are tired of the struggle and decide to wean early, that is ok, too! With my first, we reached 10 months of exclusive pumping with only the occasional formula supplement. With my second, also pumping, I reached a point where I decided to wean at eight months. I view it as a success, and I never would have reached eight months without the assistance of donated breast milk and formula supplement. With my third – my only breastfed-from-the-tap baby – we are at 10.5 months and going strong.
Each baby and each breastfeeding journey is unique.
I highly encourage that you discover the right combination for you and your baby. Happy, healthy baby and a happy, healthy Mama should always be your goal.
Disclosure: The links in this post may be affiliate links, meaning that, at no additional cost to you, I may receive a commission for purchases. Learn more. Thank you for supporting the brands that support this blog.
Continue reading this series:
The Pumping Mama’s Ultimate List of Must-Have Items