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Breast Pump 101: Basics

Written by Certified Lactation Consultant
RN, IBCLC

You’ve decided you need to purchase a breast pump, now what?

1. Start by doing research on the Internet, look at what the various companies say (like Ameda, Avent and Medela) about their pumps.

2. Talk to your lactation professional or find a certified lactation consultant .

3. Read personal reviews of the pumps.

4. Talk to your breastfeeding friends.

I've found that reading user reviews can be extremely important because they provide useful information from mothers who are actually using the various breast pump brands and models. Make sure you look for common complaints or concerns such as breast pump motor life or noise.

Even then, it is still a very personal decision. There are so many breast pump types on the market that it makes it difficult to wade through all the marketing speak and hype. However, all pumps have some basic functionality which I'll describe here.

All breast pumps are made up of a breast shield (or flange), a collection bottle, and a suction source.

basic breast pump

Breastpumps work primarily by using suction, along with the movement of the nipple, to cause a let-down, so you can collect your milk.  No pump mimics exactly the natural feeding action of your baby. The amount of suction a pump produces is usually expressed as a range in mmHg (millimeters of mercury, which is the standard unit for measuring pressure). It's important to note that greater suction does not necessarily mean a better pump. Prolonged, excessive pressure against the breast is painful, and may cause tissue damage. Increased suction does not increase the amount of milk mom is able to express.  Most women pump at the mid-range point, where the pump is the most comfortable.  

With some pumps, mom directly controls the cycle rate while she is pumping.  Most women find that pumps with an automatic cycle feature tend to be more consistent in removing the milk.   There are also pumps that allow mom to program the cycle to mimic her baby’s pattern - quick cycles at the very beginning, and slower as the feeding progresses.

Double breast pumping ( pumping both breasts at the same time) is quick and efficient. Studies have shown that moms release more prolactin when they double pump (verses pumping one side at a time).  Most pumps have the control knobs on the pump body, allowing you to have at least one hand free, if needed. There are also “hands free” attachments, camisoles, and bras available to assist the pumping mother.

A pump kit must also “fit well.”  Personal pump kits now come with two or more flange sizes. Additional flange sizes are available for purchase.  (For more information see: A Word About Breast Pump Shields & Flanges). If you have a double pump kit, you always have the option of single pumping (for instance, if you forget a part of your kit).

Women who are working full time recommend having at least one extra set of flanges, bottles and tubing. I know several women who have a total of 3 sets (the set that came with the pump and 2 extras). They rotate the sets, so that a clean set up is always left at work, while 2 sets go home for cleaning. 

A good breast pump is an investment in your baby’s health. The advice we hear from pumping women is, “Don’t skimp on a breast pump. Get the best one you can afford.”  

If you are still concerned about the price, consider the overall cost of formula feeding spread out over a 1-year period.