Plenty of women breastfeed without ever going near a breast pump – breast pumps are as subjective for mums as bottles are for babies.
But if you decide to breastfeed your baby, you’ll probably need a breast pump at some point. So what type should you buy and what should you look out for?
Why buy a breast pump?
There are a number of reasons why you might decide to buy a breast pump. While every mum should feel happy and comfortable breastfeeding, there will be times when it won’t be possible or when you simply won’t want to.
You might need a breast pump or consider expressing if:
- Your baby is premature or unwell and spends time in the NICU
- You have a health condition, such as mastitis, which can make breastfeeding painful
- Your baby struggles to latch in the early days of feeding and you’re worried about how much milk they are taking in
- You have given birth to twins
- You return to work and want to continue breastfeeding
- You want to up your milk supply – breast pumps may help to increase this through stimulation
- You want to share the feeding load
- You're worried about supply – knowing you have breast milk stored in the freezer can relieve some of the pressure that comes with breastfeeding
Don't worry about hardly getting any milk at first. Your breasts will get used to it and the flow rate will improve.
How does a breast pump work?
Breast pumps help you to express your milk so that you can feed your baby with a bottle. All pumps, whether electronic or manual, work in pretty much the same way:
- The flange, also known as the breast shield (the bit that’s attached to the funnel), goes over your nipple
- The pump uses suction to create a vacuum around the nipple
- The vacuum works like your baby sucking and then the milk flows down into the bottle
Manual pumps extract the milk with a level you work yourself, while electric pumps create a rhythmic vacuum that does the work for you (hurrah!). Before use, make sure you read the instructions carefully.
You may also need to make sure that the breast flange fit is right (you can check this as the pump is doing its thing), but be aware that the fit can change over time.
A good fit will mean your nipple can move freely in the funnel – too small will mean your nipple will rub – and too large will mean that some of the areola, the pigmented skin around the nipple, is sucked into the flange alongside your nipple.
It’s worth noting that what you pump is not an exact indication of your milk supply – some mums find pumping difficult to begin with and the amount can also depend on which type of pump you use.
The different types of breast pumps
As Emma Pickett, chair of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers and an International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBCLC) lactation consultant, says, “Every woman responds differently to different pumps, so it may be that the pump your friend loves is not the best one for you”.
There is a huge variety of breast pumps on the market and, naturally, pros and cons of each. Here’s what you need to know.
Remember that you if don’t get on well with a particular type, then do try an alternative.
Manual breast pumps, like the Medela Harmony, are used when milk supply is established. To use a manual pump, you squeeze a lever or a bulb to create suction, but you will need to keep squeezing to find the correct rhythm.
For some mums, this can be a bit of a chore, particularly at a time when you’ll probably be feeling more tired than usual, so look for a manual pump with a comfortable hand grip.
Manuals tend to be smaller and less noisy (most of the time) than electric pumps so they can be easier to carry around and less irritating to listen to.
They also cost less than an electric pump, so if you aren’t expressing regularly or aren’t completely sure that you want to express, then it may be better to go for a manual option first.
- Simple to use
- Convenient in size
- Helpful if you have cracked or sore nipples – you have control over suction speed
- Can make your hand tired or sore when using
- Only for occasional use
- Potentially less effective than an electric pump – you may have to pump for longer or more often
Great for mums who
- Occasionally need to express
2. Manual silicone
Unlike regular manual breast pumps, silicone pumps, like the Haakaas and the NatureBonds, do the work for you – they suction to your boob and collect milk automatically.
They require no assembly and are small enough to pop in your bag – ideal for holidays and weekends away with your baby in tow or for taking to work. Their size also makes them fairly discreet.
- Small and lightweight – they’re easy to carry around
- Easy to use
- Require no manual squeezing or pumping
- Not so effective for mums who struggle with milk flow
- May not stay on very well
Great for mums who
- Want to collect milk from one breast while breastfeeding from the other
3. Electric and battery-operated
An electric pump is designed for women who have an established milk supply and are exclusively pumping (using a breast pump in place of breastfeeding) – they have a cyclic rate that is closest to a baby’s sucking speed.
They work by themselves, which can be a huge time-saver for mums who express regularly. You’ll also have your hands free, making it easier to multitask.
Double breast pumps are usually electric and can be used even if you don’t have more than one baby to feed. They tend to save time and may also help mums to express more milk.
Battery-operated or rechargeable pumps, like the Elvie, are great if you don’t have to express milk too often during the day. They’re not as powerful as electric pumps, but, like manual models, they are usually portable and lightweight.
- Work quicker and more efficiently than a manual breast pump – the motor does the pumping for you
- Usually allow you to vary the suction speed to suit your needs
- Heavier than manual pumps
- More expensive
- Will need to be plugged in if not battery-operated – this may limit where you can express and your ability to move around while doing so
- Can be noisy – be aware of this if discretion is really important to you
Great for mums who
- Express regularly or for every feed
Hospital-grade breast pumps are particularly useful if your baby is struggling to latch on, if they are premature or have other health issues, or if you have twins – they are typically double pumps and can be used on both breasts at the same time.
