So you bought the pump, opened up the box, took a look at the manual and all those pieces and put it away. I get it. It can be overwhelming wondering how to put a pump together and sort out how it works. Or maybe you’re using a pump but wondering if you need to replace any of the pumps parts.
You might have purchased your pump before the birth of your baby or it might have been after you started working with a lactation consultant. Regardless of timing, you should understand how all the pieces fit together for optimal function, how to clean it and when to replace the pump parts. I will break it down piece by piece (pun-intended) so you have a clear understanding of the role each piece has because there are a lot!
Anatomy of a breast pump
When you buy a pump, it does not come assembled. All the pieces are separate with instructions how to put them together. The parts you’ll find in that box include:
- Flanges (sometimes called breast shields)
- Connectors (may or may not be required depending on brand)
- Valves (duckbill or offset; depends on pump)
- Membranes (may or may not be a part of the valve)
- Back flow protectors (may or may not be required depending on brand)
- Tubing (electric pumps have tubing)
- Collection bottles
- Collection bottle lids
All of these parts including their function and how often they need to be replaced are covered in much more detail below.
Before we dive into the details, what is a breast pump?
A breast pump is either a manual, electric or battery operated pump designed to remove milk from the breast. It works by stimulating the nipples and generating suction to remove milk and collect it in a collection container.
Hand Pump a.k.a Manual Pump
This is a pump that needs to be operated with your hand. You continuously squeeze a lever which generates the suction. These pumps are inexpensive when compared to electric or wireless pumps. Hand pumps are also a great option if you do not need to pump frequently. Another bonus is they do not require electricity you so can use them anywhere. The downside is that it’s a little more work for you as your hands are not free.
This pump would be an example of the graphic above. It’s an electric pump with just one flange. The upside is that because it’s electric, you can play with the settings to find what’s most comfortable and supports milk production. You also have the option of buying a pumping bra to be able to use this pump without having to hold it against your body the entire time. In the case of single mastectomies, a single electric pump can be a good choice.
The downside is that it will just take more time to pump if you need to pump both breasts.
This pump would also be an example of the graphic above. Electric pumps (even singles) are more costly than a hand pump. Double electric pumps can run several hundred dollars. This brings up the question of whether or not your breast pump will be covered by insurance. In the US, breast pumps are usually covered by insurance. Here in Canada, it depends. I have worked with parents that have been able to have their breast pump covered by extended health benefits. You won’t know until you ask. Check with your current benefits provider and see if reimbursement is covered under your plan. If it is, save your receipt. They will not cover a used pump, it will have to be purchase brand new.
These are some of the next generation pumps that you can wear right inside a nursing bra. They are often very quiet and great for on-the-go pumping. They even come with an app that allows you to track estimated milk volumes. For some these can be a great back to work option as you can freely pump while driving if ever needed.
Just like double electric, these pumps are also quite expensive. Because of the way they are designed, they are not meant for frequent pumping. They are also not a good option if you’re pumping to increase milk production. A double electric is more ideally suited in that situation.
Wearable pumps also do not allow you to see your nipple inside the flange. This can sometimes lead to nipple damage if you don’t first correctly line up your nipple with the arrow on the pump.
A silicone pump is a passive pump that suctions directly to your breast. The most well-known is the Haakaa but there are many brands on the market. While this pump can be a handy tool for many, it can also create a lot of problems for others. It honestly deserves it’s own post. For now, here is a great post by a lactation consultant on cautions around silicone pumps.
Variations of these parts exist in all types of pumps. For the purposes of this post, they are based on the above graphic which comes from a double electric pump.
The flanges, also called breast shields, are the piece of the pump that actually goes on to your body. Your nipple should sit centered in the flange prior to starting the pump. It’s also important the pump flange is appropriately sized. Flanges are available in a variety of sizes. The difference between them being the diameter. Every body is different. The flanges that came with your pump may not be the ones that fit you. It’s best to measure the diameter of your nipple, add 3-4mm and purchase the flange size according to that new number. Your nipple should not rub on the sides of the flange. If it does, the flange is too small. If your areola is pulled into the flange or you see an air gap between the flange and your breast, the flange is too large.
