What is a Breast Pump?
A breast pump is a special device (machine) used to extract the breast milk from a mother’s breast upon the absence of baby to remove the milk at breast. These machines are often used when baby is separated from the mother (such as NICU or return to work) and other situations such as breast milk donation, induced lactation or exclusive pumping.
Workings of a Breast Pump
Breast pumps are machines that run on an internal battery or an external power source. There are various types of breast pumps; but, all breast pumps use rhythmical movements to extract the milk from a mother’s breasts.
Types of Breast Pumps
The two main types of breast pumps: closed valve system and open valve system.
A closed valve system breast pump is one that does allow for air and/or bacteria to pass from the mother pumping, down the tubing and into the motor. This could enable whatever is housed in the motor to potentially come back out into the breast milk pumped.
An open valve system breast pump is one that does not allow for air and/or bacteria to pass from the mother pumping, down the tubing, and into the motor. This is the most hygienic open for pumping mothers and is seen in the NICU setting as well as rental grade breast pumps.
Another term often used and heard by mothers is “hospital strength” and “rental grade” (multi-user) breast pumps. Hospital-strength means that the breast pump has a suction power of 250mmHg or higher. Rental grade means that the breast pump meets the suction power/strength of hospital strength and allows for more than one user/mother to pump with the breast pump (FDA approved to be multi-user).
Breast pumps can also be either single or double. This refers to whether the breast pump can express one breast at a time (single) or both breasts at a time (double).
Manual Breast Pumps
Manual breast pumps are powered by the mother and not any other power source. You see these most frequently used when power is not an option or when the mother is simply desiring a more simplistic approach to expressing her milk. It’s important that mothers have a “back up” pumping plan in place that includes a manual breast pump and/or hand expression in the event of a natural disaster or when power source(s) are not available, and mother is separate from baby.
Intrinsic Advantages of Manual Breast Pumps
Many things in life are focused on external advantages: financial gains, tangible benefits or other such factors. However, realizing that breastfeeding and pumping your precious mother’s milk for your baby has a lot of intrinsic advantages as well. Using both an electric and manual breast pump to express your milk for your little one (or, donating it to other babies) provides you a sense of accomplishment, new definition to your autonomy as well as personal competency. You start to learn that you can excel at more areas in life than just what can be defined by material things! You now have an amazing Superpower!
One Hand Breast Pump
This is another term for a manual breast pump by which you only need one hand to operate it. Most manual breast pumps are “powered” by one hand and the mother extracts her breast milk by pumping one breast at a time. You can adjust the suction to your comfort level. Mom can be nursing baby on one breast and pumping the other breast or multi-tasking in another manner while pumping!
Cylinder Hand Breast Pump
This is a two-handed breast pump option that uses a “bulb” (cylinder) to create the suction that is required to draw out the breast milk from the mother. You can adjust the suction to your comfort level. You do need to pump one breast at a time.
Foot-Powered Breast Pumps
These types of breast pumps are not as popular as they once were; but, they are still available to purchase. These types of breast pumps are literally powered by the mother pushing or rocking the foot pedal back and forth. The breast pump doesn’t require any electrical outlet or batteries. It can be a single or double breast pump and there isn’t a need to have the motor/breast pump unit on your desk.
Powered Breast Pumps
Powered breast pumps is another term for electrical breast pumps that are powered by electrical outlets or internal batteries. However, some individuals or healthcare professionals use this term to describe any breast pump that uses the “power” of mother (hand or foot), electrical outlet or battery to extract the milk from the breast.
Battery Powered Breast Pumps
Breast pumps that run or powered by batteries only (such as AAs) are referred to as battery powered breast pumps. Most of these breast pump types are single pumps, meaning that the mother can only pump one breast at a time.
Some refer to breast pumps that have an internal battery that is rechargeable as “battery powered”. This can be confusing to mothers and healthcare providers alike. So, ensure to investigate what specifically the definition means in each situation.
Electric breast pumps are pumps/machines that are powered by batteries (such as AAs), electrical outlets or internal (built-in) batteries. These breast pumps can be open-valve, closed-valve, single-user, multi-user and/or hospital strength.
Application and Type of Breast Pump as Per Requirement
This refers to the use of a breast pump, the medical indications for the use of the breast pump and what circumstances are surrounding the mother using the breast pump device. This is often referring to how an insurance company will be covering the cost of the breast pump or type of breast pump. It also includes is the baby was born premature, housed temporarily in the NICU setting, has a congenital anomaly that can interfere with the ability to directly breastfeed or other situations/circumstances that affect the mother or baby.
