Anyone who's ever had a close encounter with a breast pump knows that it sucks in multiple ways: It sucks out breast milk, and it sucks because it makes mothers feel like milk cows at the mercy of a loud, dumb, unwieldy, uncomfortable machine.
"Pumping is the worst, it really is," said Erin Freeburger, a mother and a user-experience designer who was attending her first-ever "hackathon" this weekend: the MIT Media Lab's "Make The Breast Pump Not Suck!" contest. "That's why we're all here. No one here is like, 'What? It's fine, how it is!' It's awful. But we love our babies more than we hate our pumps, so that's why we're motivated to be here today."
We love our babies more than we hate our pumps.Erin Freeburger
Freeburger's team was among ten squads of brainstormers who took on the intense weekend challenge of improving upon current breast pump designs — and her team won the first prize of $3,000 and a trip to Silicon Valley to court investors. Their concept: The "Mighty Mom" utility belt, is "a fashionable, discreet, hands-free wearable pump that automatically logs and analyzes your personal data." Milk data, that is.
The concept, she explained, involves both hardware — the utility belt to hold pumping parts needed on the go — and software: It imagines a "smart" breast pump that would collect and track data and upload it to the cloud: milk volume, even fat and protein content as analyzed by infrared sensors. (My reaction: So it's, like, the iPump?)
Other winners, according to the contest site: Second prize of $2,000 to "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."
It's not an iPhone, it's a mortar and pestle.Victoria Solan
And third prize of $1,000 to "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."
And special recognition goes to "a breast pump that mimics the way that a baby suckles with massage and compression. This team also designed soft, low-profile flanges to be worn discreetly." And more special recognition to this winner of the popular vote:
Compress Express: A breast pump that mimics the natural and age-old art of hand expression, instead of archaic vacuum technology that dominates the market. Inspired by the simplicity of blood pressure cuffs, this project's gentle compression technology enables efficient milk expression and creates a discreetly wearable, virtually silent and hands-free breast pumping experience.
Debra Abbaszadeh, a founder of Simple Wishes, a hands-free bra company based in San Francisco, said she thought "the whole idea of compression versus expression was really interesting. I think it requires a lot of work. I think the concepts, exactly as they are, are not quite there, but it's a very interesting idea."
You might think, given the huge market for breast pumps in a country where most women work and most mothers breastfeed, that pump makers would already have been racing to improve on designs.
So why should a hackathon — an intense team brainstorming session that originated in computer engineering — even be needed?
Despite the commercial efforts, clearly, "Most women are still dissatisfied," said Victoria Solan, a historian of architecture and design who attended the hackathon. "There’s a lot of talk about how they're painful, they're uncomfortable, they don't work well. So I think the organizers' original claim — that there's no reason that the breast pump shouldn't be as well designed as the iPhone — is true. It's not. It's not an iPhone, it's a mortar and pestle."
But as some hackathon participants discovered, improving upon it is not necessarily easy.
"When I first came in, I was surprised to see so many of the [breast-pump] vendors here, because we pretty much just attacked their product," Erin Freeburger said. "And then, a few hours in, I realized: It's really hard, some of the mechanics we were trying to do. We're working with gravity, we're working with suction, we're working with parts that have to be cleaned within so many hours because we're working with milk, the storage has to be refrigerated. We hit some walls and we realized, 'Oh, maybe this is why it's taken so long to fix it.'"
But the hackathon represents progress, she and others said, at the very least because it united and amplified the voices of women dissatisfied with the current state of pumping.
Women tend to think it's a personal, private problem if they have trouble pumping at work or elsewhere, she said. And "Probably the reason it hasn't changed by now is that we've sort of just....sucked it up."
Readers, thoughts? Pumping experiences? Dreams of a better pump?