The Beginners Guide to Finding and Using a Breast Pump
Last Updated August 20, 2017
Finding the best breast pump can leave you feeling like Goldilocks, constantly searching for the perfect fit.
Some pumps just aren’t right for you, even if they are right for someone else. What one mom might find comfortable can feel abrasive to another mom.
But if you want to reach your goal of breastfeeding your baby, at some point you’ll likely need a breast pump.
This guide will help you figure out what’s important when you select a pump and will give you a closer look at many popular models on the market right now.
Quick Comparison: The Top Ten Breast Pumps In 2017
1. Spectra S1
4. Spectra S2
10. Medela Symphony
*All links above will take you to the latest prices on Amazon.com or you can read our in-depth breast pump reviews below.
Do I Need a Breast Pump?
Some women who have exclusively breastfed have gotten by without a pump, but, I swear, I have no idea how they did it.
When my baby was 10 weeks old, I went back to work. I would have loved nothing more than to be a stay-at-home mom, but since my student loans were hanging over my head, there was no way around it – I had to go back to work.
Sometimes I was lucky and I was back home after a 6-hour workday, but there were days where things were super busy and I put in 12-hour days. I hated every minute of it and I would have rather spent that time with my baby, but it was something I had to do.
The only way I was going to make breastfeeding a doable option was by pumping while I was at work. If I had any hope of breastfeeding, I had to express milk with a pump so my baby could eat while I wasn’t with her.
Even if you aren’t returning to work, you’ll still likely encounter situations when you’ll need refrigerated or frozen milk on hand for your baby to eat. Whether it’s a family emergency, a medical situation or simply a night out with friends, you can’t be attached to your baby 24/7.
Sometimes you don’t get to decide if you are going to nurse – your baby does that for you. In some cases, babies aren’t able to latch properly onto the breast, but they are able to feed from bottles. If you want to breastfeed in those situations, you’ll have no choice but to pump so your baby still gets the benefits of breast milk.
Things To Consider When Selecting a Breast Pump
Before you randomly pick a breast pump based on a friend’s experience, you need to realize that you both might be looking for very different things in a breast pump. What works for one woman may not work for another. We’re all on different paths in life and we all have our own set of obstacles and challenges.
Any woman considering purchasing a breast pump will want to go over this checklist:
- Cost: You’ll likely want to stick to something within your price range, but if you buy a cheap pump, you might find it doesn’t work well for you. And if that happens, you’ll have to buy another one to replace the dud you got the first time. You might save yourself a lot of time and aggravation if you just buy the one you want to begin with. Regardless of what it costs, it’s still cheaper than buying formula every week (source). Health insurance might kick in and cover part of the pump as well. Services such as Aeroflow Breastpumps that can assist you with this process (source).
- The volume you plan to pump: If you plan to turn your breasts into Niagara Falls, you need to pick a pump that is made to cope with that kind of heavy usage. Some pumps are made for occasional use, while others are designed to handle many sessions a day. Knowing how much you expect to pump will help you choose between manual or electric pumps.
- If you want to pump both breasts at once: Pumping breastmilk can be time consuming and uncomfortable. If you want to spend as little time attached to your pump as possible, you’ll want to consider purchasing a pump that can express milk from both breasts at the same time, rather than just one at a time.
- Portability: Moms who plan to go back to work a few weeks after having their baby should strongly consider buying a portable pump so they can express milk during their lunch breaks at work. Portability is also an issue for women who travel a lot. Stay-at-home moms might be less concerned about having a portable breast pump than career women will be.
- How easy it is to clean: Buying a pump that is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle when it comes time to put it back together after cleaning it might sour women on the whole breastfeeding idea. Plus, women might resent the time they spend trying to get milk out of tubing when they could be spending that time with their baby instead. As a new mom, I detested cleaning because it ate into my time with my baby.
- Adjustable suction: The same amount of suction won’t work for every woman (source). You’ll want to look for a pump with adjustable suction in case you are one of the women the standard amount doesn’t work for.
