Before I had a baby I visited a friend's house and saw her giant stash of breast milk taking up half of her freezer. At the time I thought it was both kinda gross and strange. Fast forward 3 years to my first baby and I totally understood what she was up to. Nothing beats the convenience of having a great stash of breast milk ready for outings, daycare, days with dad, and other situations that inevitably arise. But this is no easy feat unless you have a breast pump that is comfortable, portable, easy to use, reasonably priced, and easy to clean.
We got together a group of new moms who were currently breast feeding. Some already had a go-to breastpump, some hadn't tried one yet, and others were looking for something better. We had the moms try out the different versions, take a look at all the parts, try cleaning them, and give us their honest opinions. After pulling together all their thoughts we were able to find the top 5 best breastpumps of 2016. Before we list those for you (or you can simply scroll down to skip forward!), we want to discuss some of the various features you should be looking for in a breastpump.
Automatic versus Manual. Most moms opt for the automatic powered breast pump, whereas others prefer the manual method. There are a lot of pros and cons for each method. For automatic, you benefit from phased expression that automatically mimics the sucking pattern of a baby, faster let-down with shorter overall pumping times, no hand/wrist strain from manual pumping, and a sit-back-and-relax sort of device that doesn't involve too much work. But with an automatic pump you also need to worry about battery levels, charging, device size/weight, higher cost, and noise. If you work in a small office environment, for example, you might be concerned that the automatic pumps are relatively noisy and others might hear the pump running; let's be clear that they aren't really noisy, but certainly noisier than a manual pump. For manual breastpumps, you benefit from highly customizable speed, no worrying about batteries/charging, a smaller form factor that is more portable, and a basically silent operation that is highly discreet. But pumping times can be a bit longer, you need to figure out when to switch expression phases, and you can't really do anything else while pumping since your hands will be occupied. Moms also report getting sore hands and wrists from manually pumping for extended durations. We think that the best option is the one you're most comfortable with and fits your unique lifestyle. One is not necessarily better than the other, though the automatic version is certainly worth the added cost for the convenience factor alone.
BPA and Phthalate Content. When my babies were little we were just beginning the trend toward BPA and phthalate-free breastpumps. Moms were worried that the parts coming in contact with breast milk, like the shields and bottles, might contain harmful chemicals. Nowadays, all of the major manufacturers are making their systems BPA-free, so you no longer need to search long and hard for one of these options. The models we list below are all BPA-free.
Portability & Storage. If you go the manual route, you will have the most portable possible breastpump that you can buy. The compact bottle and breast shield, along with the small pump handle, all fit readily in a medium purse or diaper bag. Automatic systems are much larger since you need to include the breast shields, bottles, pump system, battery pack, charger(s), vacuum tubes, etc. With either automatic or manual you will also need a place to store your pumped breast milk, either in disposable bags or bottles, at or below about 59 degrees (F). So with either option you will need to also carry a small cooler with a frozen ice pack. According to Medela, the maximum amount of time you can keep the milk in this storage type is 24 hours, then you'll need to move to a refrigerator or freezer (see the breast milk storage guidelines to the right). This is why manufacturers of automatic pumps have shifted toward providing everything in a single bag to maximize portability and convenience; this includes not just all the pumping equipment but also a cooler and ice pack.
