My Breast Pump Speaks to Me: how do breast pumps talk to new mothers?

I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve never been abducted by aliens. I don’t see dead people. So I’m a little reluctant to admit the following: My breast pump used to talk to me. Well … it didn’t exactly talk to me. I never had a conversation with it. I don’t know if it was a Cubs or a White Sox fan. But when I used my Medela Pump In Style, I heard words.

Shortly after I gave birth, a lactation consultant recommended that I pump in order to give my low milk supply a “jump start” – which really is the perfect term to describe hooking one’s breasts up to a machine using what look like teeny-tiny jumper cables.

I pumped my sleep-deprived little heart out, but my cup – or, more accurately, my BPA-free bottles – did not runneth over; instead, they collected small puddles of milk. And it was about a week into this frustrating routine that I first heard from my portable, supposedly inanimate companion. An observer – and thank goodness there weren’t any given the eye-wrenching circumstances – might have thought it was simply the pump’s repetitive wheeze. But I heard things like this:

“Uh oh. Uh oh.”

“No way. No way.”

“Stop it. Stop it.”

And I won’t even go into the swearing.

Once I started making out what sounded like words, I was taunted on a regular basis. And as if the harassment wasn’t enough, that little sucker made me feel like I was losing my mind. Who else besides a crazy woman believes her breast pump talks to her? I had to know: Was it me, or did other people hear from their pumps, too?

At first I couldn’t bring myself to ask, but eventually I summoned the courage to post the following on my blog:

“For those of you who have used electric breast pumps: Did the suction noise ever sound like words to you?”

I winced after I hit enter. What if I was the only one?

Minutes later, a woman named Phyllis commented: “YES!… It sounded like my baby’s name sometimes & other times it sounded like it was saying ‘relax’ or ‘anytime.’”

How I loved Phyllis!

There were others, too. Katie’s pump said, “whack-a-mole,” and Stacey’s whispered, “beautiful one.” Other women heard “apple,” “let go” and “we pump.” Two different women heard “nipples.” Carmilla heard, “Jean Nate” – the once-ubiquitous perfume – from her ’80s-loving pump. And Joanie couldn’t tell if she was hearing, “bullsh*t” or “hush now.” I not only wasn’t alone, I was part of a sisterhood.

Now that I had proof that I was in good company, I wanted to know what was going on. To find out, I spoke to Diana Deutsch, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, who’s an expert in audio illusions and phantom words.

Deutsch explained that the whump-whumping of my breast pump is a rhythmic and vague noise, similar to a washing machine or a moving train. “When there is ambiguity in sound, we try to make sense of what we hear,” Deutsch said, comparing the creation of phantom words to finding shapes in the clouds. “And what people hear reflects what’s on their mind,” she added. I guess I didn’t have puppy dogs and rainbows on my mind when I pumped.

The good news? It turns out that my talking breast pump was really just my brain doing its job. And although I never became the Dairy Queen I dreamed of, I did, over time, drip drop more milk into my bottles. The bad news? My unconscious swears a blue streak.

I do have a suggestion for Medela: I think the company should include a warning label for new mothers on its packaging. The warning should say all sorts of good, encouraging stuff – that it gets easier, that you’re not alone. And to reassure women everywhere, it should also say, “You’re not crazy. No matter what your breast pump says.”

What does your breast pump say to you?

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