When the Willow first came out a couple of years back, it may have been the most meaningful improvement to the electric breast pump since its invention in ~1990. Willow is a wireless, wearable breast pump that claims to be silent, discreet and pretty close to magic.
Too good to be true? Well, yes, and no — the Willow comes with a pretty hefty price tag ($499.99, to be exact), and though it does have a fan club, it’s not without flaws. If you’re wondering whether it’s worth the investment, the answer is… maybe.
There are as many women who say that the Willow is a MUST HAVE!! and LIFE-CHANGING! as who label it a COMPLETE WASTE OF MONEY!! or WORST PUMP EVER. Depending on whom you ask, the Willow will either “give you your life back” or wind up being a $$$ piece of garbage. This is the way of things with breast pumps. Much like with baby bottles, swaddles, or even your favorite pair of jeans, what works for one may be a total fail for another. If the Willow wasn’t five hundred dollars and non-returnable, we’d totally think it was worth seeing if you’re one of the women it works well for, but given the price tag, it might be a bit of a gamble.
If you’re a breastfeeding mom who has been on the internet in the last two years, you’ve probably seen ads for the Willow breast pump. It’s a gorgeous piece of machinery: two sleek bra-cup shaped pumps designed to slide into the bra you’re already wearing so you can pump breast milk literally anywhere. The pitch is compelling: no more hiding in an office bathroom or being tethered to the nearest electrical outlet.
The Willow is the third breast pump I’ve used, and while I didn’t find it to be the most powerful or effective at pumping milk, I did find it to be the most convenient… and, dare I say, liberating?
Before Setting it Up
Willow’s packaging is just as lovely as the pump itself — opening it feels as close to Christmas morning as opening a new breast pump could.
The instructions booklet is long, but thorough. You might be tempted to start pumping the second you open the box, but make sure you read the instructions first. The step-by-step guidance (on everything from positioning to charging) may be tedious, but you won’t regret the time investment.
You’ll also want to download the Willow app. That’s right — joining the smart-pump trend, the Willow breast pump is app-enabled and allows you to track your sessions: how long you’ve pumped, how much you’ve collected, how strong the suction was. The app is not just really cool to watch — it’s actually an essential part of your experience with the pump. Unlike other more traditional pumps, you can’t actually see how much milk you’re collecting while pumping with the Willow, so you’ll rely on the app to keep track for you.
On your device, you can see (in real time) how much milk you’ve expressed on each side, supposedly down to a tenth of an ounce. The app also shows your total milk volume and the duration of your pumping session. It’s kind of addicting to watch the numbers go up.
Personally, I found the app experience frustrating at first because as I tried to create an account, the verification email never came so I couldn’t move forward. I contacted customer support and was told it could take up to 24 hours to receive the verification email. Mine never came, so I tried again with an alternative email address, and the verification email arrived about four hours later. It was a minor inconvenience, as the pump still works and stores all of your information without the app, but still an annoyance.
For me, setting up the pump was a cinch. There are just three parts: the wireless pumps, the flextube and the bag (or the container). It couldn’t be easier and the instructions are very clear.
The most difficult part is making sure your nipples line up with the pump’s flange. There is a very specific way the Willow has to rest on your breast to create a seal and extract milk. I used a mirror to make sure my nipples were positioned correctly. Contrary to the manual’s suggestion, I had more success with a traditional underwire bra than I did with a nursing bra. After nursing two babies, my boobs are a little floppier than they once were. I found a stretchy nursing bra just made everything sag too low to get a good suction, but a supportive underwire bra actually held my boobs to the pump just right.
Seamless, Wireless, Quiet — The Verdict
The best part about this hands-free pump is how discreet it actually is. Willow advertises that it is so quiet you can use it during a conference call. That is 100% true. The pump is nearly silent.
The beauty of this pump, in my opinion, though, really comes with its ultra portable design. Since the cups are wireless and can be tucked away under your bra, you’re not glued to an electrical outlet, and you don’t have to hide in a designated pumping area. You might not want to wear this pump during an in-person meeting or at a business lunch, but you could totally wear it in your office or cubicle with confidence.