Comfort. This is a difficult factor to assess since comfort with a breastpump tends to be highly individualized. Typically, comfort comes down to a few primary factors. First is you must select the appropriately sized breast shield. Medela, for instance, manufactures 5 different breast shield sizes to accomodate all women. In general, you need to make sure your nipple is centered in the shield and not rubbing the sides as it is pumped, your areola (dark skin surrounding nipple) has space to move up and down as it is pumped, your breast moves gently and rhythmically with the pumping, and feels comfortable during pumping. If any of these aren't correct, your breast shield may be too small, and it is likely that you will not get good let-down. Second, you must correctly time the shifts of expression phases to accommodate your body's unique let-down pattern. Typically, pumps will begin in a "stimulation" phase and then after 2 minutes automatically switch to the expression phase. This 2-minute pattern is optimal for many women, but you might find that you need more or less time in stimulation phase before switching to expression. The Medela pump, for instance, gives you flexibility with this timing by offering a let-down button that allows you to either switch to expression phase earlier, or go back to stimulation phase if the unit switched automatically to expression before you were ready. This customizable phase timing feature is great for optimal comfort during use. Third, you will likely need to adjust vacuum strength/speed while pumping. Most breastpumps suggest increasing the vacuum speed/strength until you feel slight discomfort and then backing down a bit. This process of selecting the correct breast shield size, switching pump phases as needed, and customizing your vacuum speed, should result in high comfort levels for most women.
Cleaning/Maintenance. All breastpumps, regardless of whether they are manual or automatic, will have a lot of parts that need to be cleaned. Some of these parts are large, like the breast shield and connectors. Some are small, like the valve and little rubber membranes. Some are easier to clean, like the breast shield, and some are harder, like the vacuum tubes. Most breastpumps ask for warm soapy water for cleanup between uses, and also allow you to put the larger components into the dishwasher (air dry only). They also recommend daily sanitization of the parts in boiling water. So there are a lot of parts, and cleanup is a bit of a pain regardless of which system you have. Medela offers a single-piece breast shield and connector which makes life a bit easier.
Below are the top 5 breastpumps of 2016, automatic and manual!
1. Medela Pump in Style Advanced Breast Pump with On-the-go Tote or Backpack. This is the ultimate in automatic pumps, and it is #1 on our list for very good reasons. With either a tote that is very similar in size to a typical diaper bag, or a backpack for a sportier and sleeker look, the Medela is the most versatile option on the market. One of our moms had been using an Evenflo pump until trying this one, and was floored by how much more milk the Medala was able to pump in a similar amount of time. This powerful pump really gets milk flowing, with its 2 phase pumping (stimulation mode for 2 minutes, then expression let-down mode), powerful vacuum, and reliably consistent pumping rhythm. It is highly portable, with a rechargeable battery and an included cooler for cold storage until you get to a refrigerator or freezer. Moms thought that things packed away in a well-organized manner and didn't find the bag too heavy for daily carrying, like to and from the office. The let-down button was a great feature, moms loved the flexibility they had, allowing them to customize their pumping phases to their individual body. The moms who had been using this system already for over a year, said several great things. First, there are several breast shield sizes that vary widely and are easy to attach/detach. Second, the system is highly reliable and they reported no issues with malfunctioning or failure. Third, they said it is not very loud which helps when trying to be discreet and not alert the entire office that you're currently pumping. In terms of cons, they noted that it has only a single vacuum speed and pressure dial whereas some other systems allow you to separately adjust vacuum pressure and pumping speed. The pump is also secured into the bag, which makes washing the bag somewhat difficult and you need to keep the bag nearby while pumping (since you'll be attached via the tubes). Speaking of the tubes, they can sometimes get a bit of milk in them so moms reported that it was annoying to clean the tiny tubes. Overall, our research shows that this is an excellent pump with several features. We found these available online for about $220, which is a good deal given that it includes bottles, shields, ice pack, and everything else you need to get started ASAP. Want to pump both breasts hands-free? We suggest also purchasing the game-changing Hands-Free Double Breast Pump Bra.
Some great accessories for the Medela Pump in Style: Pump n Save Breastmilk Bags, Quick Clean Wipes, Quick Clean Microsteam Bags, Nursing Bra Pads, Tender Care Lanolin, and assorted Breast Shield sizes.
