Why I Went From Queasy To Hopeful At MIT’s Breast Pump Hackathon

“If the baby sucks very hard with the very front of its mouth right at the point of the nipple, it can cause cracking and bleeding.”


I’d only been at MIT’s “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!” Hackathon this past weekend for a few minutes when I started feeling queasy.


Rachel Achituv, a 34-year old mother of two, was explaining how scary and confusing it was to get her baby to suckle on her breast very soon after she gave birth. “You have to teach a baby to nurse with its whole mouth,” she told me. “If the baby sucks very hard with the very front of its mouth right at the point of the nipple, it can cause cracking and bleeding.” (That’s how babies suck on bottles and pacifiers.)

At this point, I felt a strong compulsion to leave the MIT Media Lab immediately and tell my editor that I might not have the psychological fortitude to write this story. But I stayed on, because I realize that my reaction encapsulates why breast pump technology is so ineffective. Many are uncomfortable or embarrassed by the very thought of breastfeeding, and we need to get past that to fully engage in the effort to make it better. The MIT hackathon was meant to tackle this problem by creating a critical mass of people–engineers, designers, health care specialists, and breast pump users–who care enough to radically reimagine it.

At the hackathon, the atmosphere was warm, friendly, and full of babies. Over coffee and pastries, moms breastfed babies while discussing their business ventures, toddlers played with the tassels on my purse, engineers inquired about what exactly made the breast pump so atrocious, and dads described how helpless they felt in the face of their wives’ pumping woes.

Tom Schaus was one such new father. As an engineer and MD, Schaus sees the breast pump as a mechanical failure. “Existing breast pump solutions are ludicrously bad,” he tells me, describing the experiences he and his wife had feeding their little boy. Current breast pump technology simply attaches a cup to the breast and uses pressure to suck out milk; babies, on the other hand, roll their tongues back and forth to massage milk from the breast while sucking. “It really shouldn’t be described as sucking at all–it’s more like milking,” Schaus says. “As far as I can tell there isn’t any pump on the market that actually mimics the way babies consume breast milk.”

The poor mechanics of the breast pump make extracting milk hugely inefficient. Achituv says it takes her baby five minutes to consume the milk in each breast while breastfeeding; pumping takes 15 minute on each breast. While mechanics are certainly part of the problem–Achituv says it took her months to find a flange, or breast pump cup, that felt comfortable–the other part is psychological. Physical contact with a baby stimulates hormonal and neurological processes that encourage swift, smooth milk flow. Mothers are encouraged to look at baby pictures or listen to baby noises while pumping, but this cannot approximate the effectiveness of breastfeeding. “It is so painful to work so hard for so long, only to come up with a few ounces of milk,” says Achituv. “You worry that you will not have enough milk to nourish your child and, ironically, that stress makes you produce even less milk.”


Then there’s the problem of where you pump milk. The breast pump is a large noisy piece of electrical equipment that can be very hard to wield. While companies are beginning to offer employee lactation rooms, most women still struggle to find the space and the privacy to pump. “Often, you have to do it in the bathroom, which is gross,” Bianca Leigh, a young mom at the hackathon told me. “You have to set all your equipment out by the sink, then you have to worry that your breasts will be exposed if your boss or colleagues walk in.” Her husband, standing next to her, points out that electric breast pumps are expensive, but the cheaper, manual option is even harder to use. Many women who cannot afford more costly pumps often give up pumping altogether, turning instead to feeding their babies with formula milk.

Mothers have become increasingly vocal about how difficult pumping milk can be, but most do not have the expertise or the wherewithal to solve the problem. Could this hackathon turn things around, bringing together the skills necessary to transform the breast pump? After a morning of learning about breast pump problems, people gathered around tables to brainstorm ideas and come up with potential solutions. Then, interdisciplinary groups formed to develop these solutions, test them on mothers, and develop prototypes using materials in the room, like sewing machines, 3-D printers, and tubes.

Groups attacked the problem from many angles: Several MIT undergrads had an idea for an Oculus Rift platform that would allow women to test different breast pumps in 3-D to see which one they preferred, while another group developed a MilkPod, an easy-to-fabricate private lactation room full of baby images, sounds, even smells. Several groups developed smartphone apps that made it easier for mothers to collect data about the milk they were producing. One theme that kept emerging was a desire to separate the flange from the bottle. This would mean that a mom could insert a flange into her bra and the bottle could sit in her bag or hang on her belt, so she could pump on the go.


Several teams came up with prototypes that fundamentally change the concept of pumping and these teams swept the awards, which were announced yesterday afternoon. A group called Second Nature won the Outstanding User Focus Design Award for a prototype that better mimics the baby’s natural suckling, including both a sucking mechanism and a massaging technique. Two teams–Compress Express and Helping Hands–won the Pioneer Award and the Second Place Award respectively for technologies that do not involve sucking at all, but that rely on massaging the breast using compression, a method that is proven to be as effective as pumping, with the added benefits of reducing mammary gland infection and allowing women to potentially produce more milk.

The first prize went to a team called Mighty Mom for a prototype that combines data gathering with a physical utility belt that allows women to pump while on the go. “It makes pumping portable, easier, and quieter,” says Erin Freeburger, a UX designer in the group. The team’s pitch video showed images of women pumping while at work or taking care of other children at home. “We also offer optical sensing of the breast milk through the tubing, allowing us to get information about the quality of the milk, the volume and the speed of milk extraction.” Robyn Churchill, the team’s clinician, says that this information can be anonymized then used by the medical community to help better understand lactation.


The end result is an integrated product that solves many problems at once. “It seems like one reason we won this prize is because we had divergent design ideas that melded together very well,” says Don Blair, a team member who is a Fellow at the Public Laboratory for Technology and Science. “Everybody worked well together and we were flexible about what got incorporated into the final product. We tried to model what the open source community is doing.” He says this hackathon felt different than others he has attended because the atmosphere was warmer and more collaborative. “Having all the babies in the roomed helped!” says Freeburger.

The Mighty Mom team won $3,000 in prize money and two members will be flown to Silicon Valley to pitch this idea to venture capitalists. The hackathon’s organizer told me they hope that all the teams will continue collaborating, sharing ideas, and working to bring their concepts to fruition. Whatever happens, though, the hackathon has already changed the conversation around the breast pump, normalizing it and making it less taboo. In the male-dominated space of MIT, this was no small feat.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts