When Ayyana Chakravartula discovered she was pregnant for the first time, she borrowed a breast pump from a cousin of hers. Chakravartula, who has a PhD in mechanical engineering and lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, was completely stumped by the contraption that was put in front of her.
There were so many different parts to the device that they had to be collected in an enormous bulky bag: there were adaptors, battery packs, bottles, ice packs, valves, tubes, and a cap that presumably attached to your breast. (It was hard to tell for sure: there was nothing at all that seemed intuitive to Chakravartula about the kit.) The entire thing was analog, which was odd to her, given that every other device she owned used digital technology.
“It was one of the most bizarre experiences I have had in my life,” she recalls. “Everything about the breast pump and the act of pumping milk felt weird.”
Chakravartula now has three children under the age of six and works as a research scientist, so the last few years of her life have been a blur of sitting in offices and bathrooms pumping. And despite all this intimate experience with the breast pump, she still hasn’t made peace with the device.
The patent for the first hand-operated breast pump goes all the way back to 1854, but it wasn’t until 1981 that the first electrical breast pumps were designed. They were initially created for hospital use, to help mothers who had trouble breastfeeding or had premature babies. A decade later, electrical breast pumps for non-hospital use were invented by the Swiss manufacturer Medela, which is still the breast-pump industry leader. A slew of other companies, including Ameda and Evenflow, have introduced comparable similar devices that rely on vacuum suction technology. Electrical breast pumps are now widely available through most health insurance plans.
Robyn Churchill, senior adviser on maternal and newborn health in the Clinton Health Access Initiative, has worked with hundreds of breastfeeding mothers over the last two decades, both in the United States and around the world. She points out that American mothers are particularly dependent on breast pump technology because the U.S. has the worst policies on maternity leave of any developed country. According to the U.N.’s International Labor Organization, the United States, Oman, and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world that do not guarantee cash benefits to women during maternity leave. While Bill Clinton’s 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act allows women to take 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave without losing their jobs, this is a relatively short break, compared to, say, Canada’s 35 weeks. And even for women who have the option of taking this time off, many women cannot afford to go without earning money for so long.
“In this country, we place a financial burden on women to go back to work before their bodies are fully recovered from pregnancy and are still responsible for their baby’s nutritional needs,” Churchill says. “We are fundamentally interrupting the mother-child dyad that from a biological standpoint, should still be one unit during this period.”
In Churchill’s view, the breast pump was conceived as a simple, easy solution to this social problem, but in fact, many American mothers she’s counseled struggle with pumping milk. Among their complaints, they say that breast pumps tend to be large and inconvenient to carry around and have many parts that need to be sterilized. They are also noisy (some mothers say they can actually hear breast pumps “talking to them” because of the repetitive mechanical sounds), and have been anthropomorphized as “frenemies” by moms who love being able to pump their own milk but hate the actual device and the time it requires.
Many women find that pumping is far less efficient than nursing, so they must spend more time doing it, which can be hard at jobs that do not offer new moms flexible schedules. These are not inconsequential issues for new mothers, who may already be exhausted from juggling full-time jobs and newborns at home.
The electrical breast pump is fundamentally a milk extraction device, which Churchill says is a completely different mechanism than the way a baby nurses. A baby’s mouth yields milk much more effectively than a pump. “The baby does a whole lot of compressing and massaging of the breast,” she says. “The pump’s vacuum suction mechanism is painful. Women come in to see me with cracked nipples, bruises, and abrasions from using breast pumps.” Moreover, simply being physically close to one’s baby, hearing their cries, and smelling their skin triggers hormones that stimulate milk flow. While companies are now required by law to provide break time and private space to nursing mothers, only larger companies offer lactation rooms; most have makeshift solutions, like broom closets and conference rooms. This is the opposite of the warm, intimate breastfeeding experience they would have with their baby, and can impede milk flow.
Churchill believes that there are many aspects of the breast pump that could be improved, but there are also many impediments to this innovation process. It can still be considered embarrassing or taboo talking about breast feeding and pumping, so the only people who really understand the complexities of the process are mothers who have gone through the process. “There wasn’t an alignment between the people who were facing the problem and people who had the money or skills to create a better breast pump,” she says. “Part of solving this has to do with opening up the conversation.”
There are some signs that’s beginning to happen. Last week, for instance, news emerged that Donald Trump had called a lawyer “disgusting” when she requested time to pump milk for her baby; the massive outcry in the media gave Churchill hope that American society is not only willing to address the issue of pumping head on, but to defend mothers who choose to do it.
While the breast pump market is dominated by big brands like Medela and Evenflo, smaller, less well-known companies are making pumps using technology designed to more closely simulate nursing.
