Breast pumps have barely evolved, but you can still make them better
It's OK to hate your pump—we all do.
Cell phones have come pretty far in the past 30 years. In the early ’90s, they were brick-sized gadgets with spiffy antennae—now they fit in our hands and can recognize our faces.
Unfortunately, breast pumps have not experienced this dramatic evolution. A necessity for 85 percent of postpartum parents, this gizmo looks pretty much the same since 1991, the year when the first electric-powered pump was introduced to the US market by Swiss manufacturer Medela.
This would be okay if there was nothing to improve, but the perfect pump still eludes us.
As someone who has breastfed and pumped for four children and reviewed most of the pumps on the market, I can certainly say that I hate them all—and statistics suggest I’m not alone. Only about 7 percent of pumping parents use this method exclusively rather than directly feeding their baby.
Pumping is still a necessity for the vast majority of lactating parents in the US, but using unevolved gadgets might be contributing to 60 percent of them quitting nursing before they hoped to. Fortunately, lactation consultants have helpful DIY fixes to make pumping better, more efficient, and above all, less painful.
1. Pumps don’t efficiently extract all the milk like a baby does
It might seem simple to get breast milk out, but for anything other than a baby, it isn’t. In fact, replicating an infant’s movements is fairly complicated.
“[Babies use] negative and positive pressure, and undulating movement,“ says Chrisie Rosenthal, an international board-certified lactation consultant at The Lactation Network and author of The First-Time Mom’s Breastfeeding Handbook. “But most pumps literally just suck the nipple in back and forth, so we are in no way close to replicating what a baby does.”
[Related: What to know about breastfeeding]
She explains this sometimes leads to parents thinking they have a low milk supply when in reality it’s just the pump extracting it inefficiently. Ironically, not getting all of the milk out can teach the body that the baby doesn’t actually need that much, which eventually results in a lower milk supply over time.
If you suspect you have a low supply of milk, Carole Arsenault, parent educator, certified lactation consultant, and author of Newborn 101, says parents can assume babies are getting double the amount they see when they pump. Rosenthal recommends a similar approach, advising breastfeeding parents to use their baby’s weight gain as a measure rather than the ounces they pump—if the pediatrician feels they are gaining weight sufficiently to hit benchmarks, they have enough milk.
To prevent pain and discomfort, don’t raise the vacuum or cycle speed settings higher than you find comfortable. To increase efficiency, Rosenthal encourages massaging the breast before and in the middle of pumping—start at the edges and gently push milk forward for one to two minutes.
Finally, consider the invisible wear and tear age that comes from simply using your pump. If you have four kids over ten years, you definitely cannot continue to use the same pump and expect the motor to perform as well as it did in the beginning, Rosenthal says. If at all possible, use a new pump with every new child born. If you have insurance, this expense is probably covered.
2. You’ll need practice
Pumps can be complicated to put together, and they usually come with instructions that are not very easy to follow, says Rosenthal.
This is particularly problematic because parenting doesn’t allow the flexibility to sit down for an hour or two to understand how to work a machine you’ve never seen in your life. More often than not, breastfeeding parents have to figure out how to assemble a pump in utter discomfort, while their breasts are hurting and bursting with milk, their baby is probably crying, and stress is rampant. So manuals with complex indexes and poorly illustrated images provide absolutely no help.
Some pump companies such as Elvie have paired their products with an app that walks parents through assembly directions and troubleshooting. This is certainly an improvement from clunky brochures, but it is an exception, not the rule.
To overcome poor instructions, Rosenthal recommends getting acquainted with your pump by setting it up multiple times during pregnancy, rather than when you are in the throes of new parenthood.
Also, keep in mind that no matter how much you try it, that breast pump your best friend recommended, may not be the one for you. If you suspect this is the case, working with a lactation consultant can help you identify the problem.
3. You may need more than one pump
Pumps have one job, but that doesn’t mean they all do it in the same way. That’s why it may be a good idea to have more than one to accommodate different moments of your life.
You’ll need a workhorse pump to use every day at the office, for example,, but you may also benefit from a little date night one you can carry around more easily. It may not pull out all the milk, but it’ll definitely help you stay more comfortable if you’re out and you start feeling uncomfortable.
It may be a financial strain, but if you have insurance, Arsenault explains most plans cover at least one breast pump and some lactation consultation.
“Insurance companies are so pro-breastfeeding now. They will replace your pumps if you don’t like a specific one, and you can request a new one,” she says.