- High in quality and extremely efficient
- A go-to if you have trouble breastfeeding or problems with milk supply – hospital-grade pumps tend to improve flow, making pumping that little bit easier
- Useful for mums whose babies struggle to latch on
- They are multi-user pumps and safe for mums to share
- More comfortable and quieter than other breast pumps
- Can be rented
- Heavy and not very portable
- Hire costs can add up
Great for mums who
- Are having trouble breastfeeding
Electric works far better for me. I started with a manual and couldn't believe the difference.
10 things to consider before buying a breast pump
1. Your needs
Before buying, be sure to think about your needs. Breastfeeding is very personal – what feels right for one person won’t necessarily feel right for another. It’s really important that you feel comfortable and confident when expressing.
Many mums also find breastfeeding exhausting, especially when it feels like their baby is constantly feeding, so a breast pump may help to relieve some of that exhaustion.
2. Where you'll want to use it
Think, too, about where you will be expressing. If you are returning to work and need to express during your lunch break, then you’ll probably want a breast pump that is discreet and quiet.
3. The key features
You’ll also need to think about whether the pump you choose is efficient, how quickly it works and whether it’s easily transportable.
You don’t want to be lugging a heavy contraption around with you, especially to and from work.
4. Is it easy to clean?
Cleaning is also important – you’ll want something quick and easy to clean and store when you have a number of things to get done.
A pump that can be popped into the dishwasher or steriliser can be a godsend. And with all the other equipment that seems to come with a baby, you need to make sure it’s easy to store away when you don’t need it.
5. Open or closed system?
All pumps will have some sort of tubing that connects the pump to its milk collection parts.
In a closed system pump, this is closed off so the milk can’t get into the tubing. This means that the pump is easier to keep clean, can be used for future children and can even be sold or passed on when you’re done with it.
Open system pumps allow the milk to enter the tubing. This means that they’ll need to be cleaned and dried carefully to ward off any mould or bacteria.
While this might sound time-consuming, in reality this often means only washing a couple of extra parts.
I'd recommend a closed system pump like the Ardo Calypso. The Calypso was also great for having variable pressure and frequency settings.
6. Warranty and spare parts
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 contact details. Certain companies offer different ways to get in touch and next-day part delivery, which could prove to be a lifesaver in a pinch.
7. Added extras
A breast pump could be a big investment, so it’s worth looking at the added extras. Are bottles or teats supplied? Are there different sized breast shields included? And what about a guarantee?
If you’d like to start introducing a regular bottle alongside breastfeeding, consider finding a breast pump that suits you first, then trying the branded bottles that go with it.
You’ll be able to 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 a few hours' sleep a night.
8. Know how to store breast milk
Yes, pumping itself can be a case of trial and error, but once you’ve expressed you’ll also need to know how to store the milk.
It can be stored in:
- A breast milk storage bag or a sterilised bottle or container
- A fridge for up to five days at a temperature of 4°C or lower
- A freezer for up to six months
- The ice compartment of a fridge for two weeks
Always try to store your breast milk in small quantities and label it with the correct date.
9. When to buy
Lots of mums are unsure as to whether they want or need a breast pump. If that’s you, then it may be best to wait until your baby is born before buying one – or considering renting one as an alternative.
Hospitals usually have breast pumps available for you to use while you’re in their care (particularly if your newborn is in the NICU), so if you’re worried about or struggling to breastfeed, then this can be a reassurance.
If you’re expecting twins and know that you’ll likely need a double breast pump, then it may be best to prepare yourself and buy a pump ahead of time – and pack it in your hospital bag.
10. The cost
- Manual pumps usually start at around the £20 mark, and continue up to about £40
- Electric pumps are approximately £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 (+£100) and cost around £50 to rent for two weeks, although this may vary
If you need something to last but can’t stretch to higher prices, many hospitals and breastfeeding associations offer them for short-term rent, which can be a good way to get you through a difficult breastfeeding patch.
Before you buy – a checklist
- Do you want to pump occasionally or regularly?
- Where are you likely to pump most often? Depending on your work environment and lifestyle, you may prioritise:
- reliability (look for hospital-grade)
- efficiency (a double pump might suit you better)
- portability (go for a battery-operated, manual or a small electric unit) or
- noise levels (manuals are usually quieter)
- Can the pump be easily transported?
- Is it durable – can it be used daily?
- Is it easy to clean?
- Does it have any other power options, ie can it be charged in the car?
- Can I use any type of bottle with it?
- How much am I prepared to spend?
- Open or closed system?
- Is it adjustable?
- Does it come with added extras?
We’ve taken all these aspects and features into consideration when testing different models, so take a look at our breast pump reviews to help you choose the pump that’s best for you.
Where to go for help
- Health visitors, midwives and local trained volunteers
- Breastfeeding drop-in centres, groups or baby cafés
- National Breastfeeding Helpline
- Association of Breastfeeding Mothers
- National Childbirth Trust
- La Leche League
- The Breastfeeding Network
- The Lactation Consultants of Great Britain
- The Twins and Multiple Births Association (TAMBA)
- Bliss (for premature or unwell babies)
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All prices correct at time of publication
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