Building a Better
The challenges of designing an object that replicates the human body — and what happens when you get close
When Mimijumi unveiled its baby bottle, some buyers gaped and giggled. With a peach’s curves, a mannequin’s pallor, and a prominent nipple, the bottle – modeled after a mother’s breast – stirred up prudish sensibilities.
“In the U.S., people said ‘This is strange, this is funny,’’ said Lukas Scherrer, Mimijumi’s design director. But the bottle caught on.
For almost as long as women have been having babies, it seems inventors have been trying to build a better bottle. Yet I was surprised to learn from these fascinating medical papers that certain design goals – to replicate a mother’s breast, to mimic its flow – remained the same, even as the form has evolved.
Early in my pregnancy, my husband and I once wandered a baby superstore, gawking at the strollers, pack-and-plays, and cribs we’d never considered much until then. We were lost as children in a fable, staring at bottles, bottles, bottles: anti-colic, glass, newborn, plastic, valves, drop-ins, with nipples of different shapes and sizes. We registered for a few bottles, but I intended to nurse my twins.
Half a year later, holding a bottle to my son’s lips for the first time, I sobbed. In their first month, I’d tried to breast-feed, and the older one nursed with enthusiasm, his jaws pumping like a pirahna’s. But the smaller one, the younger one by twenty-six minutes, wasn’t gaining enough weight. Born three and a half weeks early, he had a shallow latch and weak suck (terms you learn after embarking on this experience).
Mothers thousands of years ago also apparently struggled to nurse. To build up milk supply, the Papyrus Ebers, an ancient Egyptian medical text from 1550 BC, suggests: Warm the bones of a sword fish in oil and rub her back with it. Or: Let the woman sit cross-legged and eat fragrant bread of soused durra, while rubbing the parts with the poppy plant.
Likewise, I swallowed grassy Mother’s Milk tea and fenugreek pills, ate oatmeal, drank gallons of water, cranked up rain sounds, visualized waterfalls, and hooked myself to a medical grade pump in between feedings. Often in or near tears, I had no patience for myself or the people around me. If drops of pumped breast-milk spilled during a bottle feeding, I turned so sullen that my husband and mother-in-law began treating it like radioactive uranium ore. I felt like I’d failed my son, and failed as a mother.
Did the ancients share my angst? Archeologists have discovered clay vessels with nipple-shaped spouts bearing traces of animal milk dating back to 2000 BC, and some Egyptian flasks were decorated with images of women breast-feeding – to entice the baby? To assuage maternal guilt?
This 2,400-year old terracotta baby bottle unearthed in southeast Italy resembles a piggy bank, huge-eyed as a Disney character, with — in what seems like an innovation worthy of revisiting — a rattle to lull the baby to sleep after eating.
In the Middle Ages, babies suckled on perforated cow’s horns that call to mind warriors toasting at epic feasts. The tip, fastened with bits of parchment, is sewn like the finger of a glove so that food could be sucked between the stitches.
By the 1700s, bottles began to appear in pewter and silver, including the Dr. Hugh Smith’s “bubby-pot” which had the look of a doll’s tea set. The spout formed a knob in the shape of a heart, with three or four holes, tied off with a rag the baby could suck. “The child is equally satisfied with it as with the breast,” he boasts. “It never wets him in the least: he is obliged to labour for every drop he receives.”
We have a name for this design: slow-flow. It keeps the bottle from pouring milk into the baby’s mouth faster than he can get it from the breast, so that the bottle doesn’t become a more rewarding or easier source.
Caregivers also fed infants pap, a thick mixture of bread, flour, sugar and Castile soap (said to aid digestion) and sometimes milk, out of porcelain or silver dishes that resembled gravy boats, or from spoons with a hollow stem you could blow through to push the slurry down the baby’s throat (not unlike geese force-fed for foie gras.)
In France, some doctors advocated direct suckling. In 1775, Alphonse Le Roy described how a goat enters the foundling ward, hunt for its infant, pushes back the covers and straddles the crib! “There is in milk, beside the different nutritious principles, an invisible element, the element of life itself, a fugitive gas which is so volatile that it escapes as soon as the milk is in contact with the air,” he wrote. “This is why it is impossible to rear infants with animal milk or with milk which has been expressed from the breast.”
