How to choose a breast pump
If you have started doing some research on breast pumps and are left feeling confused, you are not alone.
Below is our in-depth discussion on breast pump options (Ps: We love sharing info! But if this looks like way too much reading, you can also see our shortened list of 10 things to consider when purchasing a pump).
If you have never expressed breast milk before and are not familiar with breast pumps and how they work, you will not have any idea what all the terms mean and what you should search for.
At this point it is worthwhile mentioning that:
- Not all pumps are equal – there are massive differences in design, speed and vacuum strength, to name but a few things. If you do not know what to look out for you can potentially purchase a pump that does not work for you at all.
- The same pump will not work for all mothers; it is really worthwhile to book a breast pump demo before you decide to purchase a pump.
Manual or electric?
Your first choice will be between a manual and electric breast pump. A good manual pump will work better than a low quality electric pump, and if a mom has a really tight budget, this may be her only choice. See our comparison for manual versus electric pumps, with all their pro’s and cons.
The remainder of this article will look at the differences between electric breast pumps.
Let’s start with your budget
Ultimately, this is typically the factor that determines which pump a mom chooses.
The most expensive breast pump is not necessarily the best. We really try to help a mom find a pump that fits her budget. However, it will still be one of your bigger expenses and it is worth budgeting for as soon as you know you will need it.
You can call your medical aid to find out if they will pay for a pump. If the breast pump that you have chosen has a NAPPI code, the medical aid may cover the cost. You would need to purchase it via a practitioner able to issue medical aid invoices though.
It would be better to buy a pump that is a little bit more pricey but fulfils in your needs, than to purchase a pump that does not work well, and then have to take out even more money to buy another one down the line. Many mothers quit expressing, thinking that it did not work for them when they actually would have managed fine with a better pump.
Lastly, remember that your pump may cost a lot of money, but so does formula feeding. And although any baby can get sick, breastfeeding can help to protect your baby from infections, saving you money in doctor and pharmacy visits.
What do you want to use it for?
While a hand pump may be sufficient for expressing for an odd evening out, a good quality pump will save a lot of time and yield higher milk volumes for mothers who need to express frequently. See our article on ‘do you really need a breast pump’ for some perspectives on the different reasons for expressing.
Single or Double?
Double pumping saves A LOT of time; you can do it literally twice as fast. This is worth a lot In a work environment where you are already pressed for time and struggling to fit in expressing sessions. This will also help at home, for a new mommy who is expressing for a NICU baby, or for a mom doing exclusive pumping, as they must express so often.
Apart from the time aspect, studies have shown that double pumping had the following advantages compared to single pumping:
- More milk ejection (let-down) reflexes in a session
- Higher volumes of milk
- Higher fat content in the milk
Our answer: if you need to do some serious expressing, double is always better.
Speed and suction strength
These are the factors that truly make or break a pump, and the reason why many of-the-shelf electric breast pumps fail to make the grade.
In order to maintain a milk supply and to express efficiently, you need a pump with a strong enough motor to:
- Maintain a certain speed (called cycles/suctions per minute)
- Reach a high enough vacuum strength
What makes this more difficult to evaluate is that in most pumps these two influence each other – if the vacuum strength is set lower/softer, the pump’s speed increases. As you set vacuum strength higher (stronger), it starts pumping slower.
Ideally a pump should be able to yield at least 40 cycles a minute to maintain a milk supply.
It should also have a strong enough motor to maintain enough negative pressure. You will not be able to measure pressure without a pressure gauge but look at the pump’s specifications and it should state the pressure it can reach. Good quality breast pumps will state a pressure of 220-320 mmHg.
It is important to note that the highest vacuum strength is not necessarily the best. If a mom experiences discomfort it will have a negative effect on pumping. But the pump should be able to provide suction strong enough for you to find the highest comfortable level.
Some pumps have a setting where you can determine the speed, and then adjust your vacuum strength to a comfortable level without the pump slowing down or speeding up.
What are your flange size options?
