Welcome to , an ongoing series at Mashable that looks at how to take care of – and deal with – the kids in your life. Because Dr. Spock is nice and all, but it’s 2019 and we have the entire internet to contend with.
If you’re pumping breast milk, what would you pay to not feel quite so much like a literal dairy cow? With the release of a new and improved breast pump, that’s no longer a hypothetical question.
Despite a built-in customer base thanks to insurance coverage from the Affordable Care Act and a lack of paid maternity leave pushing American mothers back in the workplace as fast as possible, meaningful improvements to the breast pump are few and far between.
The Willow is the most high-profile entrant into the product category in the past several years. It was a breakout product at CES when it debuted in 2017 with the claim that it was quiet enough to use on a conference call. It’s is a self-contained, battery-powered breast pump that is worn inside a nursing bra under clothes, and damn if it doesn’t look sleek. The difference between it and a Medela breast pump, one of the most popular manufacturers, is similar to that of a minivan versus a sports car.
But much like the sports car, the Willow pump shines in a few areas and falls flat in others. Some of the product’s flaws are meaningful enough that they, when combined with the high initial price of the product, seriously undermine the case for buying it. For certain use cases – such as frequent travel or pumping in a room without an outlet – it’s probably ideal. But for broad swaths of its intended customers, it falls a bit short.
You may be asking yourself: “Which of those people am I? Should I buy the Willow? Will it make pumping less horrible?” To which we can only say: Perhaps. A certain amount of horrible is intrinsic to pumping and only some parts of it can be improved.
But then again, the only way to go with breast pumps is up. Here’s what you should know.
How does the Willow work?
Unlike most other breast pumps, the motor, suction flanges (the plastic pieces you wear over your breasts), and milk bags are housed together inside of the pump. The half-egg shaped device is tilted onto the breast and secured with a full-coverage nursing bra or top. There are no tubes running down to bottles or bags and you’re not tethered to a pump that’s connected to the wall. Our tester was able to throw on a sweatshirt, walk around, and read or do dishes. If you’re pumping exclusively, the Willow would keep your hands free to comfort your baby while pumping.
When you purchase the Willow, you’ll receive two pumps (one for each breast), one of two sizes of flanges, a charger, and an initial supply of bags. Extra bags need to be ordered directly from the company. The corresponding smartphone app lets you monitor the pumping session in real-time, and you’ll specify iOS or Android when you order.
Setting up the pump was easy, according to our tester, who was a mom going back to work after her second baby and pumping while away from home. The most confusing part is ensuring that your milk goes into the bag correctly, she said, which can take practice. The app is the easiest part to set up.
The initial charge took 15 minutes, but it’s important to remember that only one pump can be charged at a time. You’ll need to go back and switch the charger from one pump to the other, or plan to use one pump for both sides (more on that in a moment). The company says a single charge is good for up to five pumping sessions.
Our tester did run out of batteries during one session and found herself with some milk locked in the pump. A traditional breast pump creates suction with a tube that is separate from the passage where the milk flows, but the Willow uses a “Flextube” that does both. After the user is finished pumping, she’ll flip the pump over and turn it on again to pull the last of the milk from the flex-tube into the bag. If there’s no power, you can’t get the last of the milk out of the pump into the bag.
The tester reported that the pump was comfortable to wear but didn’t always feel attached enough to move around confidently.
How much does the Willow cost?
The Willow is expensive, starting at $429 for the early “Willow 1.0” model and moving to $499 for the “Willow 2.0,” which will be released in February 2019. The latter includes an extra 48 milk bags. Currently, a 24-pack of bags costs $11.99 for the 1.0 model.
The milk bags are a place where the Willow’s design forces a high cost to using the pump. The bags have one-way valves and the company touts them as “spill-proof,” but this also means two things: You can’t transfer milk from one bag to another and you can’t reseal them.
With a traditionally-designed breast pump like a Medela or Spectra, you can pump milk into a plastic bottle or a bag. If your milk output from both sides is less than the total volume of one bottle or bag (which was true for our tester), you can combine them and only use one container. You can also reseal a bag or bottle if your baby doesn’t need all of the milk in one feeding. Once you’ve cut open a Willow bag, you’ll need to store any unused milk.
To put real numbers on this scenario, consider a working mom who pumps 3 times a day and almost never pumps more than 5.5 ounces total in a session. With a Medela pump, she could pump into bottles, pour all the milk into one bag to freeze or store and then reuse the bottles at the next pumping session. She’d need about three bags a day.
Using both Willow pumps simultaneously requires 2 bags every session, with a total capacity of 8 ounces (4oz per bag), much of which won’t be filled. When our tester tried to reuse the half-full bags at her next pumping session, she got an error message from the app that the bags were full – and they were, with air. Removing and reinserting the bags made them vulnerable to being pumped full of air when the pump was turned on. Putting the entire housing in the fridge between sessions didn’t prevent the issue. A Willow consultant told her that some women pump both breasts sequentially with one pump, which uses fewer bags but takes twice as much time.
Using Willow’s calculator for the above scenario, you’d have to purchase 120 bags per month, costing roughly $60 for every month you pumped. In contrast, Medela bags are listed on Amazon for $14.99 for 100, and you’d need half as many each month, depending on how much milk you express each session.
Another breast pump, called the Elvie, is similar in concept to the Willow but has a reusable receptacle for catching breast milk. That product hasn’t yet been released.
The company declined to clarify how it de-identifies personal information and whether it sells or rents the de-identified data to third parties.
The entire concept of “anonymized data” has come under scrutiny as well. Buttar, explained that supposedly anonymized data can often be re-identified later.
“The potential is there. Without seeing the particular manner of aggregation, it’s hard to asses the likelihood of re-identification,” Buttar said.
Should I buy the Willow?
It can be hard to criticize a product like the Willow and not worry that we’re letting the best be the enemy of the good. Breast pumps urgently need a rethink and initial launches of new hardware products are never going to be cheap. So with all that in mind, we applaud the Willow for what it’s accomplished and hope that it continues to develop and spurs other progress in the space.
But the developments we’ve outlined come at a cost to reliability and ease of use. The penalty for forgetting to charge it is high since you can’t pump and charge at the same time. It’s eligible for FSA/HSA reimbursement and your insurance might cover some of the cost, which would help defray the hefty price tag.
If you’re a frequent traveler or someone who needs to pump in places without an outlet or semi-public areas, the Willow is relatively discreet. Our tester said the Willow is noticeable under clothes, but it’s a world away from trying to use a traditional breast pump in an airport Starbucks. It’s fully hands-free with a regular nursing bra, so you can comfort a baby, move around, or just relax while wearing it. It’s definitely quieter than classic pumps.
But the cost of the pump, and the ongoing cost of the bags in particular, will likely be a dealbreaker for many people. We’d be hard-pressed to find a new parent who doesn’t suddenly have lots of competing needs for several hundred dollars worth of breastfeeding supplies for a several-month commitment to pumping.