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The lowdown on breast pumps
Breast pumps are a great solution if you want your baby to benefit from your breast milk when you're not around. Moms who are going back to work, who occasionally want to leave the house baby-free, or who just want to get some rest find that breast pumps give them those options and other freedoms.
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, most insurance plans should now cover the purchase or rental of a pump and accessories, along with visits to a lactation consultant who can show you how to use it properly once your baby is born.
See which breast pumps moms like best in BabyCenter’s Moms Picks.
Types of breast pumps
Breast pumps fall into 2 main categories: electric/battery-powered and manual, which are completely operated by hand. A look at which type may suit your needs:
For moms who pump more than once a day: Top-end electric personal-use pumps
Top-end electric pumps are a popular choice for moms who return to work full-time or are frequently away from their baby and can't nurse regularly.
These pumps are fully automatic, with variable cycling times and adjustable suction levels to help avoid nipple discomfort. Most electric pumps are double pumps – they can do both breasts at once – but a few are single.
Some models are designed to mimic a baby's sucking patterns; they start with short, quick sucks to elicit the letdown response and then move into a slower, deeper sucking pattern. This feature can make pumping more comfortable, but it doesn't necessarily mean you'll produce more milk.
Generally weighing in at 5 pounds or less, electric pumps come with carrying cases and often include bottles along with accessories like storage bags, clips, labels, and nipple ointment. If you choose an electric pump, consider picking up a nursing bustier as well for hands-free pumping.
Many pumps come with a built-in battery pack, a handy option if you're pumping on the go or in a room lacking a convenient electrical outlet. Top-end pumps can run on a car's power outlet with an adapter that's sold separately for moms who need to pump in their cars while parked.
For moms having trouble breastfeeding: Hospital-grade electric breast pumps
If you're having trouble nursing during those first few weeks after you give birth, or your baby isn't able to nurse enough to build up your milk supply, your caregiver may recommend renting this kind of pump. It’s probably what you'll use if your baby's a preemie or in the NICU or if you're a mom with a medical condition that affects how much milk you produce.
A heavy-duty, hospital-grade model has a rapid suck-and-release cycle that draws milk from your breasts at about the same rate as a nursing baby; they are stronger than electric pumps you can buy in a store. A double collection kit means you can pump both breasts at once, which can cut pumping time in half and drain both breasts more effectively.
For moms pumping once a day or less: Manual pumps
Manual pumps are best for short-term separations – for instance, a mom who wants to leave her baby with a sitter every now and then and doesn't want to supplement with formula.
These pumps are more portable (most weigh less than 2 pounds) and more affordable than the electric models, so they might appeal to women who are uninsured or need to buy a second pump. Some women like their simplicity and convenient size. Many say that some manual pumps feel more natural because they more closely mimic a baby's sucking than electric models, and they also like being able to control the suction by hand.
Manual pumps require you to pump a piston or squeeze a lever to create suction. These pumps typically empty one breast at a time and may require both hands to operate, although a few are designed for single-handed use, and double manual pumps are available for moms who prefer that option.
On the downside, manual pumps generally take longer to use and require more effort. Some moms find these pumps maddeningly slow and tiring; some have trouble getting milk at all; and others say they don’t completely empty their breasts, which can lead to a reduced milk supply.
A note of caution: Stay away from the older models that look like bicycle horns. The rubber balls are too difficult to clean properly.
Important safety notes
Don't get a used pump. Although it may be tempting to share or borrow a friend's breast pump, or buy one used, the Food and Drug Administration and breastfeeding experts generally caution against it. Breast milk can carry bacteria and viruses – including HIV and cytomegalovirus – that can contaminate these pumps and pass an infection to you and your baby. And since droplets of milk can get into the internal parts, using your own collection kit doesn't necessarily make them safe to use. Also, hand-me-down pumps may not be as effective because motors lose their strength and the seals deteriorate over time, problems that may lead to a loss of suction.
Pumps designed for multiple users, like rental pumps and hospital pumps, are designed to prevent breast milk from getting inside the pump. As long as you use one with your own collection kit, they're safe—but check the packaging or call the manufacturer. If a pump is designated as "single-user,” only one person should use it.
- When using only one side of a double pump, seal the other side. Not doing so reduces the pump's suction and makes it less efficient.
- Choose the right-size breast shields (a.k.a. "flanges"). The shields that come with the pump may not be the right size for you. Watch your nipple while pumping – this video shows the proper motion. Is your nipple turning white or red? Rubbing painfully against the sides of the tube? Is an excessive amount of your areola getting sucked in? Do you feel like your breasts are still full after pumping? If so, you may need a different shield; women commonly need to go up a size over what’s provided with the pump. A too-small shield can contribute to sore or damaged nipples. A set of shields costs between $8 and $16; if you’re really having trouble figuring out the right size, a lactation consultant can help.
- Clean pump parts after each use. You don't have to sterilize them—just wash with dish soap and warm water. Then rinse with hot water for 10 to 15 seconds and allow to air dry on a clean paper towel. (Check your pump's manual for specific instructions.)
- Don't clean the tubing unless breast milk gets into it. You may see small water drops in the tubing after you pump. If that happens, just turn the pump back on for a few minutes to dry the tubes out. If you see milk in the tubing, check the manual for cleaning instructions and let it air dry before reattaching to your breast pump.