I've been a mom for four years. For half that time, I pumped breast milk. Like many working mothers, I spent countless hours locked in windowless rooms, half undressed with what looked like two airhorns latched to my chest and surrounded by the loud grating noise of the motor. By comparison, using an pump by Elvie -- which is trying to redesign pumping alongside Willow, Freemie and Babyation -- felt like an early release from prison to serve the rest of my sentence at a beach-side resort.
While other consumer technologies have seen dizzying advancements in the last 25 years, electric breast pumps haven't fundamentally changed since their introduction by Medela in the early '90s. New moms have basically been stuck with the pumping equivalent of a two-way pager, while everything else upgraded to iPhones.
But the past two years have seen the introduction of wearable pumps by breast pumps -- like Freemie's Liberty and Independence pumps and a forthcoming, kickstarted pump called Babyation -- aiming to make it easier for women to as they go about their day.and , two women-led startups. With pumps redesigned as cup-shaped all-in-one devices you can wear inside your bra, they join other new
Elvie's pump became more accessible last week. As of Sunday, Elvie's pumps were on sale in more than 250 Target stores and nearly 100 Buy Buy Baby locations across the US. That comes a month after Elvie announced that its pumps will be eligible for insurance subsidies in the US to offset their cost, through a partnership with Aeroflow. One Elvie unit costs $279 and two are $499.
I tested an Elvie pump in two different circumstances: pumping in the workplace while also nursing at home, and pumping while traveling away from my baby. At work, Elvie made pumping noticeably less oppressive. While traveling, it was emancipating.
I also pumped while biking home from work once or twice. That wasn't effective -- at all. It also isn't how wearable pumps are meant to be used. But the mere possibility of pumping in public, while going from one place to another, can feel like a revelation for anyone who's been indentured to a traditional pump for months on end.
Wearable pumps aren't magical breastfeeding cure-alls. For me, the Elvie pump didn't increase my supply meaningfully compared with a traditional pump. These new pumps still require diligence about cleaning and storage. And although they're wearable devices, you can't exactly slip one on under your clothes with quite the same ease as sliding a smartwatch onto your wrist.
But using the Elvie pump fundamentally redefined my assumptions about pumping. It gave me some of my freedom and a lot of my dignity back. For a thankless, labor- and time-intensive task like pumping, that alone may be worth it to some women.
Elvie, Willow, Freemie, Babyation: Basic differences
Elvie and Willow tend to be lumped into the same category as other, newer mobile pumps like the Liberty and Independence pumps and the forthcoming Babyation, set for release later this year. But wearables and other newfangled pumps are a little different.
Elvie and Willow put the entirety of a pump into all-in-one devices that fit inside your bra. With these, the motor and the milk collection are inside the same unit.
Mobile pumps like Freemie's separate the motor from its milk-collection cups, so the elements you wear inside your bra have tubes that run under your clothes to a motor you can wear on your hip. The tubes provide the vacuum power, while the milk collection happens in the cups.
The Babyation pump, meanwhile, is meant to simplify pumping -- but not necessarily make it mobile. While the Babyation pump isn't out yet, it's similar to the Freemie pumps in that it has low-profile breast shields and tubes that you wear under your clothing. The big difference is that Babyation's expressed milk actually pumps through its tubes to collect in bottles held in a motor unit that doubles as a storage cooler.
Although the Willow and Elvie pumps are both all-in-one wearable devices, they have a few distinct differences from each other.
The biggest functional difference is milk collection. The Elvie pump expresses milk into a specially designed, washable five-ounce bottle that you decant into the storage container of your choice. By contrast, Willow requires specialized, doughnut-shaped four-ounce collection bags. Willow's bags have a one-way valve, so milk can go in but can't leak out,. That means they do double duty as both collection and storage bags.
Willow's bags mean an ongoing cost to pumping. After an initial allotment of bags included with the $500 Willow pump, additional bags cost 50 cents each. You need at least one bag for each breast, meaning each pumping session costs at least a dollar. And anytime you pump more than four ounces on one side during a session, you'll need to swap in another. At the height of my pumping, it wasn't unusual for me to express more than four ounces on one side during my first pump of the work day.
These bags are also one-time-use only. If, for example, you don't align your pump properly on your breast, it's possible to accidentally pump air into the bag, limiting how much (if any) milk is expressed into it. That means you not only try again but you also may waste a bag in the process.
Elvie's collection bottles avert those problems. But the crux to a washable bottle is that you actually have to wash it. After every pumping session, you have more parts to rinse (or outright clean) than you do with the Willow.
Other differences between them: The Elvie pump is slimmer than the Willow one and anecdotally seems to be quieter. Elvie uses a seal-and-valve system to create a vacuum on your breast, while Willow's has a single element called a flexitube to do the work.
