How to Choose the Right Breast Pump for You

Whether you’re a nursing mom who’s going back to work, trying to increase or maintain your supply, or banking milk for bottle feeding (or all of the above), you will likely be spending a good amount of time with your breast pump. As the National Institute of Health states, "If you are unable to breastfeed your infant directly, it is important to remove milk during the times that you would normally feed your infant. Removing milk from your breasts is called expressing the milk. Expressing milk will help you to continue making milk."

A breast pump will help you accomplish just that. And if you're starting to shop for one, the task may seem daunting. With all the changes that take place, for you and baby, over the course of your breastfeeding journey, it's so hard to know what kind of pump will work best for you. Just remember, as with everything else in early parenting, hang in there and you’ll soon master the art of feeding and pumping too. This guide will help you through the process.

The Basics

There are two kinds of pumps: manual and electric. Manual ones are operated by hand: You squeeze or pull a plunger to pump. Electric ones do the pumping for you, with a motor (powered by an electric cord or batteries) that moves air through tubes, creating suction on your breast. Both kinds of pumps are designed to mimic a baby’s sucking, and though they may feel a little weird to use at first, they shouldn’t be painful. Generally speaking, manual pumps may take as long as 45 minutes to pump both breasts; electric pumps can do it in about a third of the time.

An important note. The FDA does not recommend sharing or using a previously-owned breast pump because it puts the baby at risk for infection. As tempting as it may be to take a hand-me-down pump, it's best to purchase a brand new one. As the FDA notes:

  1. Manual breast pumps are designed for one user only (single use) and should never be rented or shared for safety reasons.
  2. Powered breast pumps that are designed for single users should never be rented or shared.
  3. Sharing a breast pump may violate the manufacturer’s warranty, which means you may not be able to get help from the manufacturer if you have a problem with the pump.
  4. The FDA does not recognize the term “hospital grade,” so this term doesn’t mean a pump is safe.

The bottom line for sharing breast pumps designed for single users? Don’t do it.

What Pump Best Fits Your Lifestyle?

  1. If you’re primarily pumping at home, you have a lot of options choose from. You don’t need to worry about how heavy the unit is or how many parts it has, since you have a designated spot to use and store it. So the choice is up to you: Manual pumps can make for a more relaxed, “natural” experience, saving you from having to listen to the whir of the electric motor. Or you could opt for a more heavy-duty unit that can optimally express milk.
  2. If you’ll be doing most of your pumping at work, put portability at the top of your list of requirements. Popular brands such as Ameda and Medela make portable pumps that come in tote bags or backpacks. Another thing to keep in mind: Electric models, which have adjustable suction and speed controls, will get the job done faster—and can be operated hands-free, both breasts at the same time—which are big pluses for office pumping.

Optimize Fit

Not every pump is a perfect fit for every woman’s body, of course, so it’s helpful to look for a brand with a full line of accessories that can help you adapt the off-the-shelf model to your needs. For example, having the option of different breast flanges (or shields) will allow you to find the best fit for your cup size. Some moms notice a drastic improvement in expression when the right size flange is used.

Some electric pumps also allow moms to customize the settings so that they can find a comfortable—but still effective—level of suction. Medela, for example, not only boasts a 2-Phase Expression technology (that is: a stimulation phase, light fast sucking to start milk flowing, and an expression phase, mimicking how babies breastfeed after letdown with a slower, deeper suck), but some models allow you to save your ideal settings.

Storing Your Milk

Most breast pumps also work with a variety of storage options: skinny plastic tubes for space efficiency in your fridge or freezer; bottles that you can quickly twist a nipple on and use to feed; disposable bags so you don’t have yet another thing to wash.

How you store your expressed breast milk will depend on several factors, including how soon you expect to offer it to your baby after pumping and how much room you have in your freezer or fridge.

The CDC's recommendations for keeping expressed milk includes no more than six to eight hours on a countertop, five days in a fridge, and three to six months in a regular freezer (separate from the fridge).

If you're stocking up your freezer stash, then bags are the most space-efficient storage option. Clearly mark them with dates and use the oldest bags first. Also make bags based on approximate serving size. Once the breast milk has been thawed, you should not refreeze it.

Get to Know the Parts and Accessories

Depending on the pump you purchase, there could be a lot of parts involved, including valves, membranes, tubing, and connectors. If your pump is not preforming as it used to it, it's a good idea to check for damage or tears. Most brands sell these spare parts.

You'll also find a wide range of accessories that will make life easier. From power adapters that plug into your car to quick-clean wipes to a hands-free pumping bra, you can find the right combination of products that fit your needs and lifestyle.

A final note if you’re shopping for a breast pump as you’re preparing to go back to work: This transition isn’t easy in general, and throwing in the jarring experience of trying to pump where you work is surely a big challenge for anyone. To increase your chances of success, buy your breast pump and try it out at home at least a week before you return to work. And keep in mind that even if, happily, everything goes smoothly at home, it’s inevitably going to be a different beast when you’re doing it at work. Don't worry if everything doesn't go as planned.

You’ve got this.

Now let’s take a look at some specific types of pumps.