- How it gets its power: Blackouts happen all the time. People lose power and they sit for hours in the dark waiting for a company to restore it. If you’ve pumped enough milk ahead of time that you have an adequate freezer stash, you might not worry about a lights-out situation. But if you don’t want to have to depend solely on an outlet, you can buy pumps that also use batteries. If you have the money to burn, you could even keep a manual pump on hand for emergencies or a car adapter that lets you use certain pumps in your car.
The Different Types of Breast Pumps
Breast pumps can in two different types - single and double. Single pumps can only attach to one breast at a time, where as double pumps attach to both. Double pumps tend to express more milk, but come at a higher price. Pumps can also be further broken down into the 4 following different categories:
- Manual Pumps: These have no external power source and rely on you to generate the suction by using your hands to squeeze a handle. Since manual pumps require no external power source, they tend to be very light and portable. However, the downside is that they usually express much less milk due to their reduced suction power.
- Electric Pumps: These require a power cord and an external power source to function. They have a much greater suction strength than manual pumps, and usually come with electronic features, such as LCD screens, a timer, multiple expression modes, and sometimes even a nightlight. The biggest drawbacks to electric pumps is their weight and the cost.
- Hospital Grade Pumps: It is important to note here that the term "hospital grade" is more of a marketing term than it is a medical one. In fact, the FDA has made it clear that they do not recognize the term "hospital grade" (source). Having said that, hospital grade usually refers to high end double electric breast pumps that have a closed-system, a long motor life, and are durable enough to express milk 8 or more times a day (source).
- Battery Powered Pumps: The battery powered pump is a convenient twist on the original electric pump design, by adding a rechargeable battery to the unit. This negates some of the disadvantages of traditional electric pumps by making them more portable and removing the single point of failure -- the plug point.
When Should I Use My Breast Pump?
Women who are only pumping occasionally and are feeding their babies directly from their breasts most of the time should:
- Pump milk in the morning where they are likely to get the most (source).
- Space breastfeeding sessions with pumping sessions by about an hour. You can either pump an hour before you expect your baby to be hungry again, or an hour after she breastfeeds. That will give you milk for both sessions (source).
Women who are only pumping and aren’t doing any actual breastfeeding should:
- Pump about every 2 and a half to 3 hours. Emptying your breast milk signals your body to make more (source).
Should I Buy My Pump New or Used?
Whether it’s safe to buy used breast pumps has been a controversy for years. But what many women who claim it is safe to buy used pumps don’t understand is that there are two different types of pumps – there are purchase pumps and there are rental pumps. They can also be called closed systems or open systems.
Pumps women purchase for their own home usage are generally open systems. It simply means that it is possible that a woman’s milk particles could reach the motor of the pump, which would make it unsanitary for another woman to use that pump. Purchase pumps are not safe to buy used (source) because they could contaminate your baby’s milk.
Rental pumps are different – they are what is known as a closed system, which means that a woman’s milk particles can’t reach the parts of the pump. That’s what makes it okay from a health viewpoint to share a rental pump.
Why You Should Pay Attention to Breast Shields
Breast shields are one of the most important breast pump features. Proper fitting breast shields, also called flanges, are crucial to your success while pumping breast milk. Breast shields are the cups that you put on your breasts.
You choose your size of breast shield on the size of your nipples, not the size of your breasts. And if you’ve used a different pump in the past, don’t depend on the size of breast shield you once used. Sizes of flanges aren’t uniform from brand to brand, and your pre-birth nipples may not stay that size after you have your baby.
This is why size matters: If you get a breast shield that is too tight, you can scrape and hurt your already sore nipples. It can be so painful that it might even cause you to reconsider whether you want to breastfeed at all.
You don’t want to purchase a breast shield that is too big either. Because your breast, not just the nipple, will be sucked in. That can mess with the flow of your breastmilk. Breastfeeding can be difficult enough without your milk supply dwindling.
If you begin breastfeeding and the process is painful rather than just uncomfortable, you should reevaluate the size of breast shields you are using in case they are the wrong size.
