As someone who pumped up to six times a day with each of my two boys, in addition to nursing, I consider myself a hard-core breast pumping veteran. Looking back, I know that six times a day was excessive, but I tend to veer towards excess. It's a flaw, I admit. However, as a result I'm acutely aware of the things no one tells you about your breast pump. After all, you kinda have to find out for yourself, through half-hearted attempts and trial and error and experience. Thankfully, experience with a breast pump is something I have in spades.
Prior to actually pumping, I had heard the best time to pump was first thing in the morning. So, of course, that's what I did, usually after nursing my son right after he woke up. Then, while he sat in his bouncer and screamed at me, I pumped and drank coffee (my version of a baby latte). His babysitter came around noon, at which point I pumped again, because I was afraid we would run out of fresh milk should he become insanely thirsty and drink all the reserves I had already left in the fridge. Then I'd leave for work, and bring my entire breast pump bag with me which, by its description, you would think is some magical contraption that not only pumps your milk but also complements your supply and maybe does some of the set up and clean up for you. I would pump in the afternoon because if I didn't my breasts would explode, which meant I would have to find a public bathroom and make a spectacle of myself, because most public bathrooms in New York are rather small and intimate affairs. By 5:30 I would go home, and if the baby was too hungry to wait for me he would have already eaten, so I would have to pump yet again to relieve the pressure.
So, you see, it was a never-ending cycle. I pumped for a very long time with both of my kids and, it turns out, it's a hard habit to kick. Taking care of and washing all the little parts necessary for your pump to work, and the process of storing the milk my body produced, made me feel like I was taking care of my babies. Even though it can be a pain in the ass, there is something comforting about the routine of it all. So, I leaned in and made that routine my you-know-what and, in the process, learned a few things about breast pumps that every breastfeeding mama should know:
No Matter How Much You Clean It, It Has A Smell
Every time I opened my pump bag I was hit by a big whiff of sour milk, or that smell you get when you've washed your yogurt containers and left them in the recyclable bin for a week. It didn't matter that I washed my bottles and all the pumping parts in the dishwasher every night, or that I did a deep soak in lots of hot, soapy water after every single use. I even washed my nursing pads and nursing bra, and every washable thing inside my nursing bag, but it still didn't matter. It was like my pump was haunted, and would not give up the ghost of the milky smell.
You Can Get Creative About What You Pump Into
Once I was stuck in the city and while I remembered to bring my 50 pound nursing bag eyesore with every possible accessory, I forgot to bring the actual milk bottles to pump into. Yeah, the milk bottles are a pretty important part of the whole, you know, pumping process.
My milk had begun to leak through my nursing pads, through my bra, and had made giant round splotches on the front of my shirt. I frantically ran into every store in my vicinity, trying to locate a bottle that would be compatible with my pump. Yeah, no luck whatsoever. I finally found a bra store where I had purchased a few nursing bras at one point. While they didn't have any bottles or nursing supples, the saleswoman took pity on me and told me to take a breather in one of their changing rooms. I allowed myself this time to just lose it and cry about the milk that was going to go to waste and wondering how the heck I was supposed to do this thing people call "self expression" to get the damn milk out of my body.
Finally, the wonderful saleswoman showed me a hack she learned when she was pumping: I could still hook up all the breast feeding parts and express the milk, it would just have to be collected in some kind of alternate container. The container would not affect the actual suction of the pump. I was so relieved (and really thankful that I was no longer in pain). She gave me two clean Chinese takeout containers into which I pumped, and then I was able to transfer the milk into my spare freezer bags. Crisis averted! This was one of those "it takes a village" moments, for sure.
Your Pump Speaks To You. Like, Literally.
Most of the time my breast pump sounded like a wheezy donkey, but other times (usually when we were alone together, in the middle of the night when I was either feeling too engorged to fall back asleep or after a particularly large martini had somehow made it into my system) it said some things. My breast pump could be encouraging at times, like when it chanted, "Pump it, pump it." Other times it full on freaked me out, like when it said, "Grandpa" over and over (my grandpa passed on many years ago). Not cool, breast pump. Not cool.
Everyone Knows You're Not Carrying A "Work Bag"
Don't try to kid yourself. You can spend all kinds of money on the fancy bags that try to sell you on how they "don't look like a breast pump," but they look like a damn breast pump. Don't be fooled by the cutesy names that either sound like a cocktail or a Southern belle (The "Savannah Bag" anyone?) or the luxury bag prices. As the once proud and now humble owner of a stylish-looking-but-not-fooling-anyone diaper bag called the "Martini" style, I speak from experience.
Your Breast Pump Will Make You Feel Like A Chemist
One of the cruelest things you can do to a postpartum woman is hand her a brand new electronic breast pump bag (with the hundreds of parts and accompanying instruction manuals) and expect her to somehow have the time, patience, and bandwidth to figure it all out.
My partner was wonderful in this respect, and set the whole thing up for me so I wouldn't have to deal. He cleaned all the parts and read all the directions, and all but hooked me up to the pump for the first time (or maybe he did that too, I can't remember because, well, postpartum exhaustion and mommy brain are no freakin' joke).
However, when I hit my stride with my pump I was a damn pro. I could assemble the tubes, the breast shields, the little valve thingies, and all the myriad other accoutrements like MacGyver in a pitch-black room. I had a whole system down when I was on the go, too. I had my freezer bags and my sharpie, and cold storage for my milk, I had a wet bag for the dirty parts that needed to be cleaned when I got home, I had my hand wipes and wet ones if I couldn't find a sink when I was out and about. The world might end, and I might not have food or water, but gosh darn it I would be prepared to pump no matter where or when.
A Hand Pump Is Your Favorite Sidekick
When I discovered my favorite little friend, the hand pump, it was a total game changer. I went my entire first kid without one, and lugged my giant breast pump all over the city, sometimes even carrying it in a rolling suitcase if I was traveling with a lap top and gym clothes.
One day a mom friend suggested just throwing a manual breast pump in my bag and my world changed. Sure, it took maybe five more minutes than an electronic, because I had to do each breast individually instead of both simultaneously, but the ease of carrying that lightweight and space-saving hand pump made up for it. Also, it is discrete. Sometimes I would pump while sitting at a cafe by myself, under my coat or a scarf, and no one could tell what I was doing. #Winning
Pumping Is Your Best Excuse To Get Out Of Doing Stuff
Does something need to be cleaned and put away? Does another one of your children need help on the potty? Are you just plain over anything and everything involved with parenting? Well, someone else might need to do that for you because you are chained to this monstrosity over here.
I admit, there were times I made sure to schedule one pumping session when I knew my partner would be home and would have to make himself available to help out around the house (and with our toddler son). Preferably around my toddler son's bedtime, if I'm being honest. I would set the pump to a lower setting to extend my "me time" and, if he asked if I was done yet or what was taking so long, I would just point to one of the barely-even-filled-up-yet bottles and shrug.
Every Breast Pump Bag Needs To Have A Few Essentials
In your breast pump bag, in addition to the breast pump parts and accessories, it is essential to have the following: breastmilk storage bags, a permanent marker to write the number of ounces and the date on the bag, some paper towels (in case you have to put your stuff down somewhere less than pleasant), hand sanitizer or wipes, nursing cover up for public pumping (if that's your thing), your hands-free bra with the holes cut out of the nipples (if you don't know what that is, you'll know soon), Ziplock bags for dirty parts, the battery pack that comes with the pump with batteries fully loaded and charged, and a picture of your kidd0 for nursing inspiration.
Don't be scared. Be prepared!