Choosing a breast pump can feel like a minefield. It's an incredibly subjective process; the pump that suits one woman perfectly, the next woman won't get on with at all. And to complicate matters further, there’s a huge range of designs and prices to sort through.

Breast pumps help you to express breastmilk, so it can be stored and given to your baby via a bottle, either at the time or at a later date. There are various models on the market but all breast pumps, whether manual or electric, work in basically the same way: you place the funnel on your breast, then manual pumps extract the milk with a lever you depress yourself and electric pumps create a rhythmic vacuum to do the work for you.

Electric pumps usually have different settings for suction strength and frequency, so you can find the modes that suit you best. Breastpumps are as subjective for mothers as bottles are for babies, so don’t be put off if one doesn’t seem to be working for you; chances are you'll get on better with a different one. Here are some things to consider before making a purchase.

When might you need one?

Plenty of mothers breastfeed without ever going near a breast pump, but if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, it’s likely that one will be useful at some point. You might consider expressing if:

  • your baby is premature and spends time in the NICU
  • your baby struggles to latch in the early days of feeding and you’re worried about how much milk she's taking in
  • you return to work and want to continue breastfeeding
  • you want to increase your supply
  • once out of the newborn phase, you want to share the feeding load a little and have an occasional evening to yourself
  • you're worried about supply. Knowing you have breastmilk stored in the freezer relieves much of the pressure that can accompany breastfeeding: even if your supply runs out tomorrow (it won’t!), you’ve always got something in reserve

Things to consider

Manual or electric?

There are pros and cons to each type of pump. Manuals are smaller, less expensive, usually less noisy (though not always!) and can be used indoors and out, wherever you are. You also have a bit more control with a handheld pump, which can be useful, particularly if you're suffering with sore or cracked nipples. On the other hand, many women find them less effective at extracting milk and, if pumping regularly, doing all the work yourself is a bit of a chore.

Electric pumps are usually more efficient (particularly if they’re double pumps), provide more options to vary suction strength to suit you, and they work by themselves, a huge time-saver for women who express regularly or for every feed, as you have your hands more free to do something else. On the downside, even the cheapest model is much more expensive than the manual pumps. It's also worth knowing that some electric pumps don’t come with a battery option so you have to be near a mains supply to express, and they’re also often bulkier and noisier than their manual counterparts.

Don't worry about hardly getting any milk at first. Your breasts will get used to it and the flow rate will improve.

Open and closed systems

Some electric pumps are specifically designed so that the milk is sealed off from the tubing and electric components. These closed-system pumps can be completely and hygienically cleaned, meaning you can use the pump again for a later child, borrow a friend’s or even sell the main parts on when you’re done with them.

Open-system pumps do allow the milk to enter the tubing, where it can’t be removed as easily and could in theory start to harbour bacteria. This means you probably wouldn't want to reuse the pump for another baby. (Some manual pumps are also designed in a way that makes them difficult to clean, but this tends to be more of an inconvenience than a danger.) We’ve indicated whether each pump we’ve reviewed is open or closed system, and would recommend querying this and giving it some thought before you purchase a pump.

Warranty and customer service

Breast pumps include plenty of soft, small parts that can wear out or get lost, so it’s likely you’ll need to search for a replacement at some point. Check the warranty for the breast pump, and look at the brand’s website before you buy to check whether spare parts are easily and cheaply available (breast cushions, valves and tubing in particular). It's also worth looking online to see whether the brand has provided lots of ways to contact them. Companies like Ardo have a reputation for above-and-beyond customer service, multiple ways to get in touch, helpful phone operators and next-day part delivery – all of which may prove to be a lifesaver in a pinch.

Price

Manual pumps begin at around the £20 mark, and continue up to about £40; electric pumps are usually around £100 to £150. The hospital-grade electric pumps recommended by breastfeeding associations – the Ardo, the Medelas, the Spectras and, to a lesser extent, the Lansinohs – sit at the more expensive end of the scale, but a huge number of women testify as to their effectiveness and reliability. If you need something to last but can’t stretch to higher prices, many hospitals and associations offer them for short-term rent, which can be a good interim measure to get you through a difficult breastfeeding patch.

Added extras

Since most pumps represent a significant price investment, it’s worth looking at the added extras. Does the manufacturer include extra bottles or teats? Spare parts? Different sizes of breast shield as standard? If you’d like to start introducing a regular bottle, consider finding a breast pump that suits you first, then trying the branded bottles that go with it, so you can express straight into the sterilised bottle, screw on the lid and store. This will save you time and washing-up in the future – always a bonus when surviving on four hours' sleep a night.

In-store checklist

  • Do I want to pump occasionally or regularly?
  • Manual or electric?
  • Where am I likely to pump most often? Depending on your office environment and lifestyle, you may prioritise reliability (look for hospital grade), efficiency (a double pump might suit you better) portability (a small electric unit or a manual) or noise levels (manuals are usually quieter).
  • Does the pump have a closed or open system?
  • Can the pump be used with a bottle my baby likes?
  • Are there any different sizes of breast shield included (or available to buy separately)?
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