How Do I Use a Breast Pump?
You can either choose a manual or electric breast pump.
Manual pumps are cheap, small, portable and easy to operate. Because you are the one supplying the manpower to express your milk, you’ll only be able to do one breast at a time so it might be best for moms who are only going to pump occasionally.
Moms who are going to be pumping a lot will want to consider a double electric pump that will allow them to pump both breasts at once. It’s a time saver being able to pump both at once, and you won’t have to do any work. They are much more expensive however than manual pumps.
To operate a manual breast pump:
- You need to encourage what is known as letdown, which is milk moving from the back of the breast to the front. You can gently massage your breasts or place a warm washcloth on your breasts (source) to encourage letdown.
- Cover your nipple with the breast shield and make sure it forms a tight shield.
- Use one hand to hold the shield in the correct place, and start squeezing the handle of the pump with the other hand.
- If milk isn’t wanting to flow, lean forward and put gravity to work.
- Keep pumping until your flow starts to slow.
For an electric pump:
- Cover your nipple with the breast shield. Do the other side as well if you are using a double pump.
- Then you turn the machine on.
- Pay attention to your comfort level. If the suction level hurts, turn it down. If your milk is coming out too slowly, turn up the suction.
- Once your milk starts to slow, turn off the machine and break the suction of the pump with your finger.
Here are some other important tips to remember:
- No matter which pump you use, you need to make sure your hands and pumping equipment are clean before you begin.
- Your milk won’t come out immediately – it’s not like turning on a faucet.
- Don’t pull off the breast shields while your electrical pump is still on unless you love pain. Instead turn off your pump. The suction will be gone, but the shields will still be suctioned onto your breasts. Use your finger to break the seal, then gently remove the breast shields.
How Do I Clean a Breast Pump?
Some pumps may have separate instructions for cleaning, and some will be easier to clean than others.
But, in general, you’ll want to rinse every individual piece that comes in contact with breast milk with hot water, or wash them with soapy water before rinsing them well. Some pieces can be put in the top rack of the dishwater as well (source).
Let the pieces air dry. Some breast pump pieces for certain brands can be sanitized in a baby bottle sanitizer or in a bag in the microwave.
What Breast Pump Accessories Will I Need?
You may want to buy extra breast shields and valves to have on hand for when you don’t feel like washing the parts right away after pumping. It can be difficult to find the time immediately, especially if you are pumping multiple times a day.
If you’re not feeling well or if you are enjoying a lazy day with your baby, it will really pay off to have extra parts.
Having a well compartmentalized breast pump bag can help you organize all your spare parts and keep everything in it's place to make sure nothing gets left at home. Many breast pump bags also include insulation or have a built in cooler to help you transport your expressed milk when on-the-go.
You’ll need storage bottles so you can keep that breast milk safe in the refrigerator or freezer. If you plan to pump at work you should also consider purchasing breast milk storage bags or a mini cooler bag with ice packs so you can keep your breast milk cold until you can get home. If you have a work refrigerator, you can use that instead, but if your commute is a long one, you’ll still need a way to safely get those bottles home.
Some accessories aren’t necessities, but they can make your life easier – like a bottle drying rack, or a nursing cover which can help you pump in public without feeling self-conscious.
Other Breast Pumping Tips & Hacks
A good manual breast pump should do a great job of expressing milk, but it shouldn’t be painful for your breast or your arm. The repetitive motion of manually pumping requires a pump that has an easy-to squeeze handle.
Manual pumps are ideal for moms who don’t have to pump multiple times a day, or for those who are traveling and don’t want to drag along a bulky machine.
The Medela manual pump is easy to use and simple to clean. Anyone will be able to figure out how this pump works.
It is a cinch to bring with you wherever you go because it will fit in purses or bags with ease.
Since you do all the work, manual pumps don’t make noise so they are perfect for pumping discreetly during a lunch break at work. No one has to know what you are doing behind closed doors if you feel uncomfortable about pumping while at work.