Willow pumps also have a dedicated right and left version, while Elvie pumps can go on either side. Elvie and Willow pumps both cost about $500 for two units, but Elvie's ability to swap sides means the company sells a single pump for $279. While a single pump may not be practical for a mom who has to pump frequently, the single-unit option gives women a way to try the pump without having to shell out the full, big-ticket price.
Of all these redesigned pumps, I've only tested Elvie's. Unfortunately for me, the advent of the reimagined breast pump came mostly too late for my pumping days. By the time I got my hands on an Elvie pump to test, my second baby had already graduated to solid foods, and I was pumping a fraction of the milk I had been months earlier.
Trying it at that stage was a different experience than I would have had back when my body was an unceasing milk factory. But it does provide perspective into how wearable pumps address the needs of women with lower supply -- a group of women who deserve all the help they can get.
Elvie's pumps consist of a main body called a hub where all the mechanics are housed, plus two additional elements that snap into it. One is the five-ounce bottle to collect the expressed milk, which you close with a twist lid topped by a removable silicon valve. The other is a breast shield with a silicon seal hooked to it.
This seal and valve will look a little familiar to anyone who has used traditional pumps. Together with the motor hub, the valve and seal help create the vacuum needed to express milk and then transfer it to the bottle.
That's where the similarities to old-school pumps end. Rather than the angular, airhorn-shaped flanges of a traditional pump, Elvie's breast shield is rounded and cups your breast, and it docks directly into the main hub. Instead of bottles protruding four inches out from your chest, the Elvie's collection bottle snaps to the lower portion of the hub to create its rounded bottom.
The first time I used the Elvie, I snapped the bottle into the hub imperfectly, resulting in my only incident of leaking. The valve on the bottle wasn't flush with the opening on the breast shield, allowing small amounts of milk to drip down the sides of the bottle when I moved. But every other time I assembled the Elvie pump, the pieces literally clicked into place and never leaked again.
How it looks to everyone else
Though you wear it inside your bra, putting the Elvie pump on wasn't as easy as slipping it under my clothes. In order to get the right alignment for my nipple inside the breast shield, I needed to unbutton or remove my top, open my nursing bra and attentively place it on my breast before turning it on and dressing again.
That meant that pumping still required me to leave what I was doing and go to a private place to start. That could be a bathroom or any room where I could ensure your privacy for a few minutes. But for me, wanting a place more sanitary than a bathroom meant I ended up in my workplace's mothers room, the same place where I had spent so many hours tethered to a traditional pump.
Once it's on and pumping, though, it really is discreet. The first time I returned to my desk with the pump in action, I was hyper-attuned to whether my co-workers would notice me subversively pumping right next to them. Unless you pump in a library, the sound of Elvie's device is mostly drowned out by the low-level ambient noise of most workplaces.
The pumps do make your chest appear larger. But as a women sensitive about that, I simply added a large, loose scarf to my everyday bag of pumping supplies. When the Elvie pumps were in my bra, I would tie the scarf around my neck and shoulders so it draped over my chest too, minimizing the visible clues that I was pumping.
Elvie in action on the job
Elvie works best if your movements are still or limited, so it works fine for people who have desk jobs or occupations where you calmly walk around from place to place. But if your job requires bending, lifting or dashing around, you'll probably still need to take a break from those more-active elements of your day during pumping (as my biking-while-pumping experiment suggested).
One difficulty of using the Elvie pump in public is that it's hard to tell what's going on in there while it's pumping. You can't really see nipple alignment as the pump is actually operating. Elvie's pump, as with virtually all pumps, requires that your nipple is oriented correctly so that the pump's suction doesn't pull your nipple sideways into the walls of your breast shield. With Elvie's pump, you can orient the shield on your breast before starting a session, but once the pump is operating, you can't really see how the suction is affecting your nipple. I mostly had go by how the suction felt and whether I actually pumped anything.
You also don't have a great vantage point to see if milk is collecting in the bottles. Because the bottles are on the underside of the motor, I couldn't see the bottles by looking straight down at my chest. I found myself often doing a weird forward-lean and tilt, hoping to slosh any milk in the bottles to the side of the container so I could see if any was there. It was either that or a trip to the bathroom to partially remove my shirt and look in a mirror.
This problem theoretically would be mitigated by the Elvie pump's app, which pairs with the device via Bluetooth and has automatic volume monitoring. It's meant to both track your production and also automatically switch the pump's action from an initial stage of pumping that triggers milk expression -- also known as letdown -- to a slower phase for collection.
Elvie's volume monitoring may be more accurate for women with good supply. But virtually every time I pumped, I had to correct the recorded volume in the app to be accurate. And when expressing small amounts, the app would sometimes incorrectly log that milk was expressing when nothing was coming out at alll. I would end a session and remove the pumps to find two empty containers.
