The Time Has Come for a Better Breast Pump

Hackers take on everything that makes breastfeeding harder than it should be.

A team working on accessories for parents with visual impairments. (Photo courtesy of Ken Richardson/MIT)

Most breast pumps come in friendly pastel colors of plastic but still look like dystopian milking machines, which is what they are. The first time I tried to use one, I burst into tears. Our son was a week and a half old and every nursing session still hurt. But somehow what I really couldn’t stand was how humiliating the pump looked.

Pumping breast milk sucks. Breast pumps are clunky, loud, and uncomfortable, with lots of small parts that are hard to clean and easy to accidentally leave at home. Hundreds of people gathered at MIT’s Media Lab last weekend for the second Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon to change all that.

Men, women and babies filled a big open room full of circular tables on the 6th floor of the Media Lab over three days. They sat at tables of deconstructed pump parts, sewing machines, and breast pumps with “HACK ME” written on them in Sharpie. After a Saturday morning session of one-minute idea pitches, participants formed teams or drifted between teams to lend their expertise. They worked on prototypes and called for lactating women to test those prototypes. They got feedback from representatives of major breast pump companies that donated equipment and did market research using The Leaky Boob’s 300,000 followers on Facebook Live. They planned research studies, culminating in a science fair of 30 or so projects on Sunday afternoon. All the while, women pumped milk in one of the art installations, a room of white and gray blankets and pillows where magnified images of breast milk globules were projected on the wall.

Items related to pumps — pumping accessories and modifications for specific populations — felt particularly ripe for innovation. The Visually Impaired Parents team developed a breast milk storage bag with raised buttons on the side as Braille-like volume markings and sensors that beep to indicate the liquid level in a bottle. They won the Startup Starter Pack Award, which included 15 hours of consulting on how to proceed as a startup. The team was the brainchild of Annika Wolff, a human-computer interaction researcher at The Open University, whose father is visually impaired.

The MamaShelf team designed a sanitary place to put a pump, for those who are stuck pumping in an unclean spot like a public bathroom. It was Christine Short’s idea. She was attending the hackathon as her first trip away from her 10-month-old. The team won the Listening By Design Award, which included a brainstorming session with designers at Continuum. They sewed two prototypes of a washable cloth caddy. They designed the second, improved prototype with the help of a beta tester at the hackathon. Their beta tester has to pump in a bathroom several times a day at work, sometimes missing an evening class because of how long it takes to pump. “This would have saved me 20 minutes every time,” their tester said.

Bonding experiences

Catherine D’Ignazio thought up the first breast pump hackathon in 2014 with friends Alexandra Metral and Alexis Hope after D’Ignazio found herself angry that she had to pump breast milk for her third child while sitting on the floor of a bathroom at MIT.

Hackathon organizer Catherine D’Ignazio, who is now a professor of media at Emerson College. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rodriguez/MIT)

But innovation in breast pumps is really hard. Case in point: three teams from the 2014 hackathon joined to form MS United, aiming to make a compression-based pump, which could be more comfortable and effective than the standard vacuum-based pumps. They won a $100,000 MIT business plan competition in 2015 and have held two Kickstarters, most recently in November 2017. But their product has morphed from a pump to a “booster” meant to increase milk production when used with a pump, and it’s still not commercially available. Brooke Eplee, an investor with a firm called 37 Angels, says sexism makes it harder for a product oriented to women to get to market. Series A investors are still mostly men, she points out.

Some innovations from the 2014 hackathon are moving along. Tim Brothers started Mighty Mom with his wife, Christine, after participating in the hackathon, and they just did a soft launch of their noise-muffling pump case, which cuts pump noise by half. Katherine Hornbostel’s breast pump accessory, Pump2Baby, is now ready for preorders. It allows moms to pump directly to a baby, which is handy in a car and can make pumping a more pleasant bonding experience. Some babies can’t nurse from a breast but can drink from a bottle, and some moms prefer pumping to breastfeeding, but without such a device it takes twice as long to pump and then feed the baby.

The breast pump isn’t the only aspect of being a nursing mother that leaves a lot to be desired. Even the science behind pumping is still in the dark ages.

Commercially available breast pumps have come a long way since the last hackathon, although the newer ones are typically not fully covered by health insurance. Medela, the most well-known breast pump company, came out with a quieter, lighter, battery-powered Sonata in January 2017. The Sonata incorporated some ideas from the last hackathon, says Kate Schraml, a spokeswoman for Medela. For example, you can push the Sonata’s buttons with your elbows or feet. Cordless wearable pumps are available from Freemie and Willow. Naya Health has released the beta version of a pump that uses water suction instead of air, which is meant to be more comfortable and more similar to the way a baby sucks. There’s a wait list to get one.

The hackers consider every aspect of the pumps hackable. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Rodriguez/MIT)

What’s in pumped milk?

The breast pump isn’t the only aspect of being a nursing mother that leaves a lot to be desired. The U.S. does not guarantee paid family leave, so breast pumps serve as a workaround for parents who would like to stay at home with their breastfeeding babies but can’t afford to. This year’s hackathon included a concurrent Make Family Leave Not Suck policy summit.

Several participants also noted that even the science behind pumping is still in the dark ages. Though breastfeeding is touted as beneficial to public health, baby, and parent, it’s not clear how many of the benefits are lost when milk is pumped, stored in the fridge or freezer, and later bottle-fed to the baby. “There’s not enough data to ask these really big questions,” says Sarah Reyes, a Cornell PhD student who studies microbes in pumped breast milk. There are only three studies comparing direct breastfeeding with feeding pumped milk, she says. In these studies, babies who got breast milk from bottles had more asthma, coughing, wheezing, and ear infections compared to infants who were directly breastfed.

Women shared their experiences of pumping in inconvenient places. (Photo courtesy of Ken Richardson/MIT)

Why might this be? One of the most amazing things about breast milk is that a mother is able to produce antibodies in breast milk in response to specific germs in her baby’s body. She can do this because of “baby backwash” from feeding at the breast. Yes, when a baby nurses, some of its spit is actually sucked back into the nipple. That doesn’t happen with a pump.

Many components of breast milk survive refrigeration and freezing just fine: all the sugars, some fats, and most proteins, including antibodies. But refrigeration bumps off some of milk’s immune cells, which help jump-start a baby’s immune system, says Leon Mitoulas, head of breastfeeding research at Medela. Freezing pops the immune cells like balloons and breaks down some fats. Both freezing and refrigeration will eventually use up the antioxidants in breast milk by exposing the milk to oxygen, Reyes says.

There’s also no information on whether pumping and direct breastfeeding result in equal health benefits for the mom, like reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes. “I don’t think anyone’s asked that scientifically,” Reyes says.

The point here is not to dismiss pumping. The point is that we just don’t have enough information about this incredibly widespread activity. There are always going to be breastfeeding parents who want or need to be away from their babies. We need pumps. They just shouldn’t suck so much.

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