- Today’s breast pumps have numerous design faults that make pumping an unpleasant and time-consuming experience.
- One prototype redesign, called Second Nature, aims to mimic the action of an infant suckling.
- Another prototype redesign, called the Mighty Mom Utility Belt, comes with an app to monitor the volume of milk pumped.
If there were a relatively expensive technology, several decades older than the motor car, and purchased by many thousands of people each year, you would expect it to have gone through multiple rounds of innovation and refinement. Alas, the breast pump has no equivalent to the Lamborghini. Instead, its users invariably complain that it is uncomfortable to the point of painful, noisy (but not in a sexy Lamborghini way), and physically prevents them from performing other tasks. In both the verbal and adjectival sense, the breast pump sucks in its current forms. Which is why MIT Media Lab recently hosted a “hackathon”—a collective and competitive brain storming session with the aim of redesigning the breast pump from scratch.
Among the offerings of the dozen or so teams that took part, two newfangled pump ideas have caught SPLASH!’s eye. They have one important common aspect to their designs; unlike breast pumps currently on the market, both take a woman’s experience of pumping as their starting point and then try in different ways to help women be less enslaved by the machine.
One design, named Second Nature, explicitly aims to make pumping more like nursing an infant. The team was founded when former experimental physicist, Kirsty Johnston, gave a one-minute pitch at the start of the hackathon, an appeal for biomimicry. Johnston used a breast pump for a year because her son had trouble latching, and she says that the trials of that time compelled her to attend the hackathon.
Pumping was, “tedious, painful, and kinda dehumanizing,” says Johnston. She noticed a multitude of design problems. “When I was pumping in the hospital, you had to sit up, and you have these things literally suctioned to you. It is not discrete. It’s loud. The bottles attach directly to the flanges so you can’t put a sweater on. And you have to sit forward. Sitting up and sitting forward was uncomfortable, as a new mom.”
At the hackathon, Johnston’s team decided they had to do more than merely re-engineer one part of the breast pump to solve all of these issues. They began with altering the shape of the flange, which they thought of as equivalent to an infant’s mouth, and something that should not be so bulky that it could not fit under a bra.
When an infant breastfeeds directly from her mother, she uses her tongue to massage the nipple to the top of her mouth, creating a cavity at the back of her mouth. The lower pressure in the cavity then helps her to swallow. The Second Nature team has come up with three options to replicate the tongue mechanism, but Johnston admits that this is where their prototype needs some work.
The flanges attach to tubes that lead the milk under low and constant suction, which is provided by a small motor, to a collection bottle in a shoulder sling. “When you’re done you can just detach the tubing from the flange. Say you’re a bus driver, you could pump while you’re driving the bus. Or you could pump during a video conference. It would just be a quite humming noise in the background, which is the motor muffled in the bag.”
The second hackathon product of note won the competition. Called the Mighty Mom Utility Belt, it is somewhat like the belts worn by marathon runners to hold sugary gel snacks. This team began with a Facebook survey, asking moms what they wanted to see in a breast pump redesign.
Like the Second Nature design, the Mighty Mom team also brought the milk collection bottles and the motor components of the breast pump down to waist level, to free a user’s hands to get on with basic manual tasks, and without so much noise from the motor. One of their main contributions was a tube to carry milk from a flange to a belt, which could be effectively unzipped along its length, and washed in a dishwasher. But the emphasis of the Mighty Mom design is on customizability, and on an App that monitors the volume of milk reaching the collection bottles.
“We had a guy on our team who works on optic sensors, and uses them in water quality tests to study different chemicals in water,” explains Robyn Churchill, a midwife and prominent team member. “If you’re hiding the bottles away in a bag behind you—rather than right in front of you—you definitely need a quantity monitor.”
This kind of data is likely to be especially useful for women who pump in order to increase their breast milk output, by allowing them to monitor their progress over time.
Down the line, the sensor might also monitor alcohol content. “The Facebook survey showed that women really wanted that. To be able to go out an have a couple of glasses of wine, and then test whether there’s any alcohol in the milk,” adds Churchill.
It is early days for both of these breast pump hacks. The Mighty Mom team has some prize money to spend on a trip to Silicon Valley, to do the rounds of venture capital firms there. At present, they are trying to figure out who among the 20-odd team members could quit their day job and focus on developing the product full time. The Second Nature folks could do with a week where a group of engineers sit down and optimize the tongue mechanism. Neither of these prototypes has yet been perfected. But, if either of them eventually make it to market, they will revolutionize the experience of pumping—and, perhaps more importantly, they will facilitate discrete pumping for working women that barely interrupts their day.
To find out more about the hackathon, go to the website: http://breastpump.media.mit.edu/
Professional science writer & editor