Although it comes with a 24 mm breast shield, other Medela breast shields will fit on this unit, which means you’ll be able to find the right fit to give you a more comfortable breast pumping experience.
This breast pump should be in anyone’s budget, and it will give your baby the benefit of breast milk without breaking your bank account.
- This pump is affordable.
- Quiet, which can be important for those who value discretion.
- Seems to lose suction over time.
- Can make your hand tired if you pump a lot.
Electric pumps can cost a lot – I’ve had car payments that weren’t as much as some electric pumps. But, for some women, they are worth the money spent on them.
They are cheaper than formula feeding. They can express milk in mere minutes from your breasts, which is a huge time saver for moms.
This pump is lightweight for an electric pump, coming in at just over 3 pounds. It is one of the less expensive electric pumps you can buy, but you don’t sacrifice quality for the smaller price tag.
With this pump, you can express milk one breast at a time, or you can do both breasts at once. While some electric pumps are loud and attract attention, this one is quieter.
Another key feature is that this pump is a closed system, which means your milk particles won’t go inside the actual motor area. That means this pump would be a sanitary choice to loan out or give to other mothers after you no longer need it.
This pump has a letdown mode which signals your breasts to release their milk supply. It also comes with a night light and a timer. The night light is a welcome addition since those 2 a.m. feedings likely will be happening night after night those first few weeks.
- For an electric pump, this is super affordable.
- Quiet pumping which is nice for private moms.
- Pumps quickly.
- Doesn’t take batteries.
- The bottles tend to tip over easily.
The Best Breast Pump for Working Moms
Going back to work after having a baby is a challenge. Not only are you strapped for time and doubting whether returning to work is the right choice, you also have to find a way to comfortably pump breast milk while at work to keep your milk supply flowing steadily.
That’s when finding a good breast pump for moms in the workplace can be your greatest ally.
Some electric breast pumps have short power cords that make you have to sit right next to an outlet to get any pumping done. In addition, offices don’t always have outlets in spots that give you the privacy you need in the workplace for pumping.
The BelleMa pump has a longer power cord, which makes it easy to find a comfortable place to pump from. But the longer cord isn’t all this unit has going for it.
It’s a closed system double electric pump which has left and right independent controls where you can choose different suction levels for your breasts.
It only weighs 14 ounces which makes carrying it into your workplace a breeze. While you can still hear this pump, it is quiet, which also makes it a great choice for at-work pumping sessions. It is easy to assemble, which means you won’t cut in to your work time too much by pumping.
- A good price for a double electric pump.
- Easy to clean and assemble.
- It’s a quiet pump.
- The battery pack has to be purchased separately.
- Doesn’t come with a carrier.
The Best Portable Breast Pump
When you’re going on vacation, you can’t beat the convenience of a portable pump. If you are going on an all-day adventure with your family, you can’t guarantee you’ll have access to an outlet and battery packs can die at the most inconvenient times.
Portable pumps that are manual, however, can go anywhere you do and will always work as long as you are able to squeeze the handle.
This pump has a small, wide bottle attached to the pump, instead of a long, thinner one that other portable pumps use. One thing moms might appreciate about this breast pump is that it is compatible with other Philips Avent bottles and milk storage containers.
The small, compact size of this pump makes it easy to position and use – you can even operate it with one hand. It has an angled neck which works with gravity to allow your milk to flow directly into the bottle so you won’t have the discomfort on your lower back of having to lean forward to help your milk flow.
This pump also has a soft massage cushion designed to stimulate milk flow.
Moms who aren’t content to just wash their portable pumps will be glad to know this unit can be sterilized in the microwave or by dropping it in boiling water.
- Easy on your back because its design doesn’t require you to lean forward.
- Can squeak a little sometimes while operating.
- You have to press it hard against your breast to form a suction.
The Best Hands Free Breast Pump
Breast pumping can be a time-consuming task for moms. We already have so much to cram into our days, that pumping 8 to 10 times a day can seriously affect how much we get done off our to-do lists.
Considering you might be spending multiple hours a day pumping, finding a good hands-free breast pump option can help you fit a lot more into your day.
