* This is an unsponsored post although the Medela was covered by my insurance. I purchased both the Spectra and Willow Pumps myself.
I’ve only been pumping for about 4 months now so I’m in no way an expert but because I have chronically low milk supply, I’ve spent a lot of quality time with my pumps. And I’ve tried three different pumps, so I thought I’d share my experience here.
The Medela Symphony Pump
I wasn’t planning to try a Medela pump but I was lucky enough to get a rental from Kaiser for free due to my very low supply. This costs about $2000 new so this is probably not an option for most people. Renting costs about $44 a month through Apria. I only had free rentals for 3 months, but I’m so glad I got to try this one out because now I know what a $2000 pump feels like lol. It gives me a good gold standard (or rather “high-end expensive” standard) to compare the other two pumps to. You can purchase one used, which is totally reasonable since this is a closed pump system so the milk doesn’t actually run through the machine. You’ll never have cross contamination, but if you do purchase used you’ll want to buy your own flanges and tubing (that’ll make it feel like a brand new pump since those are the parts that touch the milk). If you want to buy it used I saw some go for $250-$450 on eBay and you can also buy tubing and flanges new on eBay or on Amazon. Now why might you want to go through the hassle of buying used and all the parts separately? Because tbh, this is the best pump of the three I’ve tried. Here’s why:
The best suction out of all three, as in the most powerful. If you’ve got milk in your boobs, this thing will for sure get it out. Which is why it’s great for someone with low supply like myself. Also I find that because of the powerful suction, I don’t have to pump as long to get to empty.
Easy to use and no frills. There’s just the let-down phase (faster pumping, lower suction) and the expression phase (slower pumping, higher suction) that you can adjust the suction for, but you can’t change the pumping rates so you don’t have to even think about it. It also automatically goes from one phase to the other so you don’t have to think about it (and if you want you can switch back to the let-down phase).
The flanges and bottles come in 3 pieces so that 1) I used an old sports bra, cut a hole for the nippes and use that as a pumping bra (no specialized bra needed) and 2) for those with low supply, you can turn the bottle upside down and collect the milk in the elbow piece so you don’t actually have to wash a bottle every time you pump (the bottle stays clean, you just have to wash the flange and the elbow). There’s nothing more tedious than having to wash the whole thing every time for 10mL of milk.
Overall if you have low supply, this really is the best. But it’s not all rainbows and sunshine because:
This thing is a tank. It’s super heavy and has to be plugged in at all times so there’s zero mobility with this thing.
There’s no timer so you’re going to have to keep track yourself on how long you’ve been pumping (which doesn’t seem like a big deal but is easily overlooked when in a sleep-deprived state).
The let-down and expression pumping rates are pre-determined. I said that was a pro up top, but it can also be a con for those who want to fiddle with the settings.
And of course the cost.
The Spectra S1
Now this is pretty much the gold standard for the normal folks (and by normal I mean those who produce an adequate amount of milk). This is the one all my friends use and recommended to me. And for those who are lucky enough to have good health insurance, this one can sometimes be covered through insurance. If not, you can buy it new for $200. As for me, Kaiser would not cover this so I purchased this used on eBay for $80 (this is also a closed pump system so milk doesn’t run through the machine). I still had to buy the tubing and flanges new so I think overall it cost me about $130. If you don’t want to go through the hassle just buy it new.
The Let-down and Expression phase pumping rates and suction strength are customizable up to a point. The Let-down phase has a pumping rate (what they call Cycle) max of 70 (sorry, I don’t know what the numbers refer to) and suction strength (what they call Vacuum) of 5 (with a 12 being the strongest suction). The Expression phase has a max cycle of 54 and max vacuum of 12. Also the switching between these two phases is manual so you can choose how long you want to be in each phase.
The S1 is super portable because it comes with a rechargeable battery so if you want, you can walk around the house hooked up to the pump and carry the pump. This feature is probably my favorite since this way you’re not tethered to an outlet. The S2 (the pink one) doesn’t have a rechargeable battery so like the Medela Symphony, you will have to stay in one place while you pump. This pump is also relatively light so you can easily travel with it in your carry-on.
There’s a timer on the machine so you don’t have to keep track of how long you’ve been pumping.
For me, the biggest con about the Spectra is that the suction is relatively weak when compared to the Medela Symphony. The max 12 feels like half the suction of the setting I used for the Medela (and I wasn’t even maxing out on the Medela, I was at about 75% strength). So for a low producer like me, I end up having to pump longer to get all the milk out. For the Medela I would pump from 12-15 minutes while for the Spectra I average about 20-25 minutes. When I originally switched over to the Spectra (when they took my Medela away—that was a sad day lol), I would pump for 15 minutes and not get nearly as much milk. And then my supply started to decrease. Only when I sat pumping for 20+ minutes did my supply start to get back up again. Like I said, for most people the Spectra is adequate, but if you know you have low supply you might want to try renting the Symphony (especially during the early days when you’re really trying to increase supply).
You have to buy a special pumping bra if you want hands-free pumping (and believe me, you do). I purchased this Simple Wishes one but for $20 less on eBay (I’m really trying to buy used more often these days because it’s not only better for my wallet but also for the earth).