Not true, but dirty feeding devices, improper milk storage and lack of sterilization led to sickness and death. Eventually, inventors began designing glass baby bottles.
In 1841, Charles M. Windship invented a glass nursing bottle he called a “lacteal, or artificial breasts.” His patent describes how the bottle “enables me to practice a useful deception, viz, inducing the child to think that it derives its nourishment directly from the mother.” Then, as today, imitating mom was a design objective.
But some caregivers also wanted ease in feeding. In the late 1800s, banjo or turtle shaped feeders made of glass had rubber tubing that ended in a mouth shield and rubber teat – enabling babies, left unattended, to feed themselves.
Difficult to keep clean, seething with bacteria, they became known as “murder bottles.”
“Corset” bottles – so named for their nipped-in shape and because they were designed to be tucked in between a woman’s breasts to keep the milk warm (once again, trying to mimic mom) — also had rubber tubing that proved unsanitary. At the turn of the century, rubber nipples began replacing tubing and people began sterilizing bottles, which led to the development of tall and narrow feeders that could be boiled eight at a time in a pot. A half-century later, pull-on nipples gave way to those screwed in place with a plastic or metal ring, and in 1975 — the year I was born, the year I was formula-fed — plastic models replaced glass.
But, as pediatrican Dr. Tomas Tomanek points out, current concern over bisphenol A (BPA) in plastic baby bottles may bring glass back into vogue. “What’s old is new again?” he asks, in his retrospective look at nursing bottles in Contemporary Pediatrics.
Analysts forecast the U.S. baby products market will grow by six percent in value, reaching a total of $2.5 billion by 2017. Although the birth rate has been flat, premium natural and organic products offer opportunities for growth.
In an ever more industrialized world, consumers have become more interested in natural, organic products, whether in their food or their building materials.
“These bottles are a reaction to user desires to be more natural,” said Scherrer, who designed the anatomically-correct Mimijumi, which is made out of medical grade silicon – though not, it turns out, the kind used in breast implants. (I had to ask!) Cup size? Eight or four ounces.
He co-founded Mimijumi with Frank Drummond and Bill Colomb, psychiatrists who noticed some babies had trouble switching between breast and fast-flowing bottles, and saw that existing bottles were complicated and difficult to use. Scherrer, an industrial designer and IDEO veteran, interviewed families who complained about valves and narrow necks. Out of those observations, he created Mimijumi.
“Not only did [my daughter] love it but my family got a smile out of it too,” wrote a mother reviewing the Mimijumi on Amazon. “Sometimes when she used it in public it got double-takes and I was embarrassed at first but then I got over it and people did too.”
Paradoxically, the upswing in breast-feeding may account for the popularity of these breast-shaped bottles. About 80 percent of mothers nationwide start breast-feeding at the hospital, and about 40 percent persist until six months, said Valerie Flaherman, a pediatrician and lactation consultant at the University of California-San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital.
Because newborns see in a blur, the look of a bottle – its color or shape – isn’t likely to influence them, Flaherman said. To her, size is of greater significance. The standard bottle size is eight ounces, a lot for a baby of any age to take in one feeding. “It’s human nature for parents to try to get their baby to finish a bottle, but it can lead to overfeeding.”
Breast-shaped bottles became more common after the babyhood of my twins, with product lines such as “Closer to Nature” (Tommee Tippee) and claims of a “skin-like, soft and squeezable body” (Comotomo) and “breast-like nipple for instant recognition, easy latches” (Adiri), and a nipple that “extends upon suction to emulate the mechanics of breastfeeding” (Bare).
In time, my youngest got the hang of nursing, and we stopped using bottles altogether, ending the hassles of washing and sterilizing, pumping and storing. You can design a highly functional replica of the human breast, but it only improves upon one aspect of the laborious, gear-laden bottle-feeding process. We’ll just have to wait for inventors to deliver a full-service milk robot, a latter-day wet nurse — something so advanced it seems ancient.