Specifics surrounding what breast pump to use and when should be discussed with the mother and baby’s physician(s), IBCLC (Lactation Consultant) and insurance provider.
Types of Electric Breast Pumps
As discussed in a previous definition, electric breast pumps are usually ones that do rely on a power source to function and extract the breast milk from the mother.
The power source required for an electric breast pump depends on the model and type of breast pump:
- Battery powered: uses batteries (such as AAs)
- Wireless (internal battery) powered: uses a rechargeable, internal battery that needs to be charged when the battery is depleted; but, allows the mother to pump “wirelessly” for up to so many hours
- Power source dependent: uses an electrical outlet to power the breast pump
- Hospital-Grade Breast Pumps
This is a type of breast pump is also known as a Multi-User breast pump or Rental Grade breast pump. It is a closed-valve breast pump (nothing from the mother can enter the motor of the pump and vice versa), has the suction strength of 250mmHg or higher and is FDA approved as a multi-user breast pump.
These breast pumps are usually provided in very specific situations such as a premature and/or hospitalized infant in the NICU. Other situations and/or circumstances can warrant the use of such a breast pump type.
Personal-Use Breast Pumps
The most common type of breast pumps on the market are personal-use breast pumps or single-user breast pumps. These are breast pumps that should only be used by one mother during the life of the breast pump and has been FDA approved to be only used by one mother. These pumps are used during temporary separation of mother/baby.
This refers to the ability to pump a mother’s breasts and have her hands “free” to be doing other tasks besides holding the flanges while pumping. Hands-free bras can allow for this capability with most breast pumps on the market. However, there are breast pumps that are now designed specifically to allow for hands-free pumping where no specific bra is required to have the mother’s hands-free of holding the breast pump in place while pumping.
Table-Top Electric Breast Pumps
This is another way to refer to breast pump models that are placed on a “tabletop” while pumping is taking place. Most breast pumps are this type of breast pump. Excepts to this type of breast pump would be manual breast pumps, foot pedal breast pumps, or truly hands-free breast pumps.
Buying Breast Pumps: Main Features to Lookout For
When purchasing a breast pump, it’s important for a mother to discuss what she should be looking for with an experienced pumping mother or a healthcare professional, such as an IBCLC (Lactation Consultant).
Many factors need to be considered when a mother is purchasing a breast pump: will she be returning to work or school? Will she be pumping full-time or part-time? Does she have a dedicated area to pump her breasts that is close to an electrical outlet? If not, does she need to consider getting a breast pump that has an internal battery?
If planning on returning to work full-time or exclusively pumping, the type of breast pump the mother should be considering should include a breast pump that is hospital strength (250mmHg) or higher in suction power.
Another aspect to consider is the customization of the breast pump: can the settings be changed based on preference? Can I find the buttons I need in the dark of night? Does the pump auto-shutoff at a certain point while pumping?
What about warranty? If something happens to the breast pump, will it be covered by the company? What is the process for fixing the pump or replacing the breast pump if something happens?
There are many aspects and features that should be considered when choosing a breast pump and not all can be addressed here. Do your research, ask other moms and then make your own list!
Cycles and Suction Settings
Cycles refer to the speed of baby at breast. This is often referred to as “cycles per minute”. When a baby goes to breast to elicit the let down of milk, the baby will be faster (more cycles per minute) to get the milk flowing. Once the milk lets down (releases from the breast), the baby will start to slow down (decreased cycles per minute) at breast.
Suction refers to the strength of baby at breast. This is often referred to as vacuum strength. So, the setting of suction would be how strong that baby is at breast and the pump should reflect that in comfort level. It should NEVER hurt! “If ow, turn down”
Example Chart of Cycles and Suction Settings for S1 Plus & S2 Plus
||Cycles per Minute (cpm)
Single versus Simultaneous Pumping
This refers to pumping one or two breasts at a time. Single pumping means expressing milk from one breast at a time. Simultaneous, or double, pumping means expressing milk from two (both) breasts at a time.
Portability and Availability of Spare Parts
Portability of breast pumps and their corresponding accessories used to express the breast milk is often very important for mothers. This is because many mothers must return to work or school when baby is born or have other children to take care of in addition to the new baby.
Availability of spare pump parts (accessories) is also important to pumping mothers because mother cannot simply rely on having only one set of pump parts. For those mothers who are returning to work or school, having spare accessories is important if a part is forgotten, broken or lost.
Pumping or expressing a mother’s milk while separated from baby is important. So, having the parts and accessories needed to express her breast milk is vital. Availability of these parts is just as important if she needs to run out and obtain them instead of waiting by the mailbox for them to arrive.