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The closeness and comfort of nursing your baby can be the most wonderful and unique experience. But for most nursing moms, the time comes when you need to be away from your little one -- for work, because of illness, or just for a night out to reconnect with your partner. At times like these, a breast pump is the nursing mom's lifesaver.

But buying and starting to use a pump can be daunting. How do you choose the one that's right for you? How can you be sure you're pumping correctly? How do you safely store and use pumped breast milk? This guide can answer those questions and help you get off to a good start. 

It may not be as hard as you think, says Diana West, an internationally board-certified lactation consultant. "You just have to find the right pump for you and learn techniques for getting the most milk with your pump," she says. "You almost have to make it a friend because, especially for working mothers, it's going to be with you a lot!"

Choosing a Breast Pump

There are four main categories of breast pumps to choose from.

  • Rental-grade (also called "hospital-grade") breast pumps. "These are the workhorses," West says. "They're like the Mack trucks of breast pumps." They're also expensive and bulky, so you probably wouldn't want one for daily pumping while at work. But they're ideally suited for helping make milk early on.

At this point, "you need to go full guns and use the best possible equipment," West says. "These pumps remove milk most effectively." That's because their pumping action is most like a baby's natural suck. At its best, a baby's suck is far better at removing milk from the breast than any pump, but some babies don't have the best latch.

You can use these electric pumps in the hospital or at home, and pump after every feeding or instead of nursing if you are separated from your baby -- for example, if he's in the intensive care nursery. As the name indicates, these pumps are most often rented rather than bought.

  • Consumer-grade electric breast pumps. Generally costing between $200 and $300 to buy, these are the pumps you'll see featured at baby stores. They usually come in discreet black carrying cases and contain everything you'll need to start pumping, including tubes, flanges (the plastic part that you put over your nipple), and a few bottles and storage bags.

      If your breasts are making milk, "and you're going back to work and will be separated from your baby and pumping several times a day, this is the kind of pump you need," West says.

  • Smaller electric or battery-powered breast pumps. These smaller pumps run either on electricity or battery power and usually cost less than $50. But, West says, you get what you pay for. "They're really awful for removing milk. If you try using them regularly as a working mother, you'll take a real hit on milk production. But if you're breastfeeding all the time and you just need something to pump once in a blue moon when you go out to dinner, they're fine."
  • Manual breast pumps. Costing about $30, these breast pumps work just as well as electric or battery-powered pumps for many women, West says. "You just use your own hand to work a pump like this, and some of them remove milk really well." Even if you have a consumer-grade pump to take to work, some women like using a manual breast pump at home, simply because there are fewer parts to juggle. And if you can't afford to spend $200 to $300 for a consumer-grade electric breast pump, West says you might be able to do just fine with a high-quality manual version. "Get the best you can afford and make do."

Many of the consumer-grade pumps offer various bells and whistles, West says. Some, for example, can pump both breasts at once or have fewer pieces to clean. Any of these perks can be convenient for a working mom who doesn't get many pumping breaks. But these features are all a matter of personal preference. Most basic pumps will do the job.