Beginner’s guide to breast pumps – 16 things breastfeeding mamas need to know before they begin to express milk

Want to save time? Skip straight to our picks for the best breast pumps.

  • Our reviews of the best manual breast pumps.
  • Our reviews of the best electric breast pumps.

1. The type of pump you’ll need, either a manual breast pump or an electric one, will depend on how often you plan on pumping.

A manual pump is useful for pumping once in a while and for when you’re traveling. However, they tend to break after a few weeks of use and they can be tiring to use. If you plan on pumping more than once in a blue moon–working away from home or building up a supply for other caregivers–you’ll want to get an electric pump.

Manual breast pump and electric pump

2. Under the ACA (Affordable Care Act), all health insurance companies are required to cover the cost of pumps.

Unfortunately they tend to only cover manual pumps or cheaper, poorly rated electric pumps. Even if you plan on buying your own breast pump, I recommend getting one for free from your health insurance. If you’re unsure if you’re going to breastfeed, you might not want to spend money on a pump yet. Even if you’re going to breastfeed and going to buy your own pump, you can keep the pump from your insurance as a spare.

3. All breastfeeding mamas will need a breast pump.

Even if you plan on being next to your baby at all times, a breast pump is still useful for getting rid of excess milk and the engorgement that follows. If you need to increase your milk flow, a schedule of pumping every 2-3 hours is a proven way of stimulating a weak supply.

4. To rent or not to rent?

Even though it may seem like a cheaper option to rent a breast pump from the hospital, the savings are minimal and it is not at all worth the hassle. You’ll still need to buy your own collection supplies–about $40+–and your own breast shields and tubes–another $30. All of this is in addition to the rental fees which can add up fast if you pump for many months. Consider that the top rated breast pumps start around $150 if you buy them online and you can see that it’s a much better choice to purchase one yourself.

5. Stronger is not better!

A common misconception is that a pump with a stronger rated suction will mean more milk expressed, but it’s actually a long and deep suction that maximizes your milk flow. Read breast pump reviews carefully and pick one that has a long deep suction, not the strongest suction. Not only will the pump be more effective, it will hurt less and be more comfortable to use.

6. Look for easy to use, simple functions, and portability.

You’ll use your pump at all times of the day, sometimes at night, sometimes when you don’t have a power source, and sometimes when you’re sleepy. You don’t want a pump with lots of fiddly parts that need to be taken apart and reassembled. Some pumps are sleek and elegant while others have tubes and parts sticking out like a mad scientist’s lab table. You’ll also want a pump with a rechargeable battery and an option to run from battery even when unplugged from the wall.

Spectra S2 pump with parts labeled. Breast shield, flange, connector, valve, collection bottle, tubing, electric pump

7. Electric pumps can be “closed system” or “open system.”

A closed system means that the tubes which and machine never come into contact with your breast milk so you don’t need to worry about sterilizing everything after each use. A closed system, hospital grade breast pump is the best choice. Open systems can be contaminated with germs and mold from the environment, moisture, and any possible milk back flow. To prevent your bottle of milk from being contaminated you’ll need to clean all the parts thoroughly. It also means that your machine can’t be shared or bought/sold second-hand since human breast milk can transmit disease.

8. Find reviews or videos that show how loud the pump is when it’s running.

Some pumps sound like a roaring train, while others are quieter with a soft purring sound. This might not be a big deal if you’re only pumping at home, but if you plan to pump at work or late at night when everybody’s asleep, you’ll want to get a quiet machine.

9. This information is hard to find, but try to find the motor life of the pump.

Most pumps are designed to last for about one year of regular pumping. This comes out to about 250 motor hours. Cheaper pumps will be rated for less motor hours and may break before you’re done breastfeeding. Other pumps, like the Spectra S1/S2 have a very long 1500 motor hour lifespan and can be used for multiple years. If you don’t feel like spending hours sifting through Google results or Amazon reviews, just check out our in-depth reviews and analysis to find the lifespan of each breast pump.

10. Whether you’re getting a manual or electric pump, get one that has both a let-down mode and an expression mode.

When babies naturally suckle, they stimulate milk flow by sucking quickly, but shallowly. When babies draw milk out, they use long and deep sucks. A machine that can switch between both modes will make pumping faster and more comfortable for you.

11. Even if you get an electric pump that you plan on using every day, you may still want to get a smaller manual pump that you can throw in your diaper bag.

An electric pump is too big and heavy to carry with you when you’re on a road-trip, visiting family, and a downright nightmare to lug around if you’re flying. While a manual pump is smaller and slower, it’s perfect for travel.

12. Even though every breast pump comes with a breast shield (the part that cups your breast and nipple), you might need to buy another one.