*That said, I do look like Dolly Parton when I use the Willow. At 5’2’’ and 115 pounds, I have a pretty small frame, and wearing it transformed me into some kind of Austin Powers breast pump femmebot. I would not suggest wearing the Willow to a meeting with your boss, but for casual office use or on an airplane, a baggy cardigan or sweater hides it just fine (and larger framed women might have less of a problem with this). Though, for many women, the aesthetic is enough that they don’t feel comfortable wearing the Willow out of the house at all.
The suction felt strong, though not painful like some other pumps I have used. Even still, I wasn’t able to pump as much milk as I expected. My daughter is 8-months-old and weighs 24 pounds, so I know she’s well fed, but I only produced between 1-4 ounces during my 25-minute sessions with the Willow, while with my Spectra, I am able to get 4 ounces on each side. I’m not sure if this is a problem on my end, or if the suction needed more umph. [See also: Our review of the Spectra]
Which takes me to my next point…
Collection Bags and Containers
Since the pump is small and discreet, the bags that collect the milk are too. Bags for the Willow Generation 3 only hold 4 ounces, and for some women, the small bags present a large problem. (*Gen 2 collection bags were actually 5 oz. bags — whhhyy did they make them smaller?)
One mama who shared her experience on Babycenter was unhappy about the small amount of milk each pump bag could hold, writing: “The bags only fit 4 oz, but this is best case scenario. I have never been able to get to 4 oz, because the air in the bag counts toward space available. I typically get to 3 oz, then have to stop and replace a new bag in order to continue. My left breast always pumps way more then my right. A typical session is 5 oz left, and 2 oz right. So my one pumping session ends up with 3 bulky bags (7 oz total).”
The bags are expensive, too. The pump itself is $499, and the bags are $23.99 for 48. Since you have two boobs and will use two bags at a time, that’s only enough for 24 pumping sessions, which means you’re paying $1 per pump session. The cost adds up.
The good news is, the leak proof bag really is leak proof. I even tried shaking and pressing on the bag and the milk stayed in place. Some milk does leak out of the flextube when disassembling, though. Willow says just a few drops, it seemed like about ½ teaspoon or more to me.
I used the bags, but you could also opt to purchase the reusable milk collection containers (above), though they are also pricey (at $49 for a pair). Unfortunately, many women complain that these are glitchy and hella-annoying to clean, and Willow says that they generally only last a couple of months before needing to be replaced (what??!). But, it’s an option.
The Willow is super easy to clean. Once you pull the bag out and store it in the freezer or refrigerator, you’re just left with the flextube and the flange. The pump comes with a brush for cleaning inside of both — and all the pieces have a storage bag for tossing in your purse.
*Note that the reusable containers are a little more annoying to clean…
Charging the Electric Pump
Because there are no cords on the pump, you have to remember to charge it. One full charge lasts 2+ pumping sessions. But (and it’s a big but)… you only get one charger for two pumps, so your charging time is automatically doubled.
Costs and Insurance Coverage
At $499, the price point for the Willow is quite high (understatement?). It’s more than double the Spectra S2 ($199), more than the Medela Pump in Style ($169), annnnd more than Medela’s smart pump, the Sonata (~$359).
And, of note, Willow is now approved for full or partial coverage by many health insurance companies. You can also pay for the Willow Breast Pump with an FSA or HSA account. And if none of those are an option for you but you still really want to give the Willow a try, it is now available on payment plan by Affirm.
The Bottom Line
If pumping discretion (and having a wearable breast pump) is of the utmost importance to you – especially if you are a working mom – the Willow might be well worth it. But if you don’t *need the wearable feature, you might be better off with a traditional pump (this is less “risky” of a purchase, at least).
I have a friend who is a destination wedding photographer. When she’s on the job, she can’t spend 30 or 40 minutes in the bathroom while a wedding is happening, so she wears the Willow Pump while shooting and then hands it off to an assistant to put in the fridge.
If you’re wondering if it works better than a traditional pump, my answer would be no. But can you use a traditional pump while shooting a wedding ceremony? Ehhhhh – no.
Ultimately, whether or not the Willow is worth it depends on your needs. If you only pump occasionally from your home, then this may not be for you. But if, like my friend, are always on the go and are struggling to find a place to pump discreetly and peacefully, then the Willow is a potential option.