Limerick, Inc., is a family-owned company based in Burbank, California, that was started by Patricia Kelly, a registered dietician, and Joan Ortiz, a registered nurse, both of whom are also certified lactation consultants. In 1992, when Kelly was nursing her first child, she realized that mothers like her were struggling with pumping milk at work with existing breast pump technology. Kelly and her mother first launched a workplace lactation program to help coach working mothers through the breastfeeding process. But this program provided them with plenty of insight into the specific pain points that new mothers face.
The decided to take a stab at revamping the breast pump. Entirely self-funded, they hired a team of engineers to develop a prototype for a product that was lighter, with fewer moving parts. Most importantly, their pump has soft silicone breast cups that mimic the way a baby compresses the breast with its mouth (many pumps use hard plastic flanges and suction pumps that push and pull the breast and nipple to extract milk). After the long process of patenting their technology and getting FDA approval, they were able to launch a line of electronic breast pumps that operate differently from the other suction pumps on the market. “The silicone cups are not just there to provide suction,” Kelly explains. “They also offer the compression that is much more similar to a baby’s nursing pattern.”
Last year, The Nightlight, a popular website that independently reports and researches baby products, examined 55 separate breast pumps and picked the Limerick PJ’s Bliss Standard as their top product. The site’s reviewer said that the silicone cups were very comfortable, but perhaps more importantly, they led to a more generous milk flow.
A 2011 study presented at the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Annual meeting found that the Limerick pump is able to effectively stimulate milk flow that is on par with hospital-grade breast pumps—which is notable, because Limerick pumps are significantly smaller and lighter than those used in hospitals. The doctors who wrote the study said that Limerick’s products were a viable alternative to the more expensive pumps for mothers of babies in the neonatal ICU, who have a particularly difficult time generating enough milk.
Today, Limerick sells about 10,000 breast pumps a year, a small fraction of what its larger competitors sell. Kelly says that the Nighlight review gave the company a significant bump in sales, and she hopes that this growth will continue.
When I spoke to a Medela spokesperson, she explained that it has scientists and researchers across various markets constantly testing and iterating on its breast pump technology. One recent example of this R&D process at work is the Medela Freestyle breast pump which won the JPMA Innovation Award. (Ameda did not respond to requests for comment; Evenflo declined to be interviewed for this story.) The spokesperson points out that any innovation involving breast pumps takes time, in part because developments need to meet with FDA approval before they can be introduced to the market.
Over the last two decades, Medela has focused on making it work more smoothly and effectively to optimize mothers’ milk output and comfort. For instance, it has been researching the particular needs of mothers of preterm babies, who can find breastfeeding a significant challenge, and has recently released a product that has been shown to help mothers of premature infants to provide more milk output in less time. While Medela is not ruling out the possibility of creating an alternative approach to expressing breast milk, it does not have any immediate products with radically different technology to announce.
While the basic functionality of breast pumps hasn’t changed much over the years, Medela is trying to harness technology in other ways to support mothers. The company has just released an iPhone app designed to be a companion to nursing mothers, allowing them to input exactly how much milk they have expressed every day so they can track their milk flow over time. The free app, which does not require the purchase of a Medela pump, also provides troubleshooting advice and encouraging messages tailored to different points in the breastfeeding journey, such as the day a mother needs to return to work. The company also has a “Breastfeeding University” that provides educational videos and courses to mothers at a cost of $25.
Barring any radical innovations from established players in the pump industry, some mothers are taking things into their own hands. Chakravartula and her fellow U.C. Berkeley lecturer in mechanical engineering, Jocelyn Bale-Glickman, are currently working on building a pump that is lighter, smaller, quieter, and has fewer moving parts. Together, they’ve worked on a prototype for an improved device that they envision as the Apple of breast pumps: a smaller, sexier, cleaner machine. Rather than analog controls, Chakravartula says the pump will have a corresponding app that tracks how much milk has been collected and suggests the ideal time for the next pumping session. Chakravartula and Bale-Glickman are beginning to look for investors in their new project.
Another company called Naya Health is launching a product in September that is hoping to accomplish many of the same goals as Chakravartula and her partner. While the company is not disclosing details about the pump, a representative says that a lot of attention has been paid to the design of the device: it will be light, sleek, and modern, and it will also be digital.
Last year’s Breast Pump Hackathon at MIT (which Fast Company covered here), capitalized on the growing consensus that the breast pump as it currently exists is deeply flawed. The tagline for the event was, “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck.” Over the course of a weekend, individuals from a wide range of disciplines—biologists, lactation consultants, engineers, developers—gathered together to find new approaches to the breast pump. Solutions ranged from allowing mothers to smell their baby’s scent while pumping to stimulate more milk flow to altering the very mechanism of the pump.
Susan Thompson, a mechanical engineer and mother of two, led one of the winning teams at the hackathon. Her design for a reimagined breast pump won both the Pioneer Award and the Popular Vote. Her plan was to fundamentally rethink the mechanics of the current breast pump and create a device that relies not just on suction, but also on compression, which she believes can significantly increase milk output in nursing women. Over the last