Medela’s Quiet, Comfy Pump Is Your New Breast Friend
If you’re a new mom who is able to breastfeed, odds are you’ve become familiar with pumping breast milk. If you’re not, allow me to explain: It is the worst. A friend, whose father owns a dairy, once remarked on how closely my machine resembled the ones used on cows.
Many companies are collectively realizing that millions of women carry around a personal, expensive, specialized piece of technology—maybe two, if they use a second one for work—that hasn’t been meaningfully updated since the Civil War. While a slew of exciting startups have pumps in beta, more established manufacturers have come out with their own breast pumps built for 2017. The Sonata is Medela’s contribution to the revolution.
Pump Up the Jams
In the race to create a better breast pump, Medela has a huge advantage. The Affordable Care Act requires all insurers to cover the cost of a breast pump, and many women, myself included, received the Medela Pump In Style Advanced (PISA) as part of that deal. It’s by far the most prevalent breast pump, the first and only electric breast pump that many women have used. The Sonata offers an update to the tried-and-true Medela product universe.
For anyone who has used the PISA, some of the contents in the Sonata box will be familiar. It has the same breast shields and cooler tote with ice pack and proprietary bottles, and even a version of the black PISA carrying bag—a sighting of which, between new moms, is the equivalent of the two-fingered salute that passes between bikers. Once you get past the similarities, the pump itself has been dramatically improved.
First, the Sonata is much smaller than the PISA, with an appealing round shape. It’s a lot easier to relax and pump when you don’t have a threatening black box glowering at you. It has a rechargeable battery, which the manual recommends charging overnight. Each charge lasted me three to four pumping sessions, enough to make it through a workday. The wireless design meant that I could pick it up and walk around while pumping if I forgot a glass of water.
It’s also much quieter than a PISA. I measured the decibel level on the PISA to be around 60 dB while in use, while the Sonata measured at 50 dB. Those ten decibels are the difference between being able to talk to a toddler while pumping, or even just watch a television show or podcast without hiking up the volume.
The interface is also much more attractive. The Sonata features illuminated controls for pumping in the dark, plus a timer and buttons to change the strength of the vacuum and the pumping rhythms. The buttons are soft and responsive. Medela claims they are designed to be activated with a toe or elbow, in case your hands are full. This, I am pleased to report, works exceptionally well. The timer is also a thoughtful addition. Each pumping session should last 15 to 20 minutes, and no one wants to be hooked up a second longer than they have to, but busy moms often forget to set a timer on their watches or phones.
The Sonata is Bluetooth-enabled, too. The pump connects automatically to the MyMedela app, which logs the time of each pumping session. I found the app to be pretty wonky. If my phone went to sleep before the session was finished, which it nearly always did, the app recorded the session as having ended. However, since I had to record the number of ounces pumped by hand anyway, it wasn’t that much of an inconvenience to relaunch the app and record it manually.
The best part of the MyMedela app? It now offers subscriptions to a round-the-clock on-call lactation consultant. Nursing a baby, or pumping milk, isn’t nearly as simple as it might seem at first. Appointments with lactation consultants to manage problems like painful, clogged ducts can easily run into the hundreds of dollars, so providing access to an on-call consultant through an app could be a lifesaver.
The pump does have some flaws. The ubiquitous PISA has been in production long enough to create a thriving industry of cheaper, generic replacement parts. For the PISA, I bought parts from a Medela-compatible manufacturer called Maymom that combined several pump parts into one dishwasher-friendly piece. In contrast, the Sonata’s kit has four separate pieces to assemble each time you want to pump: the breast shield, the shield connector, the connector cap, the membrane, and the valve.
That’s 14 pieces, including the bottles and caps, that you need to wash and pack every time you want to double-pump out of your home. Scrambling to assemble the kit before a meeting made me feel like Forrest Gump assembling his rifle, with a drill sergeant holding a stopwatch. Also, more parts means more crevices for milk to get trapped. Each precious drop has been painstakingly extracted from my own body. The last thing I want to see are dribbles leaking out in the dishwasher.
The Sonata does have some technological capabilities that I wasn’t able to fully test for effectiveness. The pump has two-phase expression technology, or two different rhythms to pumping that stem from Medela’s research into breast physiology. This is intended to increase the amount of milk pumped, but over the course of a week pumping with one phase versus another, I didn’t notice a difference in output.
The pump also has something called Responsive Pump Technology, which keeps the pressure applied to the mother consistent depending on factors like atmospheric pressure or breast engorgement. “Sensors in the breast pump measure the pressure that’s being delivered to mom,” says David Cho, Medela’s lead product engineer. “It compensates if she’s single- or double-pumping, or if you’re traveling and the atmospheric conditions are different, or if her breast fullness is different.” Since I only pumped in the exotic climes of my house and office, I didn’t notice any difference—but then again, maybe that’s the point.
Of course, for all the vast improvements that Medela has made to the Sonata, it is still, at its heart, a traditional breast pump. You still have to change from a regular bra to a hands-free pumping bra. You still have clear plastic tubing threaded to your chest. If you don’t want to buy or use a manual pump, you will still have to find a private space to pump or risk weird, sidelong glances when people walk past your car.
But while we’re waiting for truly revolutionary, discreet pumps like the Willow, which can be inserted directly into a shirt, the Sonata provides a significant improvement on the previous options. If the price seems daunting, remember to ask your insurance about coverage or reimbursement. You also qualify for a free pump with each child. Pumping milk may always be an annoyance, but the experience doesn’t have to be miserable.
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