To review the list of places I’ve used the Elvie pump is to catalog the activities I used to do in the Before Times: Go to the office and stay there all day, meet friends at bars, see movies in theaters, travel to visit family for holidays. The pump made those things easier and more convenient, but I don’t know how to evaluate it when nearly all of them are off the table.
The as a product represents a conundrum for many women. Do we spend money on ourselves? How much is comfort and convenience worth? How much marginal comfort and convenience is needed to be worth the money? Breastfeeding, for its health and bonding benefits, is a time-consuming activity. There is a limit to how nice pumping breastmilk can be – a limit I’d call “aggressively fine.” To buy the Elvie pump is to claim whatever long-overdue engineering improvements can be had, and to make pumping more compatible with a wider range of activities. But in an era where leaving home for long periods and traveling are broadly inaccessible, it almost seems like a solution in search of a problem.
Wireless • Hands-free • Quiet • Convenient
Expensive • Uncomfortable
If you can afford it, it’s worth the freedom and flexibility.
When it shines it’s brilliant
There is certainly a learning curve with the Elvie, including several annoyances that don’t rise to the level of dealbreakers. But when the Elvie works, it works, and reminds me why advances like these are so desperately necessary.
Shortly after my son was born we drove about two hours to visit family for Thanksgiving. I pumped in the car, wedged in the backseat between two car seats, and fed the baby a bottle without having to make an extra stop on the journey. The convenience was incredible. Getting two young children anywhere is a shuttle launch and the Elvie made the trip easier.
Months later, on an 11-hour drive from New York to Ohio to stay with my parents during coronavirus shut-downs, the Elvie came through again. I pumped, had the milk ready, and gave the baby a bottle. There are few technological innovations for which I have been as grateful as I was in those moments.
Why do I need a breast pump?
Put simply, pumps are a way to express breastmilk to feed an infant when nursing isn’t possible, usually because you’re away from the baby or have encountered a physiological difficulty with nursing. Some people prefer to exclusively pump because it gives them more control over their schedule while still feeding their infant breast milk. There are manual pumps like the or , that you squeeze to use and create a vacuum, allowing milk to be expressed. Then there are mechanical pumps that use a motor to accomplish the same thing.
Mechanical consumer-grade breast pumps increased in popularity after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which mandated insurance coverage of the devices. Mechanical pumps can cost from around $100 to $300, but basic models may have no out-of-pocket cost depending on your insurance coverage. To use them, you place each breast in a flange that’s connected to a bottle and attached to the motor by a tube. You can either hold the flanges in place or use a special “” to keep them on.
Pumps like that are awkward to use. They’re loud. They usually have to be plugged into an outlet – so they require power and tether you to wherever the outlet is – and the flanges are connected to the motor by tubes, so you’ll need to stay close to the motor housing to use it. Finally, they require a significant amount of undressing and so are easier to use in a private space. While a private space to pump breast milk is required of many companies, and thankfully becoming more common, it’s often not available for many women.
What makes the Elvie different?
The Elvie costs $279 for a single pump and $499 for two pumps. You can use money from an FSA or HSA to purchase it, and some insurance plans will cover it partially, though you’ll have to check with your insurer.
If you’re pumping regularly at work or exclusively, then you’ll probably need two of them. Otherwise you’ll have to double the length of your session and you’ll lose some milk that’s expressed from the side you’re not pumping on. If you’re mainly pumping at home occasionally, then one might be enough. Certainly a baby can only nurse one side at a time.
The Elvie, like , (which costs $499 for a pair) and other wireless breast pumps, is positioned in the market as a more convenient, comfortable, and discreet alternative to traditional mechanical breast pumps. The housing, flanges, and milk receptacle are integrated into one egg-like shape that fits over the breast and is held in place by a regular nursing bra. Less undressing is required to use it, it’s noticeably quieter than older pumps, and the lack of wires allows more freedom of movement while pumping.
For the few weeks I was commuting to my office before coronavirus lockdowns required full-time working from home, I got good results using the Elvie consistently. Each weekday was a similar output, and it was nearly the same as the amounts I’d pumped a few years earlier with my first child. While I wasn’t able to make a direct comparison this time around between a Medela and the Elvie, the results from the pumping sessions are similar.
There are women for whom a pump like this is a miracle of engineering and a game-changer for their work lives. Nursing parents who can’t take breaks, like those who work in a hospital, may find that they’ll be able to continue feeding their babies breast milk when their work schedules might have otherwise made it impossible. For breastfeeding or chestfeeding parents who travel for work, a pump that doesn’t need to be plugged during use and can be worn under clothes is a massive improvement.
For everyone else, there’s an improvement in convenience that comes with a tradeoff in comfort.
How does the Elvie work?