2. Spectra Baby S2 Double/Single Breast Pump. With a smaller footprint and more features than the Medela, and high comfort and reliability, this is a great second choice. To be honest, we were surprised that this relative newcomer received such positive reviews from our moms. In terms of accessories, it's not the ultimate in automatic pumps; there is no accompanying bag, backpack, or cooler and ice pack. What you're getting here is a nice, sleek, and great performer that our moms really fell in love with. While the Medela Pump in Style is designed for extended outings, such as bringing it to work or the office, we believe this Spectra system is better for stay/work-at-home moms looking for something that will sit next to the glider or on the bedside table. It is perfect for that. The moms who tested the Spectra S2 thought that it had more comfortable suction than the Medela, but not quite matching its suction power for those who want a more powerful unit. There are some great features here: the suction strength and speed are separately controlled (so you can fully customize to make the suction exactly like your baby's), you can do single or double breast pumping without losing power, it has a nice night light, a timer, and it is very lightweight and easy to move around. We also thought it was very quiet, definitely quieter than the Medela, and something you could use next to a sleeping baby without too much worry. We also thought the battery life was quite good, lasting through three full pumping sessions. Seems like you would only need to charge it overnight. Only a few cons with this unit. First, the parts are somewhat difficult to find as they are not available in most stores that we're aware of. So if you need a different breast shield size or other spare parts, you'll need to order them online unless your local medical supply company can figure out how to order them. We do note, however, that the Medela bottles did fit this unit quite well. That brings us to our second con: the bottles Spectra provides are not as nice as the Medela bottles. Finally, this doesn't come in a custom sized bag with all the goodies like the Medela. Overall, this is a fantastic option, especially if you mostly plan on using it at home. We found it online for about $150.
3. Medela Harmony Manual Breast Pump. Medela has been doing breastpumps for a very long time and they truly know what they are doing. From the Harmony manual pump for about $30 to the hospital grade $1500 Symphony, you really can't go wrong with a Medela breastpump. Lansinoh also made a fantastic breast pump but it has been discontinued (you might find one still here). The Harmony is really the ultimate in super-portable breast pumps, but as the only manual pump option on our list it also requires the most amount of work on behalf of moms. In our testing, this worked quite well for a manual pump. It has a two-phase stimulation and expression option; first you use your thumb to pump for stimulation, and when let-down occurs you switch to the long handle and use your entire hand. The breast shield is also very nicely contoured and soft, the handle pivots for comfort and left- or right-handed use, and it's super portable and extremely quiet. The quietest on our list by far - not surprising given it's manual. After using, moms thought the clean-up was relatively easy without the mess of tubes and membranes, and there was relatively little to put away after use. No wires, chargers, or batteries, and no long tubes. But of course a couple moms noted that their hands got a bit tired after 5 minutes of pumping their breasts, and one mom flat-out called it ridiculous and wondered why anyone would get a manual pump in the first place. Other moms appreciated its simplicity and effectiveness, but also noted that they had to use quite a bit of breast compression with their free hand to get things flowing again when the milk supply slowed down. Cons? Well, we think we've just about covered those. But an additional finding is that a little rubber o-ring tends to wear out quickly and cause leaks; it can be replaced by contacting Medela for parts. We found the Medela Harmony online for about $30.
4. Philips AVENT Double Electric Comfort Breast Pump. The Philips AVENT breastpump is probably most similar to the Medela Pump in Style in terms of features, size, and portability. It has some great features that our moms pointed out were really quite nice, especially for the lower price point (about $199). After stimulation mode, the AVENT has three different expression modes (low, medium, high) that you can choose between once let-down begins. This model also has a unique design that lets you sit upright without leaning forward to get the right alignment of the bottle. It also has a unique breast shield design, with flower petal-like parts that are soft and comfortable against the breast. Overall, our moms thought that it was a good no-frills second option to the Medela Pump in Style, but without some of the better features like the cooler and ice pack, battery for cord-free use, and continuously adjustable suction (rather than simply 3 different categories of suction). Another con is that the AVENT reliability isn't quite on par with the Medela. Long-term users report various issues with the unit that can render it useless until it is repaired or replaced. If you can splurge the extra $20 or so, we suggest the Medela Pump in Style. For something a little different, but not quite as highly recommended, go with this Philips AVENT unit for about $175.