In my series of articles on "breastfeeding essentials," I am actually a bit hesitant to include breast pumps. I do so because this is such a widespread belief, and because a breast pump of some type truly is an essential for women returning to full-time employment who wish to continue breastfeeding. Most baby registries have a double-electric pump like the Medela "Pump-in-Style" on their "must-buy" lists. So let's explore who needs a breast pump (and who doesn't in my related article, "Do I Need A Breast Pump?," linked below).
There are two primary uses for breast pumps. The most obvious is to pump milk for the baby if the mother is going to be away or, rarely, if the baby can not get milk directly from the breast. But there are several types of breast pumps, and which one is most appropriate will depending on the frequency and duration of the mother's absences and the age of the baby when they occur. See my related article on "Choosing a Breast Pump," in related links below. Not every mother needs a $400 pump to fulfill her and her baby's needs.
The other primary purpose of a breast pump is to provide stimulation to the breast if the baby is unable to do so. The breast only knows to make milk from the physical action of a baby nursing or the pump removing milk/providing alternate stimulation. There are several reasons why this might be the case. Mothers of premature or sick babies may need to pump until the baby is physically and/or medically able to nurse. Rarely, babies may be born with conditions like tongue-tie or cleft palate that may make nursing painful or reduce efficiency of milk removal, and pumping may be preferable until the condition is resolved. Some mothers may also use a pump as part of a program to induce lactation if adopting or using a surrogate. Mothers may, in the course of nursing need to temporarily take a medication that is incompatible with breastfeeding and may need to "pump and dump" during that time, (she may also pump extra milk and store it for the baby's use during that time).
More commonly, overcoming early breastfeeding challenges may require the temporary use of a pump to assist in restoring sufficient milk supply, ideally with the assistance of a breastfeeding professional or another experienced breastfeeding mother. This may enable the mother to receive breast stimulation at least the 8-12 times each 24 hour period needed in the early days even if the baby is not nursing well or there are medical complications for the mother or baby to ensure the milk supply becomes established during this important time. A pump may also help to provide additional stimulation if trying to increase milk supply to reduce or eliminate formula use or correct a "slow start."
For a mother who plans to breastfeed exclusively, not return to work (or work at the same location as the baby or for short durations at a time) and leave the baby for only short, infrequent periods, a breast pump may be totally unnecessary. Or an inexpensive hand pump may be all that is needed to allow that mother some freedom to leave the baby occasionally with a caregiver.
In conclusion, breast pumps are a truly important and wonderful invention that truly are an "essential" for mothers who working and are able to continue providing breast milk exclusively thanks to the pump. But they are not an essential for every mother. For more exploration of this topic, see my related articles, "Do I Need and Breast Pump?" and "Choosing a Breast Pump," linked below.