Your pump may have separate connectors or the connectors may be attached to the flange. It really depends on the brand of pump. When they are attached, you need to be a little more diligent about cleaning than when they are separate. In the graphic above, the connector is attached to the flange. The flange and the connector are one piece instead of two.
Valves & Membranes
The type of valve your pump has will differ based on the brand of pump. In the pump above, the valve is an offset valve. This type of valve has a membrane attached to it. The membrane is a thin plastic piece that covers the valve. The milk flows through the valve, past the membrane and into the collection container. Duckbill valves are given that name because of their look. They are a hard plastic piece that resembles a duck bill. Duckbill valves do not require a membrane.
Back flow protectors
These are also a piece that may or may not be a part of your pump. These are typically made up of hard plastic pieces and a silicone or softer plastic piece. The silicone piece fits in between the two plastic pieces. This then attaches directly to the flange and the tubing. Black flow protectors prevent any milk from backing up into the pump tubing or into the pump motor. These are often a part of closed pump systems. A closed system means no moisture can get to the motor of the pump. This is also the type of system used in hospital grade breast pumps.
Tubing is a part of every electric pump. Manual pumps generally do not include tubing because they are structured differently since your hand is the motor. Wearable or wireless pumps also do not include any tubing.
Collection bottles & lids
Usually the collection bottle that comes with your pump are the ones you will need to use. There are some where you can use another brand of bottle. It just depends whether or not it securely screws into the connector. You will also need lids that fit the collection bottle. If you plan to store the milk in the bottle collected (even for just a while) before using or freezing, it should be sealed with a lid. Wearable and wireless pumps have special bags the milk is directly collected into.
Replacing pump parts
When you start using a breast pump, you do need to be mindful of the care required. The pieces should be replaced overtime. The timeline varies because it depends how frequently you are pumping. If you are an exclusive pumper or are pumping at least 3 times per day, you’ll want to replace the pieces sooner than if you’re an infrequent pumper.
Here are the general guidelines for replacing parts on a single or double electric pump
- Membranes: every 2 – 4 weeks
- Valves: every 1 – 3 months
- Backflow protectors: every 3 – 6 months
- Tubing: every 6 months or if it cracks, becomes dirty or discoloured
- Flanges: if they crack or become discoloured
- Connectors: same as flanges
- Collection containers: if they crack
Cleaning your pump parts
You should always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for use and cleaning. The following general guidelines can be used for cleaning manual and electric pumps.
- First take it apart
- Rinse the pieces in lukewarm water to remove any milk
- Wash them in hot soapy water in a clean dish pan (sinks can harbour bacteria)
- Rinse them well in hot water
- Dry with a clean paper towel or shake them off to remove excess water. They should air dry on a towel or a bottle drying rack
- Store them in a clean container once they are dry
- Wash and then dry the pan used for washing the pump parts
If you have a premature or ill infant, all pump parts should be disinfected once per day. You can do this by boiling them for 5 minutes after cleaning. For a full term healthy infant, sterilizing daily is not required. This link will take you directly to the CDC guidelines for cleaning, sanitizing and storing infant feeding items.
Can I buy a second hand pump?
While many people do choose to buy a second hand pump, it may not always be the best option. It can be difficult to determine just how frequently the pump was used. While you can replace just about all of the physical parts, the motor may or may not be in great shape. It’s also important to consider whether it is a closed system or not as moisture could have made its way into the motor if it’s not.
If it turns out you need to pump often and you’re using a second hand pump that was used frequently, the motor may not be up to the task. This could affect how efficient it is at removing milk which could begin to affect milk supply.
Still have questions after reading this? I offer virtual 1:1 consults for anyone with infant feeding questions
Alex Wachelka is a Lactation Educator and breastfeeding problem solver passionate about educating families.