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Don’t Settle For Making The Breast Pump “Suck Less”–Make It Something Moms Love

A high-profile hackathon was a good first step, but such an important connection between new mothers and their children deserves the best design thinking.

Don’t Settle For Making The Breast Pump “Suck Less”–Make It Something Moms Love
[Top Image Source photo: Khemporn Tongphay via Shutterstock]

There’s been a tidal wave of media on the breast pump recently due to MIT’s “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” hackathon. Thanks to the Media Lab for shining a spotlight on a product that has been virtually unchanged for 50 years. But the winning idea–the Mighty Mom utility-belt pump–was kind of a letdown. Yes, it will make the pump “suck less.” But the focus should be on making something moms “love more.”

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While the Mighty Mom concept makes the pump more discrete and portable, it doesn’t address the underlying needs and values of pumping moms. Inspired by the New York Times Motherlode’s blog call to action and personal experience with the pump, we set out to uncover those needs and values. Qualitative consumer research collected emotionally rich stories that we synthesized and translated into research insights.


The main finding: the pump is currently viewed as a tool. But it is so much more. Nothing less than a lifeline from mom to baby, pumping is connected to mom’s deepest and most powerful emotions. Feeding an infant is a new mom’s most important job. The nourishment that a mom provides to her baby we call The Feeding Loop, and the pump is an intimate part of this dynamic. The pumping experience in this highly complex loop centers around three key emotional drivers, which must be addressed in order to create an impactful, meaningful solution.

Mark Breastfeeding Milestones to Fight Guilt

“I’m constantly juggling the guilt of being away from my daughter.” —Shana

No matter how much a mom loves her job or how ready she is to go back, the guilt of leaving her child can dominate her thoughts. In our research, moms questioned both their quality as a mother and the effects of separation on her child. Pumping is one of the few times a mom is actively involved in caring for her child during the workday.

Source photo: Keerati via Shutterstock

The pump has an opportunity to celebrate this act of love–acknowledging and elevating this part of The Feeding Loop. One solution could be a smart pump with an app that denotes mom’s breastfeeding milestones, replacing guilt with a sense of pride and elevating it from tool to experience. It pushes notifications to loved ones at key benchmarks, turning friends and family into motivational cheerleaders and reminding moms that every pumping session is a step in the larger journey of nurturing. The badges and milestones are also shareable and social—working as an external indicator of mom’s commitment and immediately invoking a community of support.

Reduce Shame by Optimizing Efficiency

“I walked back into the meeting and all heads turned towards me like they were asking what I was doing the whole time.”—Melanie

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There’s no denying it, pumping multiple times per day is a considerable time commitment. Moms reported feelings of shame around time spent pumping; they worry coworkers think they are slacking off or getting special treatment. And they go to great lengths to squeeze in sessions—between meetings, in the car, into the night after baby’s bedtime—cutting out steps to make them as short as possible. Alleviating this shame means designing a pump that is more efficient and does more of the heavy lifting from start to finish.

Source photo: Dmitry Lobanov via Shutterstock

Multiple moms confessed that they (cringe) turned the pump up to full speed “to get it over with,” but research shows that each individual has her own optimal settings for efficiency. A better pump would leverage the dairy industry’s latest technology that automatically learns and optimizes individual milk flows by tracking output against various flow rates. Additionally, the pump would record data and cue moms to pump at their most optimal times of day. Mom would then select her baby’s stage, setting the pumping cadence to match her baby’s breastfeeding mode—Sip (short & quick), Drink, and Gulp (long & slow) to increase efficiency and alignment with her body’s natural rhythm. While graduating through the stages, the pump reminds moms that their hard work is helping their baby grow and develop.

Use Smart Technology to Alleviate Fear of Failure

“Whether I had a good pumping day or bad pumping day, my supply is connected to my identity right now.”—Jenny

It’s a special privilege to be the sole nutrient supplier for a baby, but it’s also an enormous pressure. One mom told her husband, as he offered to give the first bottle of supplemental formula, “Let me do it. It’s my penance.”


The current pump experience exacerbates these feelings by being nothing more than a cold machine that gives you one simple piece of information: how many ounces you produced. To counteract this, a new product must bring pumping more integrally into The Feeding Loop. By building Sleevely, a product that fits on a baby’s bottle and tracks the ounces of milk consumed, moms could receive a notification each time her baby has a bottle, helping secure the link between her work and baby’s nourishment. The app then leverages this data and contextualizes it–you produced 60% of Jack’s milk for tomorrow, and you’ve just hit the four-month milestone, cutting risks of ear infections in half. Like with the other design changes, this elevates the pump from a device to experience.

Pumping is an unavoidable part of the breastfeeding journey for working moms. But rather than reinforcing positive emotions, it dehumanizes. One mom described her pump as, “my worst enemy that feeds my greatest love.” There’s a clear need for functional improvements in the design, but by looking deeper than a single pain point, like not enough time to pump, the solution becomes much more meaningful than a utility belt. Supporting the key emotional drivers through design and connecting the product it to its real purpose–providing love and nourishment for a child–is critical to truly transforming the pump into something moms can love.

About the author

Cindy Weflen is a senior engineer and Cortney Rowan is a senior design strategist at Altitude, the award-winning design and innovation consultancy. They are both working moms who have logged many hours in the pumping room dreaming of something better.

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