How to Use a Breast Pump

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 30, 2023
10 min read

A breast pump is a device you use when you're breastfeeding to express, or remove, your breast milk that you can store for later use. This can be especially helpful when you’re going back to work, traveling, or when someone else will be feeding your baby.

When to use a breast pump

Always talk to your doctor before you start using a breast pump. Many people start pumping soon after their baby is born.

If you know you're going to be away from your baby to go back to work or school, for instance, start pumping 2 weeks before you go back. Try to pump as often as your baby feeds (every 3 to 4 hours for 15 minutes at a time). You also can use a breast pump to help increase your breast milk or help ease engorged breasts or plugged milk ducts. 

How to use a breast pump

Read the instructions in your breast pump kit. Not all breast pumps work the same way. Typically, you'll follow these steps:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water before you handle the breast pump.
  • Find a room that is safe, clean, and private where you can relax.
  • Put the pump together, and double-check to make sure all the parts are clean.
  • To help improve your milk letdown (the response from your body that signals your breast milk to flow), hold your baby or look at a picture of your baby.
  • Put the breast shield over your breast (your nipple should be in the middle of the shield).
  • Start pumping with a low level of suction and gradually increase the level of suction as your milk begins to flow.
  • Pump each breast until they're empty.
  • After you’re finished, each of your breasts should feel soft.
  • Put the milk in the refrigerator or freezer right away.
  • Take the pump apart, wash it thoroughly, and let the parts air dry.

How to store breast milk

After you're finished pumping, you need to store your milk in milk storage bags or clean, food-grade containers. You can find these online or at most pharmacies.

A few other considerations to keep in mind include:

  • Write the date and your baby's name on the breast milk container.
  • Store only the amount of milk needed for one feeding in each container (2 to 4 ounces of breast milk).
  • Don't store breast milk in containers not intended for breast milk.
  • Avoid bottles with the recycle symbol number 7, as they could have BPA-containing plastic.

A breast pump flange is an important part of the breast pump machine. It's the funnel-shaped piece that rests around your areola, the dark ring around your nipple. When you use a breast pump, the pump uses air suction to stimulate your nipples and mimic your baby’s sucking. The flange fits around your nipple as the machine suctions, but if you use the wrong size, it can cause pain and problems.

How to measure flange size

Many of the breast pump manufacturers have sizing guides on their websites to help you find the proper fitting breast pump flange, or as some manufacturers call them, breast shields. The size of the flange you need depends on the diameter of your nipple or the distance from one side to the other. This does not include the areola, the dark area in the center of the breast.

Here's how to find the best flange size for you.

  1. Don't pump before you measure, but stimulate your nipple because it expands when you're pumping.
  2. Using a measuring tape, measure the distance straight across the middle of your nipple at the base. Don't include your areola.
  3. The number in millimeters you get isn't the measurement you should look for in your breast flange. You'll likely be most comfortable if you add 1-3 millimeters to your nipple size.

Use this chart to help guide you:

  • 17 millimeters nipple fits a 21 millimeters flange
  • 20 millimeters nipple fits a 24 millimeters flange
  • 23 millimeters nipple fits a 27 millimeters flange
  • 26 millimeters nipple fits a 30 millimeters flange
  • 32 millimeters nipple fits a 36 millimeters flange

If your breast flange fits properly, your nipple will be in the center and move freely. None of the areolar tissue should be pulled into the funnel, and you shouldn't have any pain or discomfort from pumping. After a pumping session, your breast should be fully drained.

Despite having measurements, sometimes finding the right flange size is trial and error. You may be able to find resources through your hospital, doctor’s office, or a breastfeeding center.

Signs of a wrong flange size

Signs that indicate your breast pump isn’t a good fit will depend on whether the pump is too large or too small. If your flange size is wrong, it can lead to nipple pain and an inability to fully drain the breast after a pumping session. Milk left in your breast can signal your body that you’re making too much milk, causing you to produce less. If your breasts aren't properly drained after feeding or pumping, you could have clogged milk ducts or mastitis.

Mastitis is a painful condition in which your breast tissue becomes inflamed and sometimes infected. Mastitis can happen to anybody but occurs mostly when you're breastfeeding and you get clogged milk ducts or when bacteria enter your breast.

Symptoms of mastitis include:

  • Breast tenderness and swelling
  • Increased warmth in the affected breast (warm to the touch)
  • Lumps or thickness in breast tissue
  • Pain or burning while nursing or pumping
  • Skin redness
  • Feeling ill
  • A fever of 101 F or greater

If you suspect mastitis, call your doctor. They may need to prescribe antibiotics if there is an infection.

There are a variety of breast pumps available. Your doctor can help you determine which pump is best for you.

All of them are made up of three main parts:

  • Breast shield. This is a cone-shaped cup that fits over your nipple.
  • Pump. This part contains a gentle vacuum to express your milk through a plastic tube that connects the pump to the breast shield.
  • Milk container. This is a detachable container (usually a disposable bag or bottle) that collects your milk.

Electric breast pump 

Battery-powered and electric pumps are plugged into an electrical outlet or powered by batteries. They have a motorized pump that creates the suction that removes milk from your breast. The pump comes with a control panel and dial that help you control the strength of the suction. Some manufacturers create powered breast pumps that come with a letdown feature. Letdown starts the release of milk once your nipple is stimulated. Because these types of pumps rely on electricity, you should always have a backup plan in case of an emergency or a power outage.

