Breast Pump Basics

Expecting parents ask me lots of pumping questions. What can I say? With three babies, I’m kind of a superpumper. So, I wrote down the most basic questions that curious (sometimes timid) new moms and dads have. Drink ‘em in.

working mom at a laptop with food pumping breastmilk
working mom eating with a fork while baby breastfeeds

What is pumping?

If you’re expecting, you are likely somewhat familiar with pumping! But just to recap, to pump is to use a mechanical device (a breast pump) to express milk from the breast. A breast pump is a device that attaches to your breasts via flanges and tubing. When turned on, the pump will simulate the suction an infant might make when breastfeeding. And, voila! Out comes to breastmilk you can refrigerate (or freeze) for later.

Why do you pump?

Three reasons:

  1. I work! So I’m sometimes away from my baby for part of the day.
  2. I wanted my husband (and others) to be able to bottle feed our baby breastmilk.
  3. Pumping helps me maintain my milk supply.
happy four month old baby holding kiinde milk storage bag

    Pumping maintains your milk supply? Go on.

    Yup! Pumping actually maintains (and in some cases) increases milk supply. Milk supply is driven by demand. Emptying the breast every 2 – 3 hours (source) maintains milk supply. Pumping extra (such as, after feeding) can increase milk supply. 

    For example, I could pump about an hour after every morning feed. It may take a few days to increase supply, but two separate studies found that milk production could be increased by 15% to 40% when pumping was performed after a feeding (source). For more info on milk supply, check out Kellymom’s article on the science of Milk Production.

    Tell us about your breast pump, Emily.

    Ah, choosing the perfect pump. I found that there are a lot of options out there, from a simple manual pump (always good to have as a backup) to a hospital grade double breast pump. 

    I’ve tried a few different pumps and I have my preferences. But honestly? They all work just fine. That’s why my favorite pumps are the ones my insurance covers! 

    Are the pump parts complicated?

    Each pump has its own set of accompanying components, namely flanges, tubing, valves, and bottles. The flange is the plastic component that makes contact with the breast. The tubing connects the flanges to the pump, conveying the suction created by the pump to the breast. The valves control the rate of flow of milk into the bottles, completing the pump system. Flanges, tubing, and valves are each critical to pumping. 

    Don’t leave home without all of them. And don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it all quickly.

    Is pumping more painful or uncomfortable than breastfeeding?

    Pumping feels a bit more uncomfortable than breastfeeding, but to each her own! I know there are some for whom breastfeeding is reallllllly uncomfortable so if that’s you, try pumping! Just make sure you get the right size flanges for your nipples, since too-large flanges can cause a LOT of pain.

    Do you ever have to throw milk out? And does that make you sad?

    Yes, there are times when you have to throw out milk. And yes, I feel awful when I do it. The CDC recommends tossing milk from the fridge after four days, and dumping frozen breastmilk between six months to a year after it was frozen. Breastmilk is a food so it has an expiration date. 

    two kiinde twist breastmilk storage bags ready for freezer stash

    I had to throw out the stash I had built up when I was home on maternity leave with my oldest son. We didn’t manage the frozen milk usage well, and ended up with a month’s worth of work going down the drain. I highly recommend throwing a bag of frozen milk into the mix each day for your little one, even if you are able to maintain baby’s needs with milk pumped the previous day. That way you won’t suffer the anguish I did!

    And you don’t have to throw away “expired” breastmilk, either. There are other ways to use breastmilk once it is past the recommended storage dates, including a breastmilk bath for your kiddo. Just dump the bag(s) of milk into the water. A few of my mom friends swear it helps soothe their baby’s sensitive skin. And for the crafty among us, there are opportunities to use breastmilk in soaps and candles. Get creative and reuse that milk, if that’s your thing.

    How do you store milk once it’s out?

    It’s handy to store the expressed milk in a cooler, and the pump and components in some kind of bag (in the same cooler). There are actually companies dedicated to making bags just for pumping mamas, complete with their own coolers and ice packs. 

    I have tried a lot of these bags, and the Sarah Wells bag is my favorite. It’s specifically designed to hold your breast pumps and its components. I have also used a repurposed diaper bag, a free tote bag from a diaper engineering conference, and a backpack. 

    Breast pump setup for work with Spectra S2 breast pump ardo flange kiinde milk storage lansinoh hands free bra and sarah wells milk storage cooler

    Besides the pump, what else do you need?

    My pumping kit/setup for on the go is a combo of items from different brands that allows me to pump from wherever. I’d recommend these items, or ones similar for your own kit.

    • Spectra S2 pump ⛽️ (got through my insurance)
    • Ardo flanges and bottles 🎺 (also through insurance)
    • Kiinde milk storage bags 🍼
    • Sarah Wells cooler ❄️
    • Medela wipes 💦
    • Generic electrical plug (bought off Amazon) ⚡️

    Bonus items: A hands-free pumping bra, a breast pump carrying bag, wipes for cleaning, and a battery pack.


    If you want to know more about pumping at work specifically, check out this article [coming soon]. If you want to learn more about breastfeeding from a true expert (and doula), check out Chelsea’s section of our blog. Happy pumping!



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    About the author

    Mom of 3 and an engineer-by-trade. Emily is leading up diaper engineering at Kudos and pushing the industry to be more sustainable. Whether the topic is diapers, babies, or Mama Earth, she's on a mission to find and share the best info there is to offer. Engineer and mama by day. Blogger by night.

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