Before giving birth 15 weeks ago, I knew breastfeeding would be challenging, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer amount of time, stamina and dedication that it takes to feed my son.
After a few (painful) weeks of trial and error on both our parts, I eventually came to cherish this intense bonding experience. As my mat leave dwindled to an end and it came time to leave my cozy little cocoon of newborn bliss, I had to start pumping so that my husband and other loved ones could help care for my son while I transitioned back to work.
When I unpacked the box to my hospital-grade pump and set it up for the first time, I found myself completely overwhelmed once again, just like I was with breastfeeding at the hospital. The process of being confined to an area by cords with bottles dangling from my breasts and the loud drilling of the machine felt so foreign to me—in fact, it was downright archaic.
My baby would start wailing in the next room and I had to disconnect everything, careful not to spill a single drop, only to start over again.
My breaking point came when I was watching The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu and the main character, June Osborne (aka Offred), was being held as a prisoner in a room to pump breast milk, which was collected and brought to her daughter in the nursery. The irony was not lost on me. I knew there had to be a better way.
That's when I decided to try Willow, the first wireless, all-in-one smart breast pump that works quietly inside your bra.
The innovative design allows you to pump from anywhere, even while lying down! Thanks to its one-way valve, milk can only go in, not out, so you can easily bend over or hold your baby without worrying about spillage.
It's so compact that you can tote it in your diaper bag without needing a separate one just for pumping. Willow syncs to a mobile app that tracks your milk production in real time and stores the history of past pumping sessions.
The only thing holding me back was the $499.99 price tag—I put it in my shopping cart about five separate times but couldn't bring myself to hit the "buy" button. My husband, who has been incredibly supportive throughout my feeding journey, placed the order one day when I wasn't looking.
He reasoned that nourishing our son was difficult enough, and it was worth trying to see if it would make my life that much easier. During my pregnancy, I was unaware that you can pay for Willow with an FSA or HSA account, and it also may be fully or partially covered by your insurance company. You can learn more about coverage here.
The first time that I left the house with my Willow on, I felt utterly victorious. I was taking a walk on a beautiful August summer night and PUMPING MILK AT THE VERY SAME TIME. Not chained to my sad little chair at home.
When I reached my aunt's house for a get-together, I specifically didn't say anything to my relatives to see if they would notice. I held my breath but no one seemed to pick up on the sound (though to be fair, it was noisy with all of the happy chatter going on). Sure, I looked a little like a Fembot from Austin Powers but an exaggerated bustline was a small price to pay for freedom.
It took a few tries to get the hang of using Willow from start to finish, but here's how it works:
- First, you need to insert a milk bag into the flange and attach it to the mobile pump (which has a touchpad to power on, start/stop, and up/down buttons to control the amount of suction).
- After those two main pieces are connected, you bend forward and align your nipples to the center of the flange tunnel, holding the pump firmly to your breast to begin the suctioning process. (For me, this was the trickiest part—I practiced in front of a mirror to help achieve proper alignment.)
- Once you've established a good seal, you secure the nursing bra latch over the pump and lean back. Milk travels from your nipples through the flanges into a Flextube and into the milk bag. (One caveat is that you can only purchase milk bags online through Willow's site.)
I also learned a few tips and tricks along the way that I want to share:
Tip #1: To prevent air from getting into the bag, make sure you wear a full-coverage nursing bra that has a flap to keep the pump pressed securely against your breast (no underwire or padding).
One of the most unique features of the Willow is that it senses let-down and automatically transitions to expression mode based on your body's milk production so you aren't forced to wait a preset amount of time. It uses different sounds to indicate which "phase" you're in—initiation of suction (loud and slow), stimulation (short and quick) and then expression (slow and quiet).
Willow automatically pauses after 25 minutes of continuous pumping. The only downside is that you have to reach into your bra to push the play button from the device to resume or to adjust the amount of suction. You can't currently do it from the app itself.
Tip #2: When double pumping, get to stimulation with one pump before putting on the second.
After you break latch, there will still be a little milk left in the flange tunnel, which is totally normal. To empty it into the milk bag, you need to "flip to finish," which involves rotating the pump, tilting it away from you until you hear a gulping sound, and then flipping it over completely once you hear a loud slurp.
Tip #3: Take advantage of Willow's free personal coaching program to get any questions that you have answered via text or even video conference.
A day hasn't gone by that I haven't used the Willow. I still supplement it with breastfeeding because I like the closeness of being with my son but it's allowed me to reclaim my time (and sanity). And that makes it worth its weight in gold (or should I say breast milk).
[Editor's note: This piece has been updated to reflect the new pricing for the Willow breast pump.]
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