This small double electric pump becomes a hands free unit, but it can take some effort to find a way to make it work for you. Since this pump works with a cord, but also a battery pack, you can move around doing household chores while you are pumping if you want to kill two birds with one stone.
It has a one-touch letdown button that sends a message to your body that your milk needs to start flowing. The suction level goes from setting one all the way up to setting nine. It also features a pumping timer that lets you keep track of your sessions. A memory button lets you save your favorite settings.
While the pump might feel too gentle to some women, this machine gives moms more freedom than being tied down to a stationary machine does. It also comes with a cooler bag and ice packs in case you use this when you are outside the house.
Read the full Medela Freestyle Review
- This unit provides true mobility for women who are pumping.
- It’s lightweight.
- Comes with a cooler bag and ice packs.
- This machine is pricey.
- Figuring out how to use the hands-free capability of this unit is tricky.
The Best Cheap Breast Pump
Sometimes you might be able to get by with a cheap breast pump. If you are primarily nursing your baby, you may be able to just have a cheap unit on hand to do some light pumping duty with. It will save you the expense of buying one of the more expensive heavy-duty pumps on the market.
Although this unit is called a pump, there’s no actual pumping involved, but you’ll end up with a significant amount of breast milk by the time you’re done using it.
All you do is take this BPA-free, silicone unit and attach it to your breast while you are breastfeeding. So your baby will be attached to one breast and this pump will be attached to the other. Then you just let nature take its course.
As letdown occurs and your milk begins to flow from both breasts, some women lose the milk coming from their other breast – it goes directly into the breast pads they wear to prevent leakage. But when you use this small pump on your free breast, you’ll end up with 2 or 3 extra ounces by the time your baby is done feeding. And the best part is, there’s no discomfort involved and no necessary action on your part.
- It’s insanely cheap.
- Easy to use.
- Perfect for traveling.
- It won’t completely empty your breast.
- Measurements on the bottle are a bit inaccurate.
The Best Breast Pump for Large Breasts & Twins
Large breasts don’t always mean you’ll have a hard time finding a pump that will work for you. Determining which size of breast shield you need is based on the size of your nipples, not your overall breast. It’s possible that you can have bigger breasts and still have normal sized-nipples.
But if you’re worried your size will prevent you from breastfeeding, this is a pump that may help you with your desire to breastfeed.
If you have twins, you need to find a pump that will drain your breasts as fast as possible. You have two babies to feed and you need to make sure you have an adequate supply for them. Your best bet is to use this following machine which can make quick work of breast pumping.
The Pump In Style has many features that make it a good pump, but for women with large chests and bigger than average nipples, the nice thing is that you can separately buy extra-large breast shields to make this pump work.
This pump already comes with two sizes of breast shields – the 24mm and the 27mm. Before automatically ordering the extra-large shields, you should give the included shields a test run. One of them might work for you even if you are well endowed.
The pump is attached to the carry-all bag that comes with the kit. You can move this whole kit easily from one room to another in your house.
This pump can help moms keep their supply up because of the strong suction it offers. The suction is adjustable, however, for moms who prefer a lighter touch. The cooler and ice packs come with this unit for moms who want to use it outside of the home.
Read the full Medela Pump In Style Review
- Strong suction feature.
- Easy to clean.
- Replacement parts are easy to find because the brand is so well known.
- This pump costs a little more than some on the market.
- It’s a heavy pump, which makes it less ideal for travel.
The Best Breast Pump for Exclusive Pumping
When you are exclusively pumping, you’re going to want a pump that gets down to business immediately, sucks out as much milk as possible and doesn’t hurt your breasts. Because you’re going to be pumping 8 to 10 times a day, you need a machine that won’t quit so you won’t be tempted to give up on breastfeeding.
Some pumps, like the winner in these two categories, can even drain both breasts at once, which will halve the time moms spend pumping.
This unit is a great choice, and although it is more expensive than the Spectra S2, I feel it’s worth the extra money because it has one feature the other pump doesn’t have – it can be operated with batteries in addition to a power cord.
