Make no mistake: there are companies in our own “industry” that are putting profit over the health of moms and babies. Medela is one of them. As breastfeeding advocates, it’s easy to acknowledge “big pharma” and the formula companies, but it’s less intuitive to see companies that make breastfeeding support products in the same way. It’s strange to think of breastfeeding as an “industry,” but it certainly exists, and quite profitably (for some). Making money starts with advertising, which is where the WHO Code comes into play.
The World Health Organization is the public-health related branch of the United Nations. In 1981, it adopted The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. Basically, this code was developed to give breastfeeding a fighting chance against the constant onslaught of formula marketing. The US chose not to legislate the Code (as some countries have), so here, it lacks any enforcement.
The basic point of the Code is to limit the reach of the formula and bottle companies’ marketing campaigns. The Code doesn’t limit the sale of these items; only how they’re marketed. [Read more on the WHO Code at Best for Babes.]
NB: I understand that tons of moms need pumps and bottles in order to breastfeed. I am all for that. What I’m arguing, and what the WHO Code aims for, is to limit the marketing of these products in a way that normalizes formula and bottle feeding. Formula and bottle ad campaigns are insanely effective, which is why they spend millions of dollars on them. Formula feeding costs the US 13 billion dollars and 900 infants’ lives each year. This is a high-stakes public health issue; it’s not just about marketing.
Back to the WHO Code: There are some responsible companies out there. Hygeia actually goes as far as to inform the public, via their website, that they respect the WHO Code. Other pump companies, such as Ameda, go in and out of Code compliance as their ownership status changes.
Medela has continually thumbed their nose at the WHO Code. They have done this publicly, formally, and repeatedly.
Medela is a huge, worldwide company with a budget to fit its stature. And they’re also blatantly violating the WHO Code. Not on a single-incident basis, but perpetually. They even have a statement on their website acknowledging their violation of the Code and taking the position that they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
If we can’t collectively get behind the WHO Code within our own industry, how can we expect the formula companies to abide by it? It is such an enormous blow to the credibility of the WHO Code to have a company as large as Medela, one that’s so joined with breastfeeding, take this position.
To summarize it, Medela’s Code violations consist of advertising their baby bottles and nipples (pumps are not covered by the Code). That might seem insignificant. It might even seem like it’s asking too much to have a company not advertise those products. However, it says a lot about Medela’s intent to profit off of moms in any way they can. [See this post on their bottle/nipple, the Calma, which is a marketing and breastfeeding disaster all rolled into one: "Medela's Calma: Better Than Mom's Own Breast?"]
The way to change this is to take a stand, grassroots as it may be. First, breastfeeding moms need to quit buying their products. Period.
Before anyone gets overly upset by that, let me tell you: Medela pumps are sub-standard.
It bears repeating: Medela pumps are sub-standard.
If more mothers knew the facts about their Medela Pump in Style, Swing, Freestyle, etc-, Medela would be selling a lot less of them. (I speak from experience; I have a PIS sitting in my closet, waiting to die a slow death in a landfill.)
NB: I know a lot of moms have emotional attachments to their Medela pumps. I’ve gotten backlash from those moms, who defend Medela in the face of the facts due to that emotional bond. In short, don’t let your emotional attachment to what a lifesaver your pump was, cloud your judgment on these issues.
These $300 breastpumps have to be (are supposed to be) tossed in the trash when moms are finished with them. They are not FDA approved for more than one user. There’s a big market for the sale and donation of used Medela pumps, though, thanks to Medela’s huge market share. Their pumps are ubiquitous.
There are “closed system” pumps and “open system” pumps. Medela is the latter. Having an “open system” means moisture and other airborne particles can contaminate the motor of the pump. And while the tubing can be cleaned or replaced, the motor on open system pumps cannot. (Yes, you can tear apart a Medela pump and clean the parts; it’s not advisable and you’re likely compromising the vacuum in doing so. You also can’t sterilize the internal components of the motor, which are subject to contaminants not visible to the naked eye.)
Since the motor can’t be cleaned or sanitized, a pre-owned Medela pump is a gamble. There’s no way to know if milk or condensation from the tubing ever contaminated it.
This isn’t to say that breastmilk is unclean or unsanitary. Far from! But, knowing whose milk the pump has been exposed to is vital, as this research shows.
Even if you follow the rules and purchase a new Medela pump, never share it, and plan to use it through multiple children, you can still have problems. Medela is completely open about their pumps being single-user-only. What’s not being said, though, is that if milk or condensation make their way into the tubing, that moisture can reach the motor. If they are subject to moisture, these pumps can grow mold inside their motors.
There’s no way to tell if there’s mold in the pump motor without opening the case. If there is mold, the mold spores will be wishing and wooshing through the motor casing and pump tubing (which connects to the flanges, where your milk is) as the pump runs. (Not believing this? There are seasoned lactation consultants who will tell you about Medela pumps they’ve cracked open to find massive mold growth.)
There are alternatives, though: both Hygeia and Ameda offer pumps that are closed systems. Because of their superior designs, the closed-system pumps from Hygeia and Ameda are SO much safer than Medela’s consumer-grade pump line (if it’s a Medela in a big-box store, it’s likely consumer grade; hospital-grade pumps usually have to be rented and are closed systems). In closed-system pumps, milk and condensation can’t reach the motor because of the way their superior design.
Closed-system pumps are safe. They’re effective. They’re better. These pumps are perfectly safe to be given or sold to another mom, as long as they’re still within their useful lifespan (about 500 hours of pumping, but it’s different for each pump/brand). All you need to safely pass on a closed-system pump or buy one second-hand is a new accessory kit (tubing, bottles, flanges, etc-). Hygeia will even recycle their old pumps when they’ve run their course.
There are better brands and safer products offered at the same (or lower!) price points than Medela. Why stick with a sub-par product from a company that engages in predatory marketing practices?
We are informed enough to know better. It’s up to us to spread the word, even if it’s one conversation; one Facebook post; one blog post; one tweet; one email at a time. Because for every pump Medela doesn’t sell, that’s one more mom and baby who will be better-off with their safer pump from a superior company.
It’s terribly detrimental for a company as large and well-known as Medela to write off the Code and all it stands for. It’s even worse for them to knowingly and willingly sell moms sub-par products when they know the dangers of open-system pumps. (Just ask them; Medela has been busted by the FDA multiple times for their sub-par products and they choose not to improve.)
Need a pump? I recommend Hygeia or Ameda. Both brands are closed-system and between them, they come at a variety of price points. It’s also ok to get one of these brands second-hand, assuming you get a new collection kit (tubes/flanges/etc-). I have no relationship with either company.
Originally published 1/19/12 on my old site, justwestofcrunchy.com. Edited, updated, and republished 1/1/2013 at amywest.co.