Finding the Best Breast Pump

June 14, 2001 -- Nursing moms who rely on commercial breast pumps to help them feed their babies may feel overwhelmed by a confounding array of choices. Is electric better than manual? Does bigger and more expensive necessarily mean better?

Lactation experts contacted by WebMD agree that lifestyle and personal preference are the most important factors to be considered when choosing a breast pump. They add that researching the options is the key to avoiding costly and possibly painful mistakes.

"Whether you chose manual or electric, some pumps are absolutely fabulous and others are worthless," lactation consultant Sally Page-Goertz tells WebMD. "The frustrating thing is that a woman in the market for a pump has little way of knowing which one she is getting." Page-Goertz is acting president of the 4,000-plus-member International Lactation Consultant Association.

In a study published in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics, researchers from the U.K. report that a relatively new and inexpensive type of manual device, called the ISIS pump, was preferred over an electric pump by a test group of mothers expressing milk for their pre-term infants. The pump is unique because it has a silicone stimulator cushion that attaches to the areola and simulates the baby's sucking motion.

It took longer to express the same amount of milk with the manual ISIS pump, because the electric pump expressed from both breasts simultaneously. But researcher Mary S. Fewtrell, MD, says most of the women in the study did not mind spending an extra 10-15 minutes a day using the pump.

A separate study involving mothers of full-term infants found the manual ISIS pump to be comparable to a widely used electric pump. The studies were funded by ISIS pump manufacturer, Canon Avent of the U.K. In the U.S., the manufacturer is known simply as Avent, and their products are sold at most baby-supply stores and online.

"The thing is that different women are going to like different things and a manual pump isn't right for everyone," says Fewtrell, who is the mother of a 4-year-old and an 8-month-old and has used the ISIS pump with both. "There are always some who are going to want to use an electric double pump."

The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends breastfeeding for the first year of an infant's life. These days, around 65% of new moms in the U.S. start out breastfeeding, compared with just 26% in 1970. Fewer than 30% are still breastfeeding by the time their babies are 6 months old.

Women who only occasionally express milk often prefer manual pumps because they are generally smaller, lighter, and cheaper, while those who work outside the home and must express throughout the day tend to rely on electric machines, La Leche League spokeswoman Carole Huotari tells WebMD. Manual pumps sell for between $30 and $50, while electric pumps average $200 to $300.

"I can't tell you how many times women call us and say their pumps really hurt," Huotari says. "It is a shame that some of these pumps are even on the market."

If it hurts to use a pump, she says, it is probably inferior, and the problem is that although lots of bad pumps are on the market, women have little help finding the good ones. Congress is considering legislation to require evaluation of breast pumps by the FDA, she says.

The La Leche League catalog, which can be accessed online, includes manual and electric breast pumps that have been tested by League members.