Sunday, April 27, 2008

Breast Pumps are a Racket

My wife is using a Medela breast pump in her ongoing efforts to avoid raising our twins on formula. We actually bought a Medela breast pump before the twins were born, but the hospital gave us an even more up-market one as a "gift" so we ended up returning the one we bought.

First of all let me say this. Breast pumps are a racket. You can buy a pretty robust device for pumping up car tires that runs on 12v for $20 and it's probably better constructed than a typical breast pump. I'm sure there are lots of considerations that drive up the cost of a breast pump compared with a dirt cheap tire pump, but come on: The Medela breast pump we bought retails for ~$300 and is approximately as well constructed as a decent quality toy. OK it's made of non-toxic plastic, and it presumably is designed not to rip a woman's nipples off by accident, but seriously.

Our breast pump has a "valve" designed to allow milk to come into the collection bottle but prevent air from leaving the bottle when the pump "sucks". This "valve" is a piece of flexible plastic the size of a dime weighing a fraction of a gram, and it costs $5 for two of them. (So far we've lost three down the drain.) This is a freaking scandal.

It's not like breast pumps are so uncommon that economies of scale don't exist. Our hospital is giving a breast pump to every other woman who gives birth (it's that or a stroller; if you do the math, you take the breast pump). Everyone gets born. The average woman gives birth two and half times. What. The. Frack.

Now, get this: the best approximation for the shape of a woman's breast that the genius designers at Medela can come up with is a cone. They sell big cones and small cones. Ameda (actually produced by the company formed by the guy who invented the electric breast pump) offers a silicone widget that's designed to simulate a baby's mouth. But apparently Ameda hasn't figured out that by selling their breast pumps for less, people assume they're not as good. (I can't find any review sites that indicate Medela are as well-liked by their users as Ameda, despite the "Stockholm Syndrome" that anyone who buys a more expensive product tends to suffer from -- yes Apple we're talking about you.) Any site I've found which shows reviews of both Ameda and Medela products, the Ameda products (which are cheaper) get better reviews.

Again, Ameda have done a bunch of really decent stupid things such as (a) making their gear completely compatible with third party bottles, (b) making their simulated baby mouth widgets compatible with third party breast pumps, and (c) providing excellent customer service (according to numerous reviews I've read). What they obviously should have done is sell tiny plastic flaps for $2.50 (Ameda's valves are larger and won't wash down sinks) and force users of their pumps to buy their expensive nipples and collars and single-use-leaky-plastic milk storage bags which would make their products more profitable and allow them to hire reps to convince hospitals to use their products in more hospitals, and be able to give away their laughably overpriced pumps to new moms.

We've probably spent about $100 buying plastic doodads compatible with our "free" breast pump so far, but after losing a day's worth of milk to their lousy (and expensive) storage bags, and discovering today that (unlike Ameda) we need to sterilize the plastic tubes (joining the pump to the collection gizmo) of our Medela system if moisture gets in (Ameda's pumps are completely isolated from the collection system by means of a local cylinder) we're on the verge of setting aside the entire system and switching to Ameda.

In the end, as I said to my wife, it comes down to this. If you have to use a machine to suck on your breasts, would you prefer one designed by Swedes or Germans?