Scientists Are Trying To Make Breast Pumps Less Awful, But How?

We’ve heard it all. Breast is best. Breastfeeding helps you bond with your baby. Breastfeeding strengthens your baby’s immune system and prevents SIDS. Breastfeeding is cheaper than formula! It’s what our bodies were designed for. The WHO, UNICEF, the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Surgeon General and most doctors agree that exclusive breastfeeding for six months, followed by breastfeeding and supplementation with food through one year is best for our babies. Experts argue that six months of exclusive breastfeeding can save more than 823,000 babies’ lives every year.

But as anyone who has tried to breastfeed can tell you, breastfeeding not easy, and it certainly isn’t free. For many new mothers living in the only industrialized nation in the entire world without paid parental leave, breastfeeding can be downright impossible. One piece of efforts to make breastfeeding possible for women who return to work early, deliver their babies prematurely or have their babies admitted to the NICU, or simply encounter feeding issues, is availability of a quality breast pump. Just the phrase "breast pump" likely make your hair stand on end a little, didn't it? Pumping is not pleasant; it can be painful, exhausting, frustrating.

In 2014, public health experts at MIT held the first-ever breast-pump hackathon aimed at making breast pumping suck less that the 823,000 babies experts cite might reap the benefits. In the years since, we have seen a burst of innovation in breast pump tech — for this piece, two new moms tried breast pump models that aim to offer more comfort and smart capabilities (see below).

Ken Richardson

After hearing breastfeeding and pumping stories from more than 1,000 women at the hackathon, it became clear that breast pumps aren’t the only barrier women face when trying to breastfeed — many cited their lack of paid family leave, lactation support, and quality postpartum care, too.

This year, when innovators gathered again at MIT to take another stab at solving breastfeeding problems, project director and Emerson College assistant professor Catherine D’Ignazio says broadening the scope of the hackathon was necessary to address the problems women face. “These gaps represent tremendous opportunities for innovation in technology, products and services.”

This year’s hackathon participants set out to address gaps in both innovation and equity in breastfeeding. With the breast pump market expected to double by 2025, innovators are rushing to develop efficient, durable breast pumps that keep up with today's advancements in technology. Hackathon teams were tasked with finding ways to incorporate built-in milk tracking, integration with voice-activated devices, and social apps to let new moms connect with each other and with lactation support experts.

For example, an award was given out to the team behind LacPac, a kit for lactation in disaster situations. The portable, affordable, water-proof prepared kit is designed for mass distribution to families with infants and health workers before, during, and after disasters and crises.

Vanessa Simmons

Hackathon organizers know that the latest $1,000 smart breast pumps might be great, but they are often only available to privileged white women. Rich white women aren't the only women who breastfeed, so participants were instructed to consider racial and socioeconomic disparities and focus on solving the problems postpartum women face in an affordable, accessible, stylish way.

This year's hackathon included the first Make Family Leave Not Suck Policy Summit, focusing on ways to expand access to paid family leave for new parents in the U.S. "We need to innovate for everybody," says Binta Beard, who led the policy track, "Many women don't even get the choice to breastfeed because they have no paid time off. We are convening thought leaders to change that."

There has been a big conversation around double standards of care in the hospital system for women of color. Irth, an app designed to help users find hospitals and doctors using ratings from people similar to their own socio-demographic profile, won the Media for Change Award for their efforts to fight bias in the healthcare system.

At the end of the hackathon, 12 awards were given to groups whose projects stood out. Here are a few more of the winners:

MommaSanctuary, a team based in Mississippi, won the Transformation Award for their vision of a sanctuary community that serves housing insecure pregnant and postpartum women focusing on breastfeeding, postpartum care, and parenting.

Indigenous Women Rising won the Healthy Communities award for their project focused on modifying traditional indigenous regalia to make breastfeeding easier for Pueblo women who participate in local ceremonies.

Ken Richardson

The Impact Award was given to Boom Team / NE Mississippi Birthing Project for their wrap around grassroots approach involving whole families, doulas, and the community as a whole in the statewide movement for birth and breastfeeding equity among communities of color in Mississippi.

Harambee Care won the Superhero Award for their lactation empowerment plan that allows women of color to self-advocate for breastfeeding with the help of timely lactation support and ongoing care.

The Technology Frontiers Award was given to the team behind Virtual Letdown, a virtual reality app that aims to increase oxytocin levels and facilitate letdown for moms by transforming pumping spaces into virtual nurseries decorated with pictures, videos, and sounds of their babies.

Ken Richardson

#Udder, winner of the Global Mom Appeal Award, aims to bring normalcy back to moms postpartum with their reusable and sustainable lactating pads.

The And We Still Rise Award was given to Team #BreastFedEd from Xavier University for their health education program designed to increase breastfeeding awareness among HBCU students.

Team #VIP won the Start-Up Starter Pack Award for their work developing breastfeeding solutions for visually impaired parents.

LacPac, a kit for lactation in disaster situations, won the Information is Power award with their portable, affordable, water-proof prepared kit designed for mass distribution to families with infants and health workers before, during, and after disasters and crises.

The Connections Award went to the team behind MaVillage, an app promoting postpartum health and wellness by creating a virtual village to offer social support to new mothers during the vital pre and postpartum time.

The MamaShelf, a pop-up shelf that allows moms on the go to pump comfortably in public spaces won the Listening By Design Award with their solution to uncomfortable, unsanitary pumping spaces.

Ken Richardson

It might take some time before the ingenious new projects are ready for the mass market, but we're ready for all of them.