Manual breast pump

Manual breast pumps don't require any electricity or battery. You simply put the breast shield over your breast and squeeze a lever or handle to suction and remove your milk from your breast. Your expressed milk is collected in the milk container.

Hands-free breast pump

A hands-free breast pump offers more convenience because it allows you to pump milk while you're doing other things. There are also wearable breast pumps you can place inside your bra that provide you more privacy.

Hospital-grade breast pump

Hospital-grade breast pumps are the most powerful and are safe for multiple users, so they're often available for rent. They have a closed-system breast pump to prevent contamination from milk or other fluids, too. If you choose to rent one, you're required to buy all new accessories, including new breast shields and tubing.

 

You probably want to get the best breast pump you can buy. But which one? The right breast pump for you depends on your needs and circumstances.

If you don't even know where to start, talk to your doctor or a lactation consultant. They can help you choose which pump is best for you. But a good place to start is by answering some questions including:

  1. How will you use the pump?
  2. How much time do you need to pump?
  3. Are the pump's instructions easy to understand?
  4. Where will you use the pump?
  5. Do you need a pump that is easy to carry?
  6. Do the breast shields fit you?
  7. What's your budget?
  8. Will your insurance cover the cost?

Also consider the power of the motor, the warranty, accessories, and other factors such as the size and weight.

You can buy a breast pump at baby supply stores, your local hospital, pharmacies, and online. You also may be able to get a breast pump through your private insurance or Medicaid, or federal programs such as Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). A lactation consultant can also help find the best breast pump for you.

You also can consider renting a breast pump from a hospital, lactation consultant, or specialty medical supply store. These are safe for multiple users because the FDA requires you to buy a new accessories kit. If do rent a pump, ask your doctor for references of reputable places to rent from.

The FDA considers breast pumps to be single-use devices, so it's important that you only rent multiple-use breast pumps.

Breast pumps vary in price depending on the type you get. Of course, manual breast pumps will cost much less than electric pumps. According to Costhelper.com, prices vary as follows:

  • Manually-operated breast pumps are the least expensive and range from $20 to $60.
  • Single battery-operated or electric pumps can cost anywhere between $40 and $185.
  • Double (or dual) electric breast pumps can start as low as $60 and cost as much as $3,500.

For long-term nursing parents, it’s better to have your own pump, but for those who are only looking to nurse for a few months, renting a breast pump might be more affordable.

Breast pump through insurance

Health insurance plans are required to provide you with equipment while you breastfeed, including the cost of your pump. But your insurance plan might have guidelines on whether it will cover a manual or electric pump, rental or new, the length of a rental, and when you can get it.

So before you call your insurance, have a list of questions to ask:

  1. Is my breast pump coverage for a new or rental pump? If it’s a rental, what are the cleaning and disinfecting protocols? How long do I get to rent it?
  2. Will I get a manual or electric pump?
  3. When will I get my pump, before my baby is born or after? 
  4. Is the pump sent to me, or do I need to purchase it and then request reimbursement? 
  5. Is a pre-authorization or prescription from my primary care physician needed? 
  6. Does my plan consider the type of pump my physician recommends for me?
  7. What other breastfeeding benefits are covered by my plan? (Are breast pumping supplies, support, and counseling covered?) What about lactation support?
  8. Ask for a list of in-network providers.

Affordable breast pumps

As we mentioned, your health insurance is required to cover breast pumps while you're breastfeeding. But what type they have to give you depends on your insurance. If you don't have insurance, there are still options for getting affordable breast pumps. If you have to pay out of pocket, just be sure the breast pump you buy fits you properly, is comfortable, and won’t cause you pain or harm.

How to get a free breast pump

The good news is you could be eligible for a free breast pump instead. Check with your state health department, local hospitals, and the state’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) to see what assistance might be available for you to get a free breast pump. They may be able to offer assistance with breastfeeding supplies, including pumps.

Used breast pumps

Avoid purchasing a used breast pump, as the FDA considers them for one user. Single-use breast pumps aren't designed to be cleaned and disinfected between different users. If you reuse one, it could still have infectious particles that can make you or your baby sick. Plus, the manufacturer’s warranty may be voided if it's sold, used, or shared.




 

Using a breast pump can help you express and store your breast milk, but it does have its pros and cons.

Some advantages of using a breast pump include:

  • Saves time. Using a breast pump gives you more control over the timing of feedings for your baby. You can create a schedule that works for you and pump at those times. 
  • Shared duties. When your breast milk is pumped and stored, it’s easier for others to help with feeding. This can be especially helpful when you're recovering from childbirth or during nighttime feedings.
  • Increases supply. Pumping can help you increase your breast milk supply. It can also help create an extra supply of milk that you can keep in the freezer for later.
  • Breaks. Because you can store an extra supply of breast milk, you'll have more flexibility to run errands, go back to work, and maybe take a vacation.
  • Donor milk. If you end up with extra milk, you can donate it to other newborns who need breast milk.

Disadvantages of using a breast pump include:

  • Fewer immune system benefits. Using a breast pump is preferable to formula but may not be tailored to the baby's needs at the moment. It doesn’t offer the same benefits to the baby's immune system as breastfeeding does.
  • Extra expense. Buying a breast pump and the supplies needed may cost extra money. This could include milk storage bras, bottles, milk storage bags, and breast pump equipment.
  • Privacy concerns. You might find it challenging to use a breast pump in public places or at work. It can be hard to find a private place to pump, and sometimes the equipment is loud.
  • Storage. Finding ways to store and keep track of pumped milk can be difficult. Even frozen breast milk can expire and must be tracked carefully.