4. Maintenance is tricky
Pumps have a lot of parts and most of them are hard to clean. This can be a bit anxiety-inducing, especially for new parents who worry about germs or have only 20 minutes to ensamble, pump, clean and go.
While the official recommendation is to give your pump a full clean every time you use it, this is not always an option. Depending on what you have access to, Rosenthal recommends you make certain concessions to make your life easier.
Ideally, if you have access to a sink, wash your pump parts in soapy warm water and air dry them on a drying rack. If that’s not an alternative, you can use specialized products to wipe down the more accessible parts. Finally, if none of this is an option, use a paper towel to clean your pump as best you can and then leave the parts in the fridge. The low temperature will slow down bacteria growth.
When it comes to replacing your pump’s individual parts, keep in mind that a worn-out valve can affect the machine’s efficiency when pulling out milk. To avoid unnecessary frustration, Rosenthal recommends replacing these parts often.
And don’t wait until you see damage to get a replacement. Over time, tubing, for example, can get tiny invisible holes that can reduce suction, so they need to be replaced periodically. Often insurance companies will replace the whole “kit” for you as part of a subscription service every three months. Do it, Rosenthal says—even if you don’t think you need to.
Another pro tip is to buy second or third sets of pump parts—or keep the one from an older set you’ve already replaced. That way, instead of cleaning parts, next time you need to pump you’ll be able to pull out a new kit. This will save you some washes and give your pumps a longer lifespan.
5. Portability is still not the best
The idea that you have to be plugged into a clunky device—or worse: plugged into a clunky device that’s plugged into a wall—is a major drawback pumps have been dragging along since they first hit the market.
“We can send people to the moon and into space!” says Rosenthal in frustration.
Rosenthal says breastfeeding parents working as health care professionals, lawyers, or teachers, are often limited by the logistics of their jobs and would truly benefit from a more portable option.
The industry has made some advances. In recent years, completely portable in-the-bra style pumps have become more widely available, such as Elvie’s Wearable Double Electric Breast Pump and Willow’s Wearable Breast Pump. These models can go for more than $500 on average, but some insurance companies are covering parts for these costly investments.
But experts agree that these new portable pumps and their tiny motors have one major flaw—substantially lower milk output. Rosenthal says 70 percent of her clients who try portable pumps are unsatisfied with milk removal and explains that those who are happy with them tend to have a high supply.
“If someone has an average supply, those pumps are going to be more challenging,” says Rosenthal.
If you have to use a portable pump, she recommends pumping more frequently, potentially adding an additional pump session between your typical pumps, and stimulating milk flow using the massage technique.
If you want to take advantage of every potential-pumping moment, it’s also a good idea to have a pump in your car to use during your commute or to squeeze in a short pumping session after breastfeeding the baby at home. This won’t take away from what your baby needs, and over time it can help you build a larger milk supply.
6. Pumps are still uncomfortable
“I can’t wait to put my pump back on,” said no pumping parent ever.
That’s because they are still made with stiff plastic, which doesn’t feel comfortable on the breast due to its lack of flexibility. Pumping should never be painful, but for a lot of breastfeeding parents, it is. This is where lactation consultants come in.
Rosenthal recommends starting by checking the flange size. But don’t use the charts included with the pumps—instead, analyze how much of the nipple and areola is being pulled into the pump. The nipple shouldn’t be rubbing against the sides of the pump tunnel, and the areola should barely be sucked. If that plastic flange is still bothering you, she advises using coconut oil on the breast or flange to decrease friction.
Additional third parties have created helpful pump accessories, such as Pumpin Pals, which help with ill-fitting flanges made out of plastic.
But for some, pumps aren’t as much of a physical discomfort as they are an emotional one. Pumping braggers on social media can generate a lot of pressure to produce “enough” milk, which can intensify if you’re struggling to pump enough to send to daycare the next day.
[Related: Don’t buy breast milk off the internet]
Arsenault advises clients to stop following social media accounts that make them feel bad and instead focus on the ones promoting real breastfeeding education. She also recommends covering bottles with socks to hide the output. This eliminates anxiety and makes pumping a more relaxing experience.
At the end, when Arsenault pictures pumps a decade from now, she hopes to see more adaptable gadgets. She’d like to see not-so-mechanical-looking machines designed more like a baby’s mouth, which could even help with milk output. With any luck, this will all come true, and in a near future, we will be walking around with silent, strong, portable pumps empowering parents to succeed in their breastfeeding journey.
For now, we’ll have to make due with what we’ve got, and hack our way into a better breastfeeding experience for us and our children.