Breast Pumps - Buying Guide
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Breast Pumps - Buying Guide

As you probably know, these days, "breast is best." The American Academy of Pediatrics and leading professional organizations recommend breastfeeding for a baby's first six months, unless there's a medical reason not to do so, without supplementing with water, formula, or juice. If you want to continue breast-feeding exclusively after that, those groups say all the better. That's because breast milk offers so many benefits. It boosts your baby's immune system by providing antibodies against illness, promotes brain and vision development and a healthy digestive tract, and may reduce your child's risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). It may also reduce the risk of some diseases later in life, such as diabetes, some types of cancer, obesity, high cholesterol, and asthma. Breast milk also changes over time and even during the course of a day to meet the needs of a growing baby. Breast-feeding helps moms to return to their pre-baby weight faster, and may decrease the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and even osteoporosis.

Breast-feeding is convenient because there are no bottles to prepare and warm, and it's free! But unless you plan to take your baby with you wherever you go and the process always goes smoothly, you'll probably need a breast pump. In fact, a pump can be indispensable for nursing mothers in a number of scenarios: You are returning to work and want to continue breast-feeding, you need to formula-feed your baby temporarily for medical reasons but want to resume breast-feeding when you get the go-ahead from your doctor, your baby can't physically breast-feed for whatever reason, or you need to miss a feeding occasionally because you're traveling or otherwise away from your baby.

A breast pump may come in handy during those first few days after you've delivered, when the breasts can become so full that a baby may have trouble latching on. Things can be sailing along in the hospital, but when you get home, supply can outpace demand. The solution is to express some milk with a breast pump, and to have one on hand before your baby is born, so you're ready to go as soon as you return home after delivery. A breast pump also allows you to store milk (in bottles or storage bags) for later, then bottle-feed it to your baby or mix it with a little cereal when she reaches the "solid" food stage at about 6 months.

Refrigerating Breast Milk: You can refrigerate breast milk safely for 24 hours, or freeze it for three to six months. But when you put breast milk on a shelf and let it sit, the fats may begin to break down and a few of the many other components may begin to change, according to Miriam H. Labbok, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Carolina Breastfeeding Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So use expressed milk as soon as possible, with the oldest milk first.

A housekeeping note: Always refrigerate expressed milk as soon as possible. When you're away from home, use an insulated container packed with ice or frozen ice packs to keep your breast milk cool. When freezing breast milk, date it when you freeze it and store it in the back of the freezer, not on the door--that's a warm spot that can prompt thawing every time the door is opened. When the time comes to use it, thaw breast milk in warm water. Don't boil or microwave it; both of those heating methods can destroy valuable immunological components that make breast milk the liquid gold it is. Microwaving can also create uneven "hot spots" that can scald a baby's mouth and throat. Finally, don't add fresh breast milk to already frozen or refrigerated milk for storage, and don't refreeze breast milk once it has been defrosted. If you can't use it up, throw it out.

What's on the Market: There are several types of breast pumps available--large, hospital-grade pumps, midweight personal-use automatic pumps, small, lightweight, easily portable electric, battery-operated, or manual models that work one breast at a time, and hands-free pumps that strap around your waist, so that you can multitask instead of simply sitting through another pumping session. You'll want a pump that's appropriate to your particular situation. Pumping can be time-consuming and just one more thing to do, but it shouldn't be painful or frustrating. Choosing the right pump can make the difference in breast-feeding success. A baby's natural sucking rhythm is 40 to 60 cycles per minute, about one pull per second or a little less. Hospital-grade and personal-use automatic pumps typically operate at 30 to 50 cycles per minute. Other pumps are usually less efficient. As a general rule, the more suction and releases per minute a pump provides, the better it will be at stimulating your milk supply. Consider this: Breast milk naturally changes during each feeding in conjunction with a baby's swallowing technique and suction. In the beginning of a breast-feeding session, breast milk is thin and watery. In the middle, it gets fattier, becoming whole milk. Toward the end, it's even creamier, Labbok said. Fat is healthful; it contributes to satiety, among other benefits. Ideally, you'll want a pump that mimics a baby's natural sucking action. Efficiency is important if you plan to save a large quantity of milk. If you're returning to work, for example, you'll need to have much more breast milk on hand than if you stay home with your baby or are supplementing breast milk with formula.

Once you find the right pump, you'll need to learn how to position it correctly and adjust the suctioning to get the best results. Don't worry, with the right pump, you'll soon get the hang of it. Pumps require some assembling and disassembling for cleaning. Use the dishwasher or hot soapy water to clean any parts of the pump that touch your breasts or the milk containers. Drain them dry before each use.

The breast-pump bottles that come with most breast pumps are now made without bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to make polycarbonate rigid and shatterproof that has been associated with adverse health effects in children. To play it safe, look for "No BPA" labeling on product packaging.

Plastic bottles made without BPA (non-polycarbonate) are solid and sturdy, and a safer way to store breast milk than plastic milk storage bags, which can become contaminated with bacteria if they get bumped by anything sharp, such as the edge of an ice cube. 

