Between its many complicated parts, its loud motor, the lack of flexibility and customizability in use, and a laundry list of other design flaws, if ever a product needed a reinvention, the breast pump is it.
That’s why MIT’s Media Lab is holding a breast-pump hackathon this coming weekend. Yet before even a flange funnel was brandished, just the idea of such an event existing generated excited headlines around the web (and this is not even the first breast-pump hackathon MIT has hosted).
I’m not a mother and don’t have any experience with breast pumps. I do have breasts and know they can cause discomfort even in everyday situations; it’s hard for me to imagine having to milk myself with a cold, medical machine every few hours of the day. Yet absent vastly better U.S. maternity leave or at-work childcare policies, the optimal health of newborns and mothers–and the continued career success of these moms–often depends on this technology.
The breast-pump hackathon is a laudable effort. Probably a big part of the reason it generated news, however, is because it’s so completely not normal to talk about breast pumping out in the open–at least, outside of the realm of motherhood blogs and forums. And here is MIT, one of the most respected science and engineering schools in the country–and, a traditionally male-dominated institution (MIT Media Lab’s faculty and academic researcher page is about 75% male)–turning its attention to it.
The problems with breast-pump design and the lack of innovation in this area are unsurprising, given that the product and industrial design fields are still male-dominated. Like tampons, modern breast pumps were originally created for medical use in hospitals; the male European researchers of Einar Egnell and Olle Larsson created the first mechanical models in the 1950s, according to the 2010 anthology, Feminist Technology, which offers a detailed look at the history and politics of breast pumping. The personal, portable breast pump didn’t become mainstream, however, until the 1990s, when companies began offering lighter-weight models; later, in the early 2000s, “hands-free” models hit the market. Only as online user reviews and forums became commonplace did manufacturers start paying close attention to feedback about comfort and design from actual customers, the authors write.
More than just the design, the authors of the chapter, entitled “Breast pumps: A feminist technology, or (yet) ‘More Work for Mother’?” say the biggest problems with breast pumping surround the cultural perceptions and practice:
“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,” they write.
“We argue that for the breast pump to truly fulfill its potential as a feminist technology, it will require cultural changes as well. We need to change the politics of banishment that accompany breast-feeding, and challenge narratives that encode woman’s biological productivity as shameful. We need to expand the limits on what kind of bodies belong at work, and allow a broader range of living to occur there (especially as so much work has followed us home).”
The hosts of the MIT hackathon acknowledge as much. In addition to physical design, the MIT hosts note it should be a priority to change social norms that treat breast pumping as an embarrassing medical condition and breast milk as a waste product, rather than a food product.
According to a 2013 CDC data, only about 49% of newborns in the U.S. are still breast fed at six months of age and 27% at 12 months. These numbers are big improvements from even a decade ago, but unsurprisingly, rates are highest for college-educated white mothers and big disparities exist for other races and classes.
Breast feeding is now widely acknowledged to be much healthier for the newborn and the mother, and should be an easy option for all moms to choose. Hopefully, the upcoming hackathon then is just a start of that conversation.