One of the most important factors in expressing success is flange size (the flange is the part that fits onto your nipple). A flange that is either too big or too small will lead to various problems.
Many cheaper breast pumps only come out with one (usually smaller) flange size. If this does not fit, one cannot order another size and you may not able to use the pump at all. You should check this before purchasing.
Open versus closed system
With an open system pump there is no barrier between the expressing kit and the actual pump, and milk and moisture can go through the tube into the pump. Mould may grow so your pump would need to be cleaned according to instructions and you would need to replace your tubes regularly.
Open system pumps should never be shared between mothers, even if they use different expressing kits, as it is not possible to sterilise a pump on the inside and it may be a source of infection.
A closed system pump has a barrier that prevents this from happening. Should a closed system pump get milk into the motor it will quit working. For this reason you should be careful to use expressing kits from another brand on your pump, even if they work. You may end up accidentally using an open system expressing kit on a closed system pump.
Electric pumps make use of three power sources:
- AC power – this pump needs to be plugged in to work. With South Africa’s rather shaky energy situation for many this is not ideal. It also means that you cannot express when you are not with a power point.
- Loose batteries – many pumps that needs to be plugged in can also work with loose batteries. Here you can buy batteries or use rechargeable batteries. You need to reckon the cost of these into the cost of your pump.
- Built-in lithium batteries – these pumps are charged (like your cell phone). This is extremely convenient and means that you can express wherever, whenever. When charged it should give you around 2-3 hours expressing time, depending on the model. It does mean though that if you forgot to charge it you cannot use it at all. These pumps are also heavier (as the battery may weigh a lot).
Size of the pump
Of course a smaller size is more convenient. But you are also bluffing yourself if you think you are going to throw your pump into your handbag and off you go. Pumping comes with a lot of baggage, like milk storage bottles, ice packs, a cooler bag and pump parts.
Sadly, the very small pumps with lithium batteries and strong motors are typically much more expensive.
Our conclusion? Size matters, but a good quality pump at a rate your can afford matters more, so don’t make this your biggest priority.
If you are going to express in a workplace environment, you may be looking for a pump that is quiet. But this is a very relative term. Most pumps claim to be quiet on their packaging. But if you hear pumps next to each other there are definite differences in noise levels. Some state their decibels, but few people know what different decibels sound like?
It would once again be ideal if you can test a pump and hear what it sounds like before your purchase. Reviews from other moms who have expressed with a pump may also help.
Sadly none of the electric pumps make no sound!
Are spare parts available?
Most good quality breast pumps will have spare parts that you can buy to replace parts that got damaged or lost. If this is not the case you may end up throwing a way a pump simply because you cannot replace a part.
Do check the prices of parts, as some pumps’ replacement parts are more expensive than others.
This is crucially important. If you have problems with your pump, who will help you? Company support is one of the requirements that we use when choosing pumps to feature on our website and at our Demo Centres. We want a company who will honour their warranty and take trouble to help a mom find solutions to whatever she is struggling with.
Can you buy secondhand?
Many mothers do, and many will have a successful expressing experience with a secondhand pump. There are various challenges though:
- Every secondhand pump advertised as basically brand-new. There is now way to know how true this is. A pump’s motor may become less effective after many hours of expressing.
- Lithium batteries that was left uncharged and unused for a long period of time may get damaged as well.
- You won’t have any guarantee on the pump, so if it breaks you are left on your own.
- Open-system pumps should never be shared as there is the risk of cross-infection.
- If you buy a closed-system pump you still have to buy new suction kits to prevent transmission of infections to baby.
We hope you found these perspectives helpful. You are welcome to contact an All Things Breastfeeding Breast Pump Demo Centre to assist you with this process. If you don’t have a demo centre in your area, we are happy to assist you as far as possible with a virtual consultation as well.
Remember that all moms who purchase any pump through out website or Demo Centres receive a free voucher to attend our online Going Back to Work and Breastfeeding Workshop; our biggest goal is to make sure that you are as successful as possible on your expressing journey!