If the breast shield is too small, the part that goes over your nipple will rub against your skin–ouch! You can find the right size by measuring straight across your nipple (not your areola). Take this measurement in mm and get the smallest breast shield with a measurement greater than your nipple measurement.

Breast shield sizing guide

13. Double the fun!

While pumping only one breast at a time is fine, you should give double pumping a try if your machine supports it. Double pumping cuts the time down by a half and actually increases the amount of milk expressed!

14. Look, ma, no hands!

Think pumping is too much of a hassle? Well, what if I told you there are special pumping bras that allow you to pump both breasts at the same time without you having to hold the breast shields and bottles in place!? Pumping bras free up your hands so you can continue to work and are a godsend if you have the privacy of your own office at work. Pumping bras are bulkier and pointier than normal bras, but it’s nothing that can’t be covered with a thick blazer or carefully placed scarf.

Woman wearing pumping bra with two bottles and breast pump connected.

15. How do you keep and store all the milk?

Breast milk can be stored in bottles or collection bags. Most standard wide-mouth bottles can be screwed onto your breast shield so you don’t have to buy special bottles or anything like that. You can buy collection bags if you prefer them over bottles since they take up less room. Do not cheap out and use ziploc bags!  If your pump doesn’t come with a cooler bag or ice packs, you’ll also need to buy these.

Medela milk storage bags, collection bottles, and holder.

16. How long can I keep breast milk before it goes bad?

If you plan on freezing your milk, make sure you don’t fill the bottle all the way to the top, the milk will expand when frozen and overflow or break the bottle/bag. Label each bottle/bag with the date it was pumped and use the oldest milk first. The general rule of thumb is that you have 6 hours to use unrefrigerated milk, 6 days to use refrigerated milk, and 6 months to use frozen milk. Any milk that’s older will risk spoilage and off-flavors.

So I’ve got a breast pump. Now what? When should I start pumping?

Can I pump while I’m still pregnant?

While a pregnant woman will start producing colostrum–the nutrient rich first milk that comes in before regular breast milk–during the late stages of pregnancy, it is best to avoid expressing milk either with your hands or with a breast pump until after 37 weeks. Trying to express milk before your baby has matured to term can send you into early labor and should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

Can I pump while I’m currently breastfeeding?

Yes, absolutely! Unless you have a complication that keeps you from breastfeeding your baby like inverted nipples or your baby has a cleft palate, you should wait until your baby has nursed for at least 2-3 weeks before expressing milk and bottle feeding. Introducing a bottle and nipple too early can cause nipple confusion. However, you can still build up a supply of breast milk and freeze it for later on. By pumping early on in addition to nursing, you will build up your milk supply and encourage more milk production.

What’s the best time to express breast milk?

The best time to pump is about an hour after your baby’s nursed. This will increase your milk supply without depriving your baby of milk. An expressing schedule where you pump once every 2-3 hours will be a good way to increase your milk production. If you are pumping at work, you should try to match your pumping times to your baby’s nursing times to keep your milk supply from drying up.

When should I pump if I’m still breastfeeding?

You don’t want to pump so much that you don’t have enough milk when your baby nurses, so the best time to pump is at least 10-15 minutes after your baby is finished feeding. It would be better to wait until 45 minutes to 1 hour after breastfeeding so your milk has replenished completely.
Pumping sessions in between breastfeeding is a good way to build up a back up supply of milk if/when you go back to work. It is also a good way to increase your milk supply.
If you do not have enough time to both nurse and express, you can do both at the same time. The technique is to pump one breast while your baby feeds from the other.

How do I store expressed breast mik?

Breast pumps come with either collection bottles or collection bags for your breast milk. Some people prefer collection bags because they fit better in the freezer and take up less room. You can also pump directly into standard bottles if your breast pump supports it. If you do choose to use collection bags, you should only use bags that are designed to be used for expressed milk. Regular freezer bags are too thin and flimsy for storing and thawing breast milk.
Whichever type of container you choose, only fill them to about 3/4 full because the milk will expand when frozen. If your containers are overfilled, the milk will either leak out or your container will break, resulting in leaks when you thaw everything.
Mark each container of freshly pumped milk with the date so you know which is the newest and oldest. Use up the oldest breast milk first from the freezer.
You should only freeze about 2-4 ounces of breast milk each time so you don’t end up thawing too much milk and wasting the leftovers. Thawed milk can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 4 days and any milk that you take out of the fridge or freezer should be used up withinn 4 hours. Do not re-freeze or re-refrigerate any milk that has been sitting out at room temperature for hours.

Want to save time? Skip straight to our picks for the best breast pumps.

  • Our reviews of the best manual pumps.
  • Our reviews of the best electric pumps.