And though it’s listed as a pro up top, having everything be customizable can also be a con. It can be intimidating and a hassle to figure out all the settings when you first start pumping. How much suction should you feel? What’s the best cycle for each phase? How long should you be in the let-down phase before switching to the expression phase? These are all things you have to think about with this pump.
And even though you can pump anywhere the rechargeable battery only lasts me 2 days worth (pumping about 6 times a day) so now I just usually keep it plugged into the wall and pump much like I did with the Medela.
The Willow Pump
I already had 2 pumps so there was no need to get a third. But when the Willow pump 1.0 was selling for $100 off the original price and with extra bags, I thought why not give it a try. The idea of being able to discreetly pump anywhere and to be truly untethered was very appealing. Pump while cleaning the house! Pump while driving! Pump while out with a group of friends! I’ve actually done all three and I have to say it’s pretty liberating. But this pump is also not for everyone.
The portability. You can pump anywhere with the Willow. Even with the Spectra S1, you have to carry the pump in one hand so it’s not like you can swifter the floor while pumping (which I did with the Willow).
It’s the smallest pump and quietest pump so you can pump without people knowing. Granted if you’re in a meeting or a quiet room, people will hear the motor and wonder what it is. But in a crowded room/restaurant, you won’t be able to hear it. I was at a friends place, went to the bathroom to put the pumps on, and then was able to converse with friends for about 25 minutes while pumping. Also the lightest pump so it’s great for travel.
Really strong suction. I would say the suction on this thing is even stronger than the Medela. They have 7 settings and I only could go up to 2 comfortably.
There’s an app that is supposed to measure how much milk you’ve collected. This is needed for those with normal to abundant milk supplies since you can’t actually see how much milk you’ve filled in the bag. Since I don’t have that problem, I never bothered with the app because it usually misreads the amount (see the Con point below about this).
The Willow Pump is by far the hardest to use and that’s because you are blindly putting on the pumps (ie you can’t see where your nipple goes). For those who haven’t pumped before, you’ll think your nipples are normal and point forward (like I did). But you’ll soon find out that there’s variations between each nipple that makes placing a flange on difficult. And to get good suction and pain free pumping, you need to place the nipple directly in the center of the flange (this is true for every breast pump). I don’t even get it right all the time with the Medela and Spectra where I can actually see the nipple through the flange. So it’s basically impossible for me to get it right with the Willow. I have yet to experience completely pain free pumping with the Willow and that’s why it’s my least favorite. Even with the 2.0 version with the clear flange, you still can’t see how the nipple is placed through the actual pump so I’m not sure it’s that much better (but since I’ve never tried the 2.0 version I can’t say for sure). From what I’ve read it takes about a month of consistent use to get it right. And tbh I’m too lazy to try that hard for pumping.
You can’t switch between the two phases. There’s a pre-determined time for each phase and you can’t go back to the first phase. You also can’t power pump (for those with low supply, this is pumping every 15 minutes to increase supply) with the Willow because if you’re within the 25 minute pumping session, it will not repeat the let-down phase.
You can’t really do hand-expression (basically milking your own boob) with the Willow. So if you’re prone to milk duct clogs or you have low-supply, this might not be the best pump for you.
Unless you have perfect nipple placement, you are going to get air in your bags. This means you might end up filling your milk bags with more air than milk, and it’ll also make the reading on your app wrong.
Disassembling the bag from the pump is messy work because there’s always a little bit of milk left in the tube (which is also a bummer when you don’t produce enough milk to begin with). So you can’t just easily disassemble everything on the go. You’re going to want to be near a sink.
The pump is expensive and the milk bags (which are not reusable-though there’s a hack for that) are $0.50 each. So if you’re using this exclusively to pump then you’re looking at about $5-$8 a day in bags. For pumping 8 times a day, everyday for 3 months you’re looking at $720! Whenever I pump I use the hack to empty the bags into another bottle and reuse the bags for the day (storing them in the fridge between pumping sessions). It’s a tedious and messy solution but it’s also the cheapest.
Charging takes 2 hours per pump (so 4 hours total) and you can get maybe a days worth of pumping if you use it 6 times a day.
I would say for those who are out and about a lot or work and need to pump the Willow might be worth it. Since I’m currently a SAHM, I’ll make the time to pump at home so I don’t really need the Willow. I would also say that if you can get a free pump with insurance, that should be your primary pump with the Willow being a secondary pump for when you’re out or traveling. I think you’ll have difficulties with using the Willow and with getting your supply up if the Willow pump is your first and only breast pump. As a secondary pump for those who already know how it works, it’s a great addition for convenience (once you put in the time to get the hang of it). You can find plenty of used Willow pumps on eBay here but purchase your flange and flextube new. Or if you want to purchase it new, this referral link here will get you an extra 48 milk bags.
Anyway I hope this review helped you guys decide on which pump is for you. I know there’s a ton of options out there (with more and more being released every year), so it’s hard to know which is the “right one”. But tbh, you’ll get used to whichever pump you get so there’s no need to overthink it!