Other than that and the price tag, there aren’t any other big differences between these two models. Although that may seem like a small distinction and one not worth paying for, when you are exclusively pumping, you spend so much time during your day stuck to your breast pump that not being tied to an outlet is incredibly freeing.
It’s not a short-term commitment either – it can last for months and even a year, depending how long you want to breastfeed your baby. That battery pack option can really open up your world when you are exclusively pumping.
It makes quick and comfortable work out of pumping your breasts. You won’t need earplugs when you operate this unit either – it’s an extremely quiet pump.
Read the full Spectra S1 Review
- Can be operated with batteries or a power cord.
- Quiet, which makes for a more relaxed pumping experience.
- Expresses milk quickly and comfortably.
- Closed system.
- The tubes fall off easily during pumping.
- The pump vibrates during usage.
The Best Hospital Grade Breast Pump
If you are willing to pay for a top-quality hospital-grade pump to ensure your peace of mind, there are some good options out there. Hospital-grade pumps are generally closed system pumps, which means that none of your breast milk particles will reach the pump motor.
This pump was made for daily use and unless you plan to give it a workout, you might want to find a more inexpensive pump. It uses 2-phase expression technology to help your milk start flowing freely.
If normal pumps take a long time to remove your milk, you might want to try this one because it is made to quickly express milk. That’s a big deal when you are pumping exclusively because it can feel like you’ve spent half your day hooked up to a breast pump.
You can use this pump for expressing milk from one breast at a time or from both breasts at once. It’s a closed system so you won’t get any backflow of your milk into the tubing and motor. That can cut down on the risk of your baby ingesting mold or bacteria along with their breast milk.
- These pumps are built to last -- they can work for years.
- It’s so quiet you can barely tell it’s on.
- It’s a sanitary closed system.
- The collection bottles and other items you need for this pump are sold separately in a kit.
- This is a very expensive breast pump.
The Best Single Electric Breast Pump
If you want to pump one breast while your baby is nursing from the other, you’ll want to consider getting a single electric breast pump. Between your baby and a single pump, you’ll make sure your breasts are fully drained so they keep producing that liquid gold.
This single electric pump is made completely from food-grade silicone, which is nice for moms who are worried about potentially harmful chemicals in plastic.
It has a stimulation massage cushion that has a warm, soothing sensation to it that can help bring about letdown. After the stimulation mode, you can select from the three different expression settings to find the one that is most comfortable for you.
It’s small and light enough that you can transport it easily, whether you are going on a vacation or trying to sneak in an extra pumping session over your lunch break at work.
You’ll get the pump, tubing, a bottle, a nipple, a lid, a charger, a USB cable and a bag to put it all in. If you want to use it with other bottles, it is compatible with Philips Avent bottles.
- It’s lightweight and easy to use.
- This pump isn’t difficult to clean.
- It’s comfortable on your breast.
- It has to be plugged in while you use it -- it won’t work on battery power.
- Some moms have had problems with it breaking after a few months of use.
My Favorite Breast Pump
When you factor in both affordability and function, the Spectra Baby USA S1 is my clear favorite. No matter what you are looking for in a breast pump, the S1 delivers. Here are some of the features that make it stand out from the crowd:
- It’s lightweight, which makes it portable.
- You can use it with a battery or power cord for great mobility.
- It pumps quickly.
- It’s comfortable and it has a variety of settings to help moms find a mode that works for them.
- It’s quiet, unlike some pumps which can be almost deafening at times.
- The price is better than many other higher-quality pumps.
- If you need to pump exclusively, you can pump both breasts at once.
Whether you are pumping occasionally or multiple times a day, the S1 will help you reach your goal of breastfeeding your baby. In no time, your baby will be thriving from the benefits of the freshly pumped breast milk you’ll be giving her. The time you spent searching for the best breast pump will be time well spent.
More Breast Pump Reviews & Comparisons
Didn't find what you're looking for? Read our in-depth reviews of some of the top performing breast pumps currently on the market: