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How to Keep Your Pump Clean: Myths, Facts, and Half Truths

Hands washing breast pump parts in a sink.

For decades, parents and professionals have told me what they’ve heard or advised about keeping your pump clean. I get a little nutty, because much of what they say is a myth or a half-truth. Here, I’ll try to provide the facts on how to keep your pump clean.

It may or may not be okay to use a used pump

Most people knows that they aren’t ever supposed to use someone’s previously-used pump, right?

And everyone knows the manufacturers made up this rule so they can make another sale, right?

A resounding “no” to those two statements.

These half-truths are so critically important that I created a separate post to describe the differences between single-user and multi-user pumps. Don’t miss this, as it most certainly relates to how to keep your pump clean.

Personal hygiene is a factor

One study showed that milk was more likely to be contaminated if the mother didn’t wash her hands before she pumped. So, this is basic hygiene.

You wouldn’t eat without washing your hands before you use your knife and fork, right? Same thing.

Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before touching any pump parts to avoid contamination.

Follow manufacturer instructions

If you use your pump according to the manufacturer’s instructions, you shouldn’t worry about contamination.

Here’s a shortcut that I teach:

  • Identify the part touches the body. These “mommy parts” can go into the soapy water and/or the dishwasher.
  • That means, these are the only parts that you should clean just as you would clean a drinking glass or utensils. Other parts? No.  

Which brings me to my next point.

Not all parts should be washed

So many people assume that water makes things clean. Well, yeah, usually. But for the most popular pump brands, the manufacturer discourages washing the tubing.

So, long story made short, check the manufacturer’s directions.

Depending on what make and model you have, the manufacturer might recommend:

  • No water at all
  • Warm soapy water
  • Running a cycle after you finish pumping
  • Hanging the tubing up to dry
  • Discarding the tubing and buying new

Some people boil their tubing, but I’m unaware of any manufacturer who recommends this.

“Drying” the tubing if moisture has accumulated

Many of the most popular brands discourage or blatantly prohibit washing the tubing, and here’s why.

Moisture breeds mold.

I had such a tough time convincing IBCLCs of this that I often carried a “demo” in a plastic container in my briefcase when I taught the class.

When someone challenged me on this point, I’d pull out the old tubing. The mold was visible. The tubing retains moisture, and the mold grows in moist environments. 

Ick.

Here’s how to avoid or overcome moisture build-up:

  • Step 1: Remove the flanges, but leave the tubing attached to the pump.
  • Step 2: Run the motor for five minutes.
  • Step 3: If any moisture remains, remove the tubing and twirl it a bit with your hand.

You could also use a small syringe to push a few drops of alcohol into the tubing. That will help to dry it out.

In the hospital, nurses would sometimes run some oxygen into the tubing.  Works like a charm. I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not, but we did it!

And I’ve never tried this, but I think it would work! Most of us have a can of compressed air handy for blowing dust out of our computers. You could try that! It does have a propellent, but it is inert.

Clean the accessory kit — or have a spare

If you need to pump during a work break, you might not have time to clean right then. But make sure to thoroughly clean the parts before another use.

I’m unaware of any research to support this. But to the best of my knowledge, a “best practice” is to:

  • rinse the mommy parts with cold or cool water (to avoid the coagulation of the proteins)
  • wash with mild soap and water
  • rinse with cold or cool water
  • cover with a paper towel
  • allow to air dry; do NOT wipe
  • put the “mommy parts” into the dishwasher at the end of the day

No time to fiddle with washing?

You might want to have a second accessory kit so you can use a clean one for a second session, and then clean both sets when you have time or get home from work.

But never reuse an accessory kit that hasn’t been cleaned.

Consider the circumstances

The manufacturers who make the good pumps know what they’re doing. They make the pumps to minimize the possibility of contamination.

However, the pump companies make and test the pumps in a controlled environment at the factory. They can’t make pumps to accommodate all the oddities that happen in real life.

What really happens to your pump in your house?

Oh? Your cat sat on your pump? Okay, well, cat hair can breed germs.

Oh? You have carpet fibers floating around? Okay, well, that can breed germs.

Oh? Your gorgeous Lhasa Apso (the term “apso” literally means longhaired) was out in the nearby woods and … oh, dear, let’s not even think about it! (Substances often stick to fur longer than they would stick to skin.)  

I don’t say this to frighten you. Rather, I say it to emphasize that you must do more than keep the pump and the accessory kit clean. You need to keep your environment clean.

Think about cleanliness when you buy a pump

Previously, I’ve addressed how to find the best pump for your own situation. I wanted to give some options because I know that often, the focus is on getting enough milk or avoiding sore nipples.

But an often-overlooked aspect of pumping is the importance of pump cleanliness, and how to keep your pump clean.

Donning my flak jacket here, I want to dispel the myth that a bigger, “better” pump is always better. Simple pumps with only a few large parts are the easiest to clean and are the least likely to harbor germs.

Meanwhile, consider the no-pump, cleanest alternative

This is a great time for me to say if you don’t need a pump, you shouldn’t use a pump. Instead, do hand expression. Some studies have shown hand expression to be less likely to breed bacteria than the pump.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I’ll address the differences between cleaning, sanitizing, decontaminating, and disinfecting!

How do you keep your pump clean? Share your tips in the comments below!

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