How Lubrication Can Improve Breastmilk Pumping

by Kristine Phillips Keller

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I learned the answer to this question the hard way with my oldest son. I was not much of a reader but breastfed because both of my sisters did the breastfeeding thing. If they could do it, so could I. However, in hindsight, I pretty much did everything wrong that I could have done. I wanted a nursery (I needed sleep, right?), I wanted pacifiers (he can’t just suck on me or I won’t get any sleep) and I wanted bottles (dads need to help too, right?). I thought, surely I can make all of this work. Boy was I wrong!

Not only did I go into it uneducated, I also have flat nipples. I honestly thought they were broken as they never became fully erect prior to years of nursing/pumping. I also have really naturally dry skin. Early on, I had damage but didn’t realize how bad it was until it was visible, right at Stage III damage (which means skin is literally gone). I was in such pain that I would cry when my boys would cry because I knew what was coming. I would fear nursing them because of the toe curling pain that it took to get them latched on. For the most part, after a minute or two it became bearable. Other times, the entire feeding was excruciatingly painful for me.

At six weeks with my first, I gave into pumping full time. I asked for help from family repeatedly to try and figure out what I was doing wrong and what I could do to correct the latch. No one seemed to be able to offer me the advice that I needed to make direct breastfeeding work and I just didn’t have it in me to bear that kind of pain any more. However, I still wanted to give them my milk…so I continued on with pumping & still continued to have cracked, bloody nipples until a good 10-11 months of pumping.

Around that same time, I was talking with my sister about all of the bloody milk that I was dumping because, even though I was no longer nursing, I still had pretty bad damage on both of my nipples. I just thought that’s how it was going to be for me. She then asked me if I was lubricating before I pumped. My response to her was, “Isn’t that what you do when you have sex?” She laughed & then said yes but that the pump shields were dry. Babies have moisture in their mouth for lubrication but there is no moisture on the pump shield prior to pumping.

I mean, would you ever expect to drive a car with NO lubrication and have things go well? ABSOLUTELY NOT! There must be lubrication to prevent friction… and to prevent damage. After all, isn’t that what our healthcare is supposed to be about these days, preventative care? Well, let me tell you…the difference was night and day. I went from having constantly damaged, bloody nipples to pain free/damage free nipples overnight. It was such a relief to know that there was something I could do to prevent this pain and discomfort.

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I started working for WIC 2.5 years ago as a peer counselor and have since applied theory to moms that come to me with damaged or sore nipples. If you lubricate before you latch, you lessen the probability of damage happening from the initial suck (regardless of whether it’s baby or the pump). That lubrication gives both something to slide against instead of that reverse pressure working against dry skin.

I’ve asked numerous breastfeeding professionals and no one seemed to know of any literature that puts emphasis on “lubricating BEFORE nursing or BEFORE pumping”. The only reference that I’ve seen is to use breast milk on sore nipples AFTER nursing. If it works after, why not try it before?

Lubricant suggestions: (you may need to try a few different ones to decide which is most comfortable for you.)

  • Your breastmilk
  • Nipple cream/ointment (suggest vegan and edible, rather than animal based)
  • Coconut oil
  • Olive oil
  • Almond oil
  • Infant massage oil
  • Avoid synthetics such as traditional baby oil

Some moms have found that regularly lubricating their breasts and pump horns before pumping greatly reduces the amount of discomfort they experience which in turn helps them let down easier and respond better to the pump.  There’s no need for pumping to be a painful or uncomfortable experience, experiment with different lubricant options to find what works best for you.  I hope this simple tip helps you in your breastfeeding and pumping journey as it has helped me.  How about we pass along this little known tip and prevent the damage in the first place?

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What pumping tips do you have to share to help other moms?

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Kristine Thanks to her sister, Kristine breastfed/exclusively pumped for her two boys now 3.5 and 8 years old, she pretty much did everything wrong when it came to breastfeeding but managed to get the pumping thing right (after a while).  After experiencing discrimination she contacted WIC about becoming a breastfeeding peer counselor and begin training to become an IBCLC. She sits for the IBCLC exam this summer and looks forward to continuing to help mothers reach their breastfeeding goals.
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