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Breast Pumps: a Beginner’s Guide

There’s a wide variety of breast pumps on the market. I’ve often seen pregnant women standing in the pharmacy, checking out the pumps for sale and looking very perplexed. I don’t blame them! In this post I will share a bit about the different types of breast pumps you get, the benefits and drawbacks of each, and what they are intended to be used for.

breast pumps

Anatomy of a breast pump

Essentially, a breast pump has 3 vital parts:

  1. The motor: this is what generates the suction. Of course, a manual pump does not have a motor, but it has some moving parts that do the same job. Within a brand, the more expensive pumps usually have better motors (but the more expensive brands are not always better than the cheaper ones. Often, but not always.)
  2. The flange: this is the “shield” that you place on your breast. It is very important that the opening of the flange must be a good fit for your nipple – too big or too small and you will struggle to get milk out, while badly hurting your nipples. Different brands have different sizes, so be sure to look at this before you buy – you want the diameter of the opening to be a few millimetres larger than the diameter of your nipple (see the picture below).
  3. Some way of connecting the flange to the motor. In most manual pumps, the mechanism attaches directly to the flange. For electric breast pumps, the motor either screws onto the flange directly, or the motor of the electric pump is connected to the flange by thin plastic tubing.
Breast pumps flange fit

Check that your breast pump’s flange is the right size for your nipple

Types of breast pumps

Breast pumps - hospital grade

Hospital grade electric breast pump

Hospital grade electric breast pumps

You will not find these pumps on the shelves in a retail establishment; they can only be bought directly from the manufacturers. They are very expensive, heavy-duty machines that are intended to be used by several women for many years. Your local hospital probably has one that the mothers in the ward can use, and you can sometimes hire them from private baby clinics or lactation consultants. You will need to buy your own “kit,” i.e. the tubes and flanges. These can be quite expensive – it often costs as much as a good manual pump.

Pro’s:

  • This is probably the quickest and most effective type of pump available.
  • The benefits are the same as for a double electric pump. The main difference is in the fact that these pumps can be used by multiple users and they have a much longer lifespan.

Cons

  • You can’t really buy one (well, unless you’re prepared to shell out tens of thousands of Rands!), and rental gets expensive if you’re going to be pumping for a long time.

Verdict: This pump is great for establishing a milk supply if your baby is in NICU or otherwise not able to breastfeed. If you will be pumping for a long time, though, I suggest you buy a single-user pump as soon as you milk supply is well established – otherwise the rental costs will bankrupt you!

Double electric breast pumps

Breast pumps - double electric

Double electric breast pump

These are single-user pumps (meaning you can’t share them or buy a second-hand one) that you can buy in a shop or online. They consist of a single motor unit to which you can attach two sets of tubing and flanges, so that you can express both breasts at once.

 

Pro’s:

  • Because they express two breasts at once, they work twice as fast, so it saves time.
  • Provides more stimulation than a single pump if you struggle to produce enough breast milk (to your body, it feels like you’re suddenly breastfeeding twins!).
  • If you use a “pumping bra”, you can have your hands free to work on the computer, read a book or have a cup of tea.

Cons

  • These are the most expensive of the pumps you can actually buy
  • They need electricity – batteries just can’t provide enough power to pump two breasts at once. Even if they have a battery pack, you’ll definitely notice a drop in suction.

Verdict: this is a good option for most women who need to express on a daily basis, e.g. exclusive pumpers or moms who work full time. However, for working moms I would advise seeing if any of the cheaper, low-tech options work before spending such a large amount of money. Personally, I’ve never owned a double electric pump – I’ve always managed to get by well enough with single pumps (both electric and manual) and hand expressing. If you use one of these pumps, you should definitely have a back-up plan for the inevitable power failures!

Single electric breast pumps

Breast pumps - single electric

Single electric breast pump

Single electric pumps consist of a motor attached to a single flange, so that you can only express one breast at a time.

Pro’s:

  • They’re much more affordable than double electric pumps
  • Many of these pumps have a battery pack as a backup (although they burn through batteries really quickly, and rechargeables just don’t seem to give enough power. I suggest you save batteries for emergencies only!)
  • You always have one hand free, and if you use a “pumping bra”, you can have both hands free.

Cons

  • Most of these pumps are not made to handle the amount of pumping that a full-time working mother will do – the motors often burn out after a few months.

Verdict: A single electric pump may be a good option of you only need to pump occasionally, say no more than once a day – e.g. if you work half-day. Otherwise, if you need to express more than once a day, either go for a double electric pump or go manual.

Manual breast pumps

Breast pumps - manual lever

Manual breast pump – Lever type

Breast pumps - manual cylinder

Manual breast pump – Cylinder type

Manual breast pumps do not have an electric motor at all; you use your hands to power the mechanism that creates the suction. Broadly speaking, you get two types: those that work with a cylinder mechanism (it looks kind of like an enormous syringe) and those that use a lever mechanism (it looks rather like the handle of a fire extinguisher). I find the lever-types are much easier to use, and they can be operated with one hand – unlike the cylinder types, which require two hands to operate.

Pro’s:

  • These are the most affordable breast pumps
  • You have total control over how fast and how hard the pump sucks (this is probably my favourite feature of manual pumps!)
  • Power failures are never a problem
  • If you buy two, you have a double manual pump for a fraction of the price of a double electric one!

Cons

  • You need to use your hand – so no typing at the computer while you pump, although you can still do things that only require one hand and not much concentration.
  • There’s a bit more of a learning curve, as you figure out what exactly works for you.

Verdict: this is where I would start. There is a lot of variability in the size, shape and effectiveness of manual pumps, so see if you can borrow a few and try them out (since you can usually sterilize the entire pump, it is quite safe to use someone else’s manual pump). With my second baby I got a manual pump as a gift, and I liked using it so much that I never bothered to use an electric one again.

Hand expressing

Hand express

Hand expressing – Old school!

Hand expressing is as low-tech as it gets – the only piece of equipment you need is some sort of container to express the milk into.

Pro’s:

  • Your hands are always with you – you can’t forget them, and they still work if the power is off
  • Hands are more effective than pumps for getting that last bit of milk out of the breast
  • Hand expressing is much more effective for treating engorgement and blocked ducts
  • Hand expressing is the only really effective way to get those tiny bits of colostrum in the beginning

Cons

  • You need to learn how to hand express properly (check out this post) to get good results
  • Your hands can get pretty tired
  • There is no hands-free option – you’ll always have one hand on the breast and one hand holding the container.

Verdict: Learn to hand express. No matter what your situation, this is a skill every breastfeeding mom needs to have. Even if you don’t plan to use it as your everyday means of getting milk for your baby, there will inevitably come a day when you forget some part of your pump at home, and then you will be glad that you know how to hand express!

Sum up:

Pump Things to consider Recommended for…
Hospital grade pump
  • Not for sale, only for rental
  • You still need to buy the kit
Establishing milk production when a newborn can’t breastfeed.
Double electric pump
  • Quicker than a single pump, and provides more stimulation for milk production.
  • Quite pricey.
  • Needs electricity.
Women who express a lot, e.g. exclusive pumpers or full-time working moms.
Single electric pump
  • Less expensive than double pumps
  • Not as durable as double pumps
  • Needs electricity, but many also have a battery pack for emergency back-up.
Women who only express occasionally or only once a day
Manual pump
  •  Least expensive type of breast pump
  • Offers total control
  • You need to practice to figure out how it works and what works for you
  • Not hands-free
This is the only pump a stay-at-home mom will need (if she even needs a pump). Can also work well even for a full-time working mom, if you don’t mind not having your hands free.
Hand expressing
  • Totally free and totally portable!
  • It’s a skill that must be learned
  • If you need to express often, it’s quite hard on the hands.
Every woman! But especially useful for expressing colostrum, treating engorgement and blocked ducts and getting the last bit of milk out of the breast after pumping.

 

Which brand of breast pump?

Unfortunately, my professional code of ethics doesn’t allow me to answer that question online! But when deciding on a brand, keep the following things in mind:

  • Don’t choose purely based on price. Cheap pumps are cheap for a reason, especially electric ones – you will need to replace it before long. On the other hand, the most expensive is not necessarily the best either.
  • Talk to other women who’ve expressed for a while with good results and ask them which pump they would recommend.
  • Ask a knowledgeable breastfeeding person, such as a lactation consultant, for advice.
  • Read online product reviews. If a specific brand has terrible quality, the internet will tell you! Sites that sell breast pumps, such as Amazon.com or Takealot.com, are a good place to start.
  • Don’t ask the shop assistant at the pharmacy; they will probably advise you to buy the most expensive one.
  • Shop online. You can buy some very good breast pumps online that aren’t widely available in stores. Just don’t buy second hand!

Good luck in selecting a breast pump. I hope it helps you to extend your breastfeeding journey for as long as you want to!

Breast Pumps and Business Suits: A Practical Guide to Breastfeeding and Working

 

Want to know more about breastfeeding as a working mom? Check out my e-book, Breast Pumps and Business Suits. It contains absolutely everything you need to know about making a success of breastfeeding and working! Click here for more info.

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