How to Shop for a Breast Pump (2023): Wearable Pumps, Portable Pumps, and Insurance Coverage

How to Shop for a Breast Pump (2023): Wearable Pumps, Portable Pumps, and Insurance Coverage
Written by Techbot

Pumping isn’t easy. Neither is shopping for a breast pump. There are many more options for today’s pumping mother, which is both a blessing and a curse when you find yourself looking at dozens of products and wondering which you should buy. We’ve put together some guidance to help you find the one that’s right for you.

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What Type of Pump Should You Get?

Photograph: Madela

Most popular breast pumps these days are either portable, meaning they have a base where the motor and battery sit, along with the controls, or wearable, where the entire device fits into a bra. Here’s what they do in greater detail:

Portable pumps tend to be cheaper, since they have external controls rather than needing to pair with an app. Keep an eye out for the rubber tube that connects the pump’s motor to the flanges. This style requires a pumping bra and pours milk into attached bottles or bags that stick out of said bra. Some portable pumps have wearable-style cups—the controls are still outside the bra, but the milk is stored within the bra. It’s still a portable pump, but you won’t need a pumping bra (more on that below).

Wearable pumps are a cord- and tube-free option. You put each side of the pump together separately and tuck them into a bra to start pumping. Most have controls on the pump itself, but no screen. Some wearable pumps, like the Willow and Elvie, connect to an app on your phone to let you see how long you’ve been pumping, but others have a few buttons and require you to track pumping time on your own.

Electric pumps need to be plugged into the wall to work. Wearable and portable pumps are electric too, but if you don’t see terms like “battery” or “rechargeable” in the name or description, you can assume it will need to be plugged into the wall the entire time you’re using it.

Manual pumps are hand-operated pumps that usually use natural suction to express milk. They’re much cheaper than any other style of pump, but they are also much more work to use and might not provide the strength you need. They’re handy in a pinch or for infrequent pumpers.

Are Wearable Pumps Worth It?

Photograph: Madela

Most wearable breast pumps cost a considerable amount more than portable options. They’re a great choice if you’ll be pumping daily and want the ability to easily move around while you pump, whether to do chores or work at a computer. They’re also a little more private, as the pumps sit entirely inside of a bra. If you are likely to interface with other people while you pump, you might appreciate not having any bottles sticking out of your bra.

If you’re not pumping regularly and don’t mind being stationary, then you don’t need a wearable pump. If you’re bad at remembering to charge your gear, you should choose a portable pump instead of a wearable, especially since you can charge portable pumps as you use them. No need to deal with a depleted pump.

Size does matter for breast pumps—that is, the size of the flange, which is sized to your nipple. Buying and wearing the right-size flange while you pump makes for a better, faster output of breast milk, plus it can just be more comfortable. Some pumps come with multiple flange sizes, but others require you to choose a size when you order. Those that make you choose a size before buying should have a sizing guide you can print out to check. Don’t guess your size—take the extra time to print out a piece of paper and get the correct size the first time.

What Does “Hospital-Grade” Suction Mean?

Many breast pumps will tout “hospital-grade” suction. Technically, a hospital-grade breast pump is an industrial pump that packs a powerful motor and is designed for multiple people to use safely. These pumps can reach a suction level in the 300 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) range and are wildly expensive, since they’re meant for hospitals to use with patients and rent out to new mothers.

Personal-use electric pumps—aka, the pumps a regular person would buy—aren’t meant to be shared and usually sit in the 200-mmHg range of pressure power. Some personal pumps will promote their “hospital-grade” suction, since, according to Aeroflow Breast Pumps, “there are no standards or regulations that define exactly what suction decibel a breast pump needs to have in order to be considered ‘hospital strength.’” Willow, for example, defines hospital-grade strength as anything above 235 mmHg. I recommend ignoring this marketing jargon as you shop. 

Important Pumping Accessories

Photograph: Willow

If you’re using a breast pump, you’ll need a few additional supplies.

Milk storage. You’ll want bottles for the baby to drink out of (my son loved Lasinoh’s bottles), but if you want to store milk for longer than four days—the maximum time the CDC recommends breast milk be refrigerated—then you’ll also need breast milk storage bags to keep milk in the freezer. Some breast pump brands sell bags that can be paired with their pumps, or you can buy stand-alone storage bags to pour the milk in post-pump. If you’re pumping at work and then transporting the milk home, you’ll want to get a small cooler or lunchbox to keep it chilled on your commute.

The right bra. If you’re using a standard-style pump with flanges that connect with bottles, you’ll need a designated pumping bra—I used this one from MomCozy and loved it. If you’re using a wearable pump, you need a full-coverage bra that can hold up the pump. I found Kindred Bravely’s workout nursing bra to be a great fit, since I could use the nursing hook to lower and secure the bra around the pump, but Willow also makes bras designed with wearable pumps in mind.

Should You Get a Double or Single Pump?

Some pumps can be a little cheaper if you choose the single pump option instead of the double pump for both sides. Single pumps are fine if you’re an infrequent pumper, but if you plan to pump regularly, studies have shown that double pumping is better to maintain, and potentially even increase, breast milk supply. Plus, you’ll be finished sooner if you pump both sides at the same time.

Will Insurance Cover the Pump?

While the Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to cover the cost of a breast pump, it doesn’t specify what kind of breast pump. You’ll have to check your insurance to see if it has specifications on the type of pump it will cover, or if there’s a monetary limit. Aeroflow Breastpumps is a good resource when shopping for breast pumps with your insurance coverage. If you’re leaning toward a wearable breast pump, be warned: Aeroflow lists all of its wearables as an upgrade option with some out-of-pocket expense. 

What About Cheap Breast Pumps on Amazon?

Amazon has some cheaper, off-brand wearable and portable breast pumps. You might think you’ve found a deal, but you should check whether the product has FDA approval. Breast pumps are medical devices, and you shouldn’t use one without approval from the Food and Drug Administration to ensure it’s safe and sanitary. You can check the FDA’s database to see if the pump has approval.

Can You Return a Breast Pump?

If you’ve opened it, you (probably) can’t return it. Breast pumps are personal medical devices, so breast pump makers will only accept returns that are unopened and in their original packaging, for health and safety reasons.

Well-known brands are likely to be reputable and include guidelines on buying them with insurance. Medela and Spectra are two of the biggest names and make a range of portable pumps. Willow and Elvie are major wearable makers, but we also like Legendairy’s Imani i2 wearable pump if you’re looking for a more affordable (FDA-approved) option. Be sure to check out our Best Breast Pumps guide, which we’ll be updating soon with new recommendations.

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