Types of Breastpumps

Hospital-Grade Breast Pumps: These electric powerhouses are about the size of a car battery and can weigh 5 to 11 pounds. Manufactured for users in hospitals and for those who choose to rent, they have sensitive controls that allow you to regulate suction rhythm, intensity, and pressure. Some have a pumping action that's almost identical to a baby's natural sucking, which can help to build and maintain your milk supply. A hospital-grade pump can cut pumping sessions in half to just 15 minutes with a dual pump, which empties both breasts at once. These are expensive to buy, but you can rent them from hospitals, medical-supply stores, lactation consultants, drugstores, and specialty retail stores. Choose this option if nursing is difficult because your baby has trouble latching on, if you're not sure how much you'll need a breast pump but you want one on hand just in case, if you plan to pump for three months or less from home, or if you must dramatically increase your milk supply and need the power of a hospital-grade pump.

Pros: They're fast and efficient. Many are also light, comparable to a midweight, personal-use automatic pump.

Cons: Even though some come with a rechargeable battery and an adapter for use in a vehicle, many don't come with a discreet carrying case. You wouldn't want to lug one to and from work every day because it can be awkward and heavy. 

Midweight, Personal-Use, Automatic Breast Pumps

Usually no bigger than a briefcase and weighing around 8 pounds or less, these electric breast pumps typically are lighter and slightly less efficient than the hospital-grade models. Like a hospital-grade pump, a personal-use automatic can slash pumping time because it has a powerful motor and serious suction. Many personal-use automatic pumps have suction that mimics a baby's natural sucking, which typically begins with rapid, high-frequency suction and changes to a slower, suck/swallow pattern. This mimicking fosters faster milk flow, although some pumps use a constant vacuum, with self-adjusting suction settings. Intermittent action better imitates a baby than a constant vacuum, and it's probably easier on you, too.

Many models come housed in a black microfiber shoulder (a.k.a. "Metro") bag or backpack, which is ideal if you're working outside your home. They're often equipped with an adapter for your car's cigarette lighter or a battery pack for times when you're not near an electrical outlet. They may come with all necessary attachments, including removable cooler carrier and cooling element, battery pack, AC adapter, and collection containers, lids, and stands. Choose this option if you'll be returning to work full- or part-time and you need to pump throughout the day to maintain your milk supply and express milk for missed feedings.

Pros: This is a quick and portable way to double-pump and fill up a bottle in minutes.

Cons: It's probably more than you need if you plan to pump only occasionally. The pump can be a lot to lug if you're also carrying other things. "I actually ended up buying two pumps so all I had to bring back and forth to work was a cooler bag with the bottles," said a Calabasas, Calif., mother of a 16-month-old. "This way, I wasn't carrying a huge bag plus my briefcase and my purse each way."

Small Electric or Battery-Operated Units

Using widely available AA or C batteries or household current, these lightweight, compact devices can fit discreetly into your purse or briefcase. They're relatively quiet, but the suction can be sluggish, although the vacuum on some models can be regulated for maximum comfort. Others, though, have a constant vacuum that can cause nipple discomfort. Choose this option if you need to pump only occasionally because you'll be away from your baby now and then for a night out or for a couple of hours during the day.

Pros: They are relatively inexpensive and portable. With the battery pack, you can pump anywhere, anytime.

Cons: If you want to use this pump frequently, you may find that pumping takes too long. Consider one of these for occasional use only. 

Manual Breast Pumps

With these small pumps, you produce the suction yourself by squeezing a bulb or lever or by manipulating a syringe-style cylinder. There are many designs of manual pumps on the market. Cylinder, or piston-style, pumps usually allow you to control pressure and minimize discomfort. Some manual models can be operated with one hand. They're easier to use than those requiring one hand to hold, one to pump. Choose this option if you're a stay-at-home or work-from-home mom and you need to miss only a rare feeding because of a night out; if you're traveling, or you have plugged milk ducts or sore nipples. A manual pump is also ideal for pumping on the go, in places where electricity may not be available. Look for one with an ergonomic handle, not a bulb, though any small pump could tire your hand and arm and cause repetitive strain injuries if you use it frequently.

Pros: They're less expensive than electric models and don't need an electrical source or batteries, and often are compact enough to fit in a tote or purse.

Cons: Manual pumps often are markedly slower than other pumps. We recommend these only for occasional use, such as when you're traveling. 

Hands-Free Pumps

Choose this option if your schedule is hectic and you like the idea of being able to do something else while pumping. One such model, Medela's Freestyle, is a rechargeable, double electric pump. The breast shields attach to a nursing bra, the hands-free kit attaches to the top clasps of most nursing bras. We haven't tested this product. Note: Many regular breast pumps can be made hands-free with a special pumping bra.

Pros: You don't have to drop everything you're doing. Because your hands are free, you can pump while you're reading, working, e-mailing, talking on the phone, or even holding your baby.

Cons: Setup can be complicated. To curtail frustration, don't attempt to assemble when you're sleep deprived or otherwise not at your sharpest. With this or any pump, get assistance from a friend or relative who is an experienced pump user, or from a lactation consultant. Be sure you have the right-size breast shields; using shields that are too small can cause breast soreness. Pump makers may offer a variety of sizes. In general, if it's painful to pump, you should stop and see a lactation consultant who can assess why, said one lactation expert. 


