How to Choose the Right Breast Pump

AndieM.Ed., RD, LDN, CLC, RYT-200

Read time: 6 minutes

What should I know about choosing a breast pump?

  • How does a breast pump work and what is two-phase expression?

  • What types of breast pumps are available?

  • Which breast pump may work best for me?

While the goal for many women is to breastfeed, there may be times when we are not able to have baby feed from the breast directly. In these cases, a pump may be necessary to provide breastmilk.

Many women rely on pumping breast milk when they go back to work, go on a business trip, go to school, or any other time they are away from baby.1 Some families need to, or choose to, rely on exclusive pumping and providing breast milk from a bottle.

How do you know which pump may work best for you? This often depends on how much and how often you’ll be pumping, as well as how old your baby is.2

Read more: Top Tips for Pumping Breastmilk

What type of breast pumps are available?

First: how does a breast pump work? Electric or manual pumps create suction that pulls and releases your nipples, removing milk from the breast using vacuum pressure. It simulates how a baby uses vacuum pressure to extract milk.3,4

Manual breast pump

A manual pump is operated by you, does not require electricity, and can only be used on one breast at a time. To extract milk, you squeeze and release a lever (or the bottle) to create suction.

Electric breast pump

Electric pumps need either an electrical outlet or battery power to operate. You can choose either a single or double pump (pumping either just one or both breasts at a time). Most electric breast pumps allow you to adjust both the suction and speed. There are also pumping bras available that allow you to go ‘hands-free’ while using an electric pump.

Two-phase electric pumps

Many electric pumps have two expression mechanisms: the stimulation phase (also called massage or let-down) and the expression phase (also called extraction). Studies show that pumps with two phases may help extract more milk.3,5

  • The stimulation or let-down phase comes first and mimics the fast, light suckle of the baby at the start of a feed. This type of pattern is what helps stimulate and initiate the letdown reflex, which is when milk first starts to flow.3,6

  • The expression phase then reflects the slower, stronger suck typical of babies once the milk comes in.3,6

If your pump doesn’t have these 2 mechanisms, you can always set your pump at a faster speed and lower suction initially to mimic the stimulation phase. Then change to a slower speed with higher suction once your milk has let down.1

Some may notice a milk let down within the first 30 seconds of pumping, while others may find that it takes 2 minutes or longer.7 Everyone is different, and with a little patient practice, you’ll learn whatever your normal may be.1

Have questions about pumping, your let-down, or increasing your breastmilk supply? Reach out to our team of registered dietitians and lactation counselors for free! They’re here to help on our free live chat from Monday - Friday, 8am-6pm (ET) and Saturday - Sunday, 8am-2pm (ET). Chat Now!

Parts of a breast pump

Depending on the type of breast pump, there are several pump parts that you may need to be familiar with:

  • Flange (or breast shield): This is the part that rests against your breast. It is often shaped like a funnel.

  • Flange ‘tunnel’: The connection (tunnel) at the end of the flange. Your nipple is drawn into the tunnel slightly while the pump is expressing milk.

  • Valves and membranes: The valves connect to the flange (or the connector) and direct the flow of milk. The membranes are thin, flexible pieces of silicone that connect to the valves, and which help create suction and prevent backflow of milk. The membranes may need to be changed often to help maintain good suction.

  • Connectors: Some pumping brands have parts that connect the flange to the bottle, these are the connectors. These also allow different size and types of flanges to be tried without purchasing a new connector (In other brands, the flange is attached to the bottle connector, making them one part).

  • Breast pump tubing: These clear plastic tubes connect the flange to the electric pump and help create suction. Only air passes through these, no breastmilk.

  • Milk collection bottles or storage bags: In many brands of breast pumps, you can connect either a bottle or a storage bag to the pump to collect milk. If you are pumping to store milk long term, collection bags often work well to freeze milk compactly. If you are pumping to provide milk within a few days, using a bottle may work best as you store milk short term in the refrigerator.

Read more: Safe Storage of Pumped Milk

Which breast pump should you choose?

The right pump for you will depend on your own personal preferences and circumstances.

Hospital grade pump

These pumps are developed to be safe for multiple users, each with their own personal accessories. They are considered the most powerful pump available but are not very portable as they may be quite large and heavy.2

Hospital grade pumps are usually used for a specific medical situation, such as if a baby were born prematurely, cannot latch, and/or is in the NICU. Having an adequate milk supply at 6 weeks postpartum and beyond is significantly related with milk production by days 6 to 12 postpartum.8 If baby is unable to latch, using a powerful pump during these early days can help set up milk supply for the long term.

Hospital grade pumps can be rented from most hospitals for home use, but such arrangements tend to be pricier as they are not usually covered by insurance.6

Read more: Pumping for a Baby In the NICU

Personal double electric pump

A personal electric pump is most useful if you are pumping every day while away from your little one, such as at work, school, or travel. This pump allows for frequent, efficient, and hands-free pumping of both breasts simultaneously. They are more powerful than a manual or battery powered pump, but are a step down from a hospital grade pump.2

Pumping both breasts at the same time is important for breast milk supply. It sends signals to the brain that help maximize your pumping output.1,6 If you will be pumping often, a double pump will be a better option over a single electric pump or a manual pump.

Double electric pumps are often covered by insurance in the United States.

Manual pump

These pumps are smaller and relatively inexpensive but are not hands-free and will only pump one side at a time. They are also not as effective as a personal electric pump.2

Manual pumps are convenient as an alternative to an electric pump if you pump less frequently. For example, they can be used to pump once per day to create a breastmilk freezer stash or if you’re going out for the day and don’t want to lug a larger pump. They are also handy if you are engorged and just need to express a small amount of milk for some relief.6

Some women with flat or inverted nipples use a manual pump to help the nipple protrude before breastfeeding so that baby can latch easier.9

A manual pump is not adequate if you are partially or exclusively dependent upon pumping as it is not powerful enough to maintain breastmilk supply.2

Silicone or “Haakaa”-style pump

This pump is a single piece of silicone that can come in various shapes and sizes. After positioning it at the breast, squeezing then releasing the bottle portion creates a vacuum that will extract milk. They can be very convenient for occasional pumping or catching milk on one breast while baby feeds from the other. However, silicone pumps often aren’t appropriate for regular pumping and may be less effective than a manual pump.4,10

Hand expression

Hand expressing is extracting milk from your breast manually, without a pump. This is a nice method to relieve breast fullness when you are feeling engorged. Some women find hand expression works better than a pump, especially when expressing colostrum during the first days postpartum.1,311

Read more: How and When to Hand Express

Bottom line about breast pumps

Any of these methods can be combined. For example, hand expression after pumping has been shown to both increase output and fully empty the breast, leading to increased milk production.1,3

No matter which pumping method you choose, educate yourself on how the pump operates and how to assemble and clean all the parts so that you can pump safely as well as efficiently.12

Speak with your insurance company before selecting a pump

Learn about which types of breast pumps you are eligible to receive under your health insurance plan. Do this while you’re still pregnant so you’ll be prepared when baby arrives.4

In deciding between pumps, think about size, weight, ease of cleaning, and whether replacement parts are easy to find.1 Perhaps most importantly, think about how often you may need to use the pump to help you choose the right one for you.

To learn about how to pump and get the most milk, read: Top Breast Pumping Tips

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For more on this topic check out the following articles:

Supporting Adequate Milk Production

Safe Storage of Pumped Milk

Meal and Hydration Plan for Enabling Milk Supply

What Is Paced Bottle Feeding?