(The app also means the pump can be controlled from your phone. The devices also have manual buttons on the unit itself, though, so you can still use your Elvie pump if you forget your phone at your desk or workstation, or if your phone runs out of battery.)
With lower supply, the app also had patchwork success at automatically recognizing letdown and switching from expression mode to collection mode.
Cleanup of Elvie pump in between sessions was a little more labor intensive than a regular pump. Rather than fully clean the Elvie pump parts that touch milk after each use, I would rinse them and store them in the fridge where I also kept my expressed milk (and then clean the pump fully at the end of each day at home). With a traditional pump, I never took that extra step of rinsing, I simply stuck my flanges in the fridge in a sealable plastic bag after quick dabs of a tissue to remove any residue.
That meant my breast shield was cold at the start of my second and third sessions of the day. On the flip side, the pump would grow warm as a pumping session stretched on. Just like a phone starts to feel hot if you overwork it, the Elvie pump's main body would feel warm by the end of longer sessions. The heat was never painful or even uncomfortable, just a little weird.
Elvie's wearable pump didn't dramatically change my supply versus a traditional pump. I spent a week pumping with Elvie on one breast and my Spectra S2 traditional pump on the other. I found no meaningful difference in how much one or the other affected my supply when I used both pumps at the same time for the same duration.
But simply by virtue of making it easier to pump in more situations, Elvie's pump could help women increase their supply. Elvie could increase your opportunities to fully empty your breast, which is the best signal to your body to produce more.
However, I found I had less success triggering letdown with Elvie's pump than I did with a traditional one. Elvie's suction is more gentle than a commercial or hospital-grade pump, and you don't have as wide a range of speed and suction with Elvie's versus traditional ones. For women who need the power of a hospital grade pump to fully empty their breast or trigger letdown at all, Elvie might not suit your body's needs.
Using an Elvie pump has some unexpected, happy side effects. I never liked fully removing articles of clothing when I using a traditional pump, so I always ended up having to buy a work wardrobe full of shirts and dresses that buttoned or zipped up the front. It also meant of a bunch of my favorite clothes were out of commission until I wasn't pumping anymore. Because of Elvie's low profile, I could wear a much wider variety of clothing.
But mostly, Elvie freed me from much of the disruption that a traditional pump wreaked on my work life.
Elvie on the go
Elvie's freedom from the constraints of a traditional pump were most gloriously obvious when I was traveling away from my kid.
The first time I pumped with an Elvie, I was on a blink-and-you-miss-it 24-hour trip to Los Angeles across the country from my home in New York. New moms are queens of multitasking, and as I hectically tried to record a voice-over audio clip on my phone while fielding calls from an editor and trying to pack up my hotel, I could pump while moving around the room to juggle my tasks.
I've pumped on a flight before, but it has never been this discreet. (Just remember that because of Elvie's batteries, you should carry your pump onto the plane with you. Don't keep it in your checked luggage.)
In the first five months of this year, Elvie became my go-to pump to take on trips I pumped at the Sundance Film Festival as I interviewed creators about virtual reality. I also pumped while I listened to speakers' presentations at conferences when I had little control over my agenda.
But the most dramatic difference was at the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. My memories of using a traditional pump at CES in 2016 after my first child still make me wince. I'll never forget the unceasing sound of flushing in the high-traffic public bathroom at the Venetian hotel, where I had to sit on the floor for 15 minutes in the one toilet stall within reach of an outlet. I also can't forget the dingy bathroom in the godforsaken bowels of the Paris Hotel, the only place I could find to pump in between a speaker session and an interview.
This year, however, pumping at CES with an Elvie pump felt like a total reversal. I wasn't trapped in gross bathrooms or forced to choose between skipping a pumping session or missing an interview. I still had to find places that were as close to sanitary as I could get in order to rinse my pump parts, and I still had to tote around a bag of gear -- the pumps, storage supplies and a cooler bag. But the amount of baggage was smaller and lighter.
All of that was a very small price to pay for the newfound freedom.
Pumping isn't just the domain of mothers who work away from their babies. Women who work as the primary caregiver, sometimes referred to as full-time moms, still need to pump sometimes. Many need to create a back-up supply of milk, for all sorts of reasons.
And just as everyone's birth experience is different, every mother deals with her own unique reality of breastfeeding. The temperamental nature of breast milk production means that the specific traits of the Elvie pump might perfectly suit one woman while falling short for another. Women with low supply, like me at the tail end of my days as a pumping mom, may find that Elvie's suction simply isn't powerful enough for their bodies.
But if you'll be pumping seemingly all the time and don't have difficulty with your supply, an Elvie pump -- or any of the newer pumps -- could make the experience feel more like the manageable chore it should be, not the burden it has been.
Originally published July 27 and updated as new information is revealed.