Types of Breast Pumps

Which Kind of Pump Do You Need?

Mother feeding baby

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Breast pumps are essential for those times you need to be separated from your baby and want to continue feeding them your milk. They can also be super helpful if you are experiencing a drop in milk supply, engorgement, or a plugged duct.

As such, whether you intend to pump on a regular basis, or only occasionally, most breastfeeding parents will want to have a pump available to them. But when you start to consider all the pumps on the market, it can be quite overwhelming!

There are just so many different kinds of pumps, and you may be unsure which pump is best for you. Let’s take a look at what each different kind of pump does, and how to know which pump is best for your needs.

How Do Breast Pumps Work?

Before you begin exploring the different kinds of breast pumps out there, it can be helpful to understand how breast pumps work.

“Breast pumps work by mimicking the way a baby suckles at the breast,” explains Nicole Schwartz, IBCLC, lactation consultant at Beyond Birth Collective. “The pump cycle creates then releases the suction, triggering the milk to let down from the breast.”

Breast pumps use vacuum pressure to extract the milk from the breast, explains Leigh Anne O’Connor, IBCLC, private practice lactation consultant in New York City. “Some pumps also use some massage-like pressure,” O’Connor adds.

Whatever the type of pump, there are three main parts: the breast shield or flange, which fits over the breast/areola area; the pump itself; and the container that is used to collect the milk.

“The breast shield or flange is the part of the pump that is placed over the breast to create a seal,” Schwartz explains. “The nipple then gets pulled into the flange tunnel from the suction created by the pump, and this pull and then release of the nipple is what stimulates the let down of milk from the breast.”

Many people are confused about the difference between a manual pump and one that’s operated by a battery or is electric. The difference, O’Connor explains, is that with manual pumps, you squeeze a handle that stimulates the vacuum mechanism of the pump. On the other hand, electric and battery-operated pumps have built-in machinery that helps create the vacuum and extract your milk.

Types of Breast Pumps

There are many breast pump companies on the market, and often companies will sell more than one type of pump, with different perks, bells, and whistles. In a nutshell, though, there are four main types of breast pumps that a company might offer: manual pumps, battery-operated pumps, electric pumps, and hospital-grade pumps.

Each type of pump meets a different need for a breastfeeding parent and might be used in different circumstances. Here’s what to know about the different pump types out there.  

Manual Pumps

Manual, or hand pumps, are pumps that are operated by squeezing a lever or horn with your hand. This pressure created by the seal each time you squeeze is how milk is extracted. Manual pumps are attractive to many parents because of how simple they are and because they don’t rely on batteries or electricity to work. They are also relatively inexpensive.

“Manual pumps are great to have on hand, especially for those early days when you are dealing with engorgement,” says Schwartz. “Manual pumps can help you get some milk out of your breasts quickly without having to pull out the electric pump.”

Swartz recommends keeping a manual pump around as a back-up, too, in case your pump is on the fritz. “I always recommend bringing a manual pump to work or on road trips just in case you are in a bind or your electric pump isn’t working,” she says.

Drawbacks of manual pumps are that they only pump one breast at a time, they aren’t as powerful as electric or hospital grade pumps, and your hand can get tired if you need to pump frequently. They are best for brief separations from your baby, not to maintain or increase your milk supply when you are frequently separated from your baby, such as for work.

Battery-Operated Pumps

Battery-operated pumps use batteries to power a small motor that operates the pump. These pumps are usually smaller and more lightweight than an electric pump. However, they aren’t usually as powerful as electric pumps, and they typically don’t have as many options for suction strength, and other variables, as electric pumps do.

“Battery-operated pumps can be helpful for pumping once in a while,” explains O’Connor. “They are typically smaller and more portable.”

A key advantage of a battery-operated pump is that you aren’t always in a situation where an outlet is available. “The portability of a battery-operated pump is great for pumping in the car or on an airplane,” Schwartz notes.

Electric Pumps

Electric pumps are usually the pump of choice for working parents and anyone who needs to pump for their baby on a regular basis. They are generally budget-friendly and portable. According to the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are required to cover breast pumps, and most will cover a basic electric pump.

“Electric pumps are the most widely available and give you the most options in terms of budget and features,” says Schwartz. “Electric pumps typically are a great choice for most pumpers, from the occasional pumper to the exclusive pumper.”

Most electric pumps offer options in terms of suction strength and have different modes. They usually start with letdown mode (or massage mode), which is faster and lighter, mimicking the kind of suckling your baby does to elicit your letdown. After a few minutes, the pump switches to extraction mode, which is slower and steadier, mimicking a baby’s suckling patterns as your milk is flowing.

Hospital-Grade Pumps

There are times when it may make sense for you to use what’s called a hospital-grade pump. These are the most powerful pumps out there, and they are what are offered to breastfeeding parents at the hospital who are having trouble bringing their milk in or who are pumping for premature or medically vulnerable babies who aren’t able to breastfeed directly yet.

Hospital-grade pumps are often also recommended for any parent who must exclusively pump, and are usually considered the best pump for increasing milk supply when it is low. Hospital-grade pumps can be used to induce lactation and to relocate, says Schwartz. Some working parents end up preferring hospital-grade pumps as well because of how comfortable and efficient they tend to be.

These types of pumps are very expensive, costing several thousand dollars, and most parents end up renting them from a local hospital or other provider. Hospital-grade pumps can be rented because they are multi-user pumps.

“A hospital-grade pump is meant to be used by many people and has a bacterial barrier,” explains O’Connor.

Can You Share Breast Pumps?

Hospital-grade pumps are the only multi-user pump out there, because they use a closed system which prevents milk from getting inside the motor of the pump and causing bacterial build-up. If you use a hospital-grade pump, you will need to provide your own new and clean pumping tubes and flanges.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises strongly against sharing manual, battery-operated, or electric breast pumps because of concerns about contamination. Because of this, it's best to decline most hand-me-down pumps from friends. You should also make sure that any pump that’s labeled “hospital grade” is actually a multi-use pump, the FDA advises.

A Word From Verywell

Every breastfeeding parent will have different pumping needs throughout their breastfeeding journey. You’ll want a pump that meets those needs as well as your budget, and feels comfortable for you to use.

Learning about the different kinds of available pumps out there is an important part of deciding which pump to use. But sometimes you need further guidance. A lactation consultant is a great resource for helping you make the right choice. You can also talk to fellow breastfeeding parents about which pump worked best for them.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Meier P, Patel L, Hoban R, Engstrom L. Which breast pump for which mother: an evidence-based approach to individualizing breast pump technology. J Perinatol. 2016;36(7):493-499. doi:10.1038/jp.2016.14

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Breastfeeding benefits.

  4. Bartick M, Hernéndez-Aguilar M, Wight N, et al. ABM Clinical Protocol #35: Supporting breastfeeding during maternal or child hospitalization. Breastfeeding Med. 2021;16(9). doi:10.1089/bfm.2021.29190.mba

  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. What to know when buying or using a breast pump.

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.

Originally written by Donna Murray, RN, BSN
Donna Murray

Donna Murray, RN, BSN has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Rutgers University and is a current member of Sigma Theta Tau, the Nursing Honor Society.

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