The Elvie comes assembled, so you can see how it’s put together as you take it apart to wash the parts and charge the pump mechanism, which the company refers to as the Hub. Start by washing and sterilizing everything – the parts are dishwasher safe, aside from the Hub, which can’t get wet. Then place the teal seal over the clear plastic breast shield and slide that combined piece into the Hub. Then twist the spout onto the milk receptacle and slide the teal valve over the opening. Click the assembled receptacle into the bottom of the Hub, making sure that the valve seals cleanly against the bottom of the breast shield.
In my experience, it’s better to put the pieces together in this order because sliding the breast shield in second doesn’t always create a reliable seal against the valve at the bottom.
Once that’s done, you place the Elvie over your breast, aligning your nipple with the guide marks on the flange, and tuck the whole device inside your bra, which holds it in place. Then you can start your pumping session, but here is also where you might run into your first problem.
Because the bra covers the receptacle at the bottom, and the device itself is opaque, you won’t be able to see your milk being expressed the way you would with a traditional clear flange connected to a bottle. The main way to know if everything is connected properly is if it’s uncomfortable. If it is, hurray, you’re in business! If the suction feels lax or the pump pinches less, then in my experience it means that the seal has been broken and nothing is happening. I don’t remember the Medela pump being as uncomfortable as the Elvie.
If that occurs, you’ll need to troubleshoot by first pausing the pump and then readjusting the fit on your breast. If after a couple attempts this doesn’t help, try taking the pieces apart and sliding them back together to make sure the pump itself has a good seal internally among the components. This was ultimately my solution on the third attempt of trying to pump during a showing at a movie theater. The Elvie wouldn’t work; then I reassembled it in desperation and annoyance, and it did.
Basically, it’s finicky. That feels like a big deal in a product that you’re meant to use discreetly, under clothes, possibly in public. It defeats the purpose if you need to run back to the bathroom to adjust it or check the seal. It’s incredibly annoying to pump for 10 minutes, then see an empty bottle and realize you have to start over.
The Elvie has reusable milk receptacles that click into the bottom of the pump, an advancement that competitor Willow has also adopted. The initial requirement of the Willow to was one of the main drawbacks of that pump and why I was so excited to test the Elvie as an alternative. With a double pump, you get two sets of parts, including bottles with lids, so you can pump twice without washing everything, and store the milk when you finish.
After pumping, it was easier to pour the milk from the Elvie bottle into another container or breastmilk bag, rather than store the milk in the Elvie bottles. The sloped sides and flat top of the Elvie bottle made it a little hard to get all of the milk out if it had separated, as it would pool in the corners.
Using the Elvie app
While I used the app for controlling the pumps, I never saved my pumping data in the app. I just deleted the session each time. I found that the milk volume estimates were almost never correct, and sometimes wildly off. Since I wasn’t really using the app, this didn’t bother me, and you can adjust the totals at the end of each session. An FAQ on the company’s website states the milk volume algorithm should get more accurate over time.
A recent update did give me more fine-grained control over the intensity of the settings, which made using the pump more comfortable, but overall it skews toward the strong and intense end of the spectrum.
Remember to charge it
Since the Elvie is wireless, it has to be recharged after a few sessions. This wasn’t a problem when I used it in the office – I would charge the Hubs in between sessions or overnight when I went home. Unfortunately, when I was working from home full-time and my need for pumping was intermittent, I would regularly forget to charge the Elvie before I needed it, and sometimes not have enough battery. If you’re using the pump at least a few times a week, this probably won’t be an issue. The company says a fully-charged battery will last for about 2.5 hours of use.
Is it really quiet?
The Elvie is quiet enough that I pumped while watching television sitting with my partner on the couch and he didn’t realize it was on. I noticed the sound, but most other people would not. It didn’t seem to be noticeable in any of the public places that I tried it, including a movie theater, a bar, and a lively restaurant.
One benefit of the recent app is the ability to dim the light that’s emitted around the play/pause button at the top of the pump. That light was visible through my clothes and defeated the discretion afforded by the pump’s quiet operation.
So is the Elvie worth it?
I’ve thought about this question so much in drafting this review and struggled to come up with a definitive answer. Like so many products dealing with babies, there’s a wide variance between people: What someone else loves, you’ll find unnecessary and vice versa.
The Elvie has fit into my life in ways that a traditional breast pump would have struggled to do and in these uncertain and complicated times, I’ll take any help I can get. For healthcare workers or other essential workers with long shifts without easy access to a pumping room, the Elvie could be a huge help
As expensive as the Elvie is, it is a product that can bring a significant improvement to your day-to-day quality of life during a highly stressful period of adjustment. Within the bounds of your financial wherewithal, pay for the things that can make your life easier as a new parent, especially if it’s something that you’ll use regularly and isn’t tied to a baby’s developmental stage. If you’re exclusively pumping, and especially if you have older children, the benefits of being mobile while pumping are hard to overstate.