When considering the features of a breast pump, think about how and where you'll be using it. If you need one for the office, you'll want something compact and quiet. But if you're pumping in the privacy of your own home, there are other breast pump features to consider.

Suction Settings

The best pumps mimic a baby's natural nursing rhythm by automatically pumping in two distinct modes: rapid, to simulate a baby's rapid sucking to begin fast milk flow, and slower, to simulate a baby's deeper sucking to produce the most milk flow. Together, the two phases offer a more-authentic breast-feeding experience with greater comfort, increased milk flow, and quicker pumping time. "Closer to nature" brands/models on the market may purport to pump more like a baby. Others allow you to automate the pumping rhythm, speed, and suction at the touch of a button instead of relying on preset controls.


If you'll be using your personal-use breast pump every day, look for a pump that has at least a one-year warranty on the motor. A generous warranty typically is a sign of quality and durability.


If you're pumping on the road or you don't have access to an electrical outlet (for example, you don't have a pumping room at work and you're relegated to a restroom stall), look for a pump that can run on batteries or that includes an adapter that can attach to your car's cigarette lighter. But even if you have a Freestyle hands-free model, we don't recommend pumping while driving because it can be distracting.


If you'll be pumping at work or pumping often, get a double hospital-grade or midweight, personal-use, automatic pump. By expressing both breasts at once, you can complete a pumping session in 10 to 15 minutes. Besides being fast, double pumps are better for milk production. Double-pumping increases levels of prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production. Smaller pumps or a single pump may not be able to maintain your milk supply long-term and can quickly become frustrating to use.

Carrying Case

If you'll be commuting or traveling, a professional-looking pump "briefcase," sporty backpack, or "Metro" shoulder bag is the way to go. Most models, other than the hospital-grade ones, come in a chic, black microfiber case with a shoulder strap. Some models also feature a removable cooling compartment and pump motor, so you can lighten your load by leaving a section at work.

Insulated Storage Compartments

Look for compartments in the pump's carrying case if you'll be pumping on the go and need to store your milk for later. But be sure to keep an ice pack or two with your breast milk in the storage compartment.

Pump Weight

Even a 5-pound breast pump can seem heavy after a while if you have to carry it back and forth to work every day along with a briefcase, a purse, and maybe a diaper bag, if you'll be dropping off your child at daycare. If you've got a lot to lug and you'll be traveling frequently with your breast pump, get the lightest pump possible within the range of pump you need to buy.

LCD Display and Memory Indicator

Some breast pumps offer an LCD panel and programmable memory that allow you to record your preferred pumping pattern, so you don't have to reset the pump each time you use it.

Shopping Tips

Do your research. Like a toothbrush or lipstick, breast pumps are personal-use items. For hygienic reasons, some manufacturers don't allow returns once the product is opened, unless it's defective. So be as sure as you can be about this purchase before buying.

Breast-Pump Safety

Washing Breast Pumps

We ran across this misguided advice on a popular breast-pumping message board: You don't have to wash a breast pump between sessions. Not having to wash or rinse breast-pump equipment during the business day saves time and potentially embarrassing run-ins in the office kitchen or bathroom. Human milk is very effective at killing bacteria for about 12 hours after it leaves the breast, according to one lactation expert, but we don't know what the effect is if it starts drying or is exposed to large amounts of pathogens. If you don't have time to wash breast-pump parts between sessions, place them unwashed in a clean plastic bag, such as a zip-top bag, and store them in the refrigerator. But be sure to wash them thoroughly at least once a day.

Workplace Tips

Here are some handy tips from moms who've been there, plus other experts.

  • Learn to pump during your maternity leave so you're familiar with your pump and have the system down by the time you return to work.
  • Don't psych yourself out. Pumping at work can be challenging but if you dwell on the negative, you'll talk yourself out of it. And don't feel guilty, either. "Most smokers are taking more breaks than I do," one mom told us.
  • Get a double electric breast pump. Don't waste your time single-pumping. Another mom suggested you buy the best, most powerful unit you can afford.
  • Pump in a room with a lock on the door, if possible. You'll need privacy to relax.
  • Consider keeping a strict pumping schedule, a set number of times daily for no less than 15 minutes, suggests another mother. If you work in an office that uses electronic calendars, mark off time for your daily pumping breaks. It reduces the chance that you'll have meetings that conflict with your regular pumping time. Going too long between pumping sessions can be uncomfortable.
  • Use the time you pump to catch up on e-mails or do light reading so you can keep working, too. But don't pump while you're on the phone with co-workers or clients.
  • Bring your baby's T-shirt from home. A photo of your baby is nice, "but it's the smell that tricks your body into thinking your baby is nearby, which can help with letdown," said one lactation expert.
  • Consider skipping the company outing if you won't be able to find a quiet, private place to pump.
  • Keep ice packs on hand or get a small fridge for your office to keep milk cold and safe for your baby to consume.

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