MIT hosts a hackathon to "Make the Breast Pump Not Suck"

breast milk pump
CC BY 2.0 Mike Prince

Lactating mothers worldwide are rejoicing that breast pump technology will get a much-needed update.

If you’re a woman and have ever tried to pump breast milk for your infant, then you are well acquainted with the modern breast pump’s inadequate design. Not only is it uncomfortable, with clear hard plastic funnels that show one’s sore nipples getting sucked into tubes repeatedly (Who wants to look at that?), but the electric models come with a motor that’s embarrassingly loud and draws unnecessary attention to what’s being done. If you ditch the electric and go for a hand pump, you have to use both hands and it takes longer to pump the same amount of milk. Wikipedia describes the breast pump as “analogous to a milking machine used in commercial dairy production.” It certainly does feel that way, and it’s not a welcome sensation after going through the difficulties of carrying and delivering a baby.

That is why MIT held another much-needed “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” hackathon in Boston this past weekend. (The first was held in May.) It gathered 150 parents, engineers, designers, lactation consultants and other healthcare providers to spend a weekend coming up with ideas for an improved breast pump. As one midwife stated, “Maternal health lags behind other sectors for innovation,” and MIT thinks it’s time to come up with better options for lactating moms:

“The motor is loud. There are too many parts. They are hard to clean. You can’t lay down and pump. There is no good space to pump. It’s hard to keep track of what you pump. Your colleagues think pumping is weird. People are skeeved out by breast milk. People are embarrassed by breasts.”

Breast milk is so important for infant health and has long-lasting effects, from reducing Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, female cancers, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Women are urged to breastfeed for at least two years, and yet that number is rarely reached. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 77 percent of U.S. infants start out breastfeeding, with 49 percent continuing at 6 months and 27 percent at one year.

Breast pumps are supposedly a great feminist technology, allowing women to return to work and pursue careers while raising young children, and yet there are “politics of banishment” that accompany breastfeeding. A chapter called “Breast pumps: a feminist technology, or (yet) ‘More Work for Mother’?” in the anthology Feminist Technology (2010) states that:

“Whether one chooses to continue nursing after returning to work is not only a question of cultural preferences or the cost of a breast pump, it is also an issue of workplace design and whether one works for an employer who will make space for this activity.”

Having a quieter, more comfortable, and user-friendly breast pump could go a long ways toward making women more at ease with pumping for longer and less self-conscious about having to do it at work.

Why does MIT care? Because “the breast pump is the rallying cry for the [hackathon] event because it is a symbol of a technology that could be vastly improved in order to save lives, save money, and lead to healthier and happier families.” Here’s to hoping they came up with some great new designs over the past weekend because, as a mother who has had disastrous experiences with breast pumping, I have no doubt there’s a lot of money to be made by whoever redesigns it to be mother-friendly.

MIT hosts a hackathon to "Make the Breast Pump Not Suck"
Lactating mothers worldwide are rejoicing that breast pump technology will get a much-needed update.

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