Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Make the Breast Pump Not Suck

 Since our first encounters with the breast pump, we wondered how women had been duped into settling for such bad design. The pump is a symbol of the modern work-life conundrum. In theory, women have the freedom to honor the wisdom that “breast is best,” while still pursuing their own careers. And yet, to do so, they’re forced to attach themselves, multiple times a day, to a loud, sometimes painful machine that makes one feel anything but powerful. - Courtney Martin, Times Motherlode Blog

Edward Lasker, an engineer, produced the first mechanical breast pump and secured the patent in the 1920s. In 1956, Einar Egnell created the Egnell SMB breast pump. Nearly 60 years later, little has changed about the fundamental design of the mechanical pump. There are too many parts, which are easy to forget. They often aren’t the right size (which leads to pain and discomfort) and need routine cleaning. They’re bulky. Not to mention that pumping sound. Not surprisingly, many women who attempt to pump at work wean their infants before the six-month mark recommended by pediatricians.

Research and investment into postpartum maternal health, including lactation and pumping, lags behind even other aspects of women’s health—perhaps in part because postpartum health lacks its own specialty, and is instead awkwardly partitioned into obstetrics, pediatrics, and general family medicine. Institutionalized sexism may also have played a role. Martin, after referring to Gloria Steinem’s ‘If Men Could Menstruate’ writes, “If men could breastfeed, surely the breast pump would be as elegant as an iPhone and quiet as a Prius by now.”

It’s high time someone redesigned the breast pump. There’s dignity to be regained and a whole lot of money to be made.

In response, on Sept 20-21, 2014, 150 parents, engineers, designers and healthcare givers gathered at the MIT Media Lab for the "Make the Breast Pump Not Suck" Hackathon. The atmosphere was celebratory.  Women and men clapped and whooped; babies yowled. One participant tweeted: “This hackathon is great. There’s like forty percent women, forty percent men, and twenty percent babies.”

Importantly, breast-pump companies small and large signed on as well, agreeing to send representatives and sponsor prizes. Before the hack, breast-pump users submitted more than a thousand ideas.

The winner—of $3000 and a trip to Silicon Valley to pitch the idea to investors—was a group of engineers, health-care specialists, and parents who had convened around the idea of a portable, hands-free pump that could be used while commuting or caring for small children. The group designed Mighty Mom Utility Belt, which holds bottles, an integrated pump, and a sensor that collects data on milk volume and fat content. Accoding to a NYTimes article on the project ( ), team member Kat Sniffen, an aerospace and mechanical engineer, said that such a pump would have allowed her to return to work more quickly after the birth of her first child, and to pump more frequently after the birth of her second.

Second prize went to Helping Hands, a sturdy, easy to clean, minimal parts, hands free compression bra designed by nursing moms. The bra helps women manually express breastmilk (a technique proven to be as effective as electric pumps) without their hands. 

Third prize went to PumpIO: An open software and hardware platform to make the breast pumping experience smarter, more data-rich and less isolating. PumpIO puts pumping women in touch with lactation consultants and communities as they are pumping, when they have questions and to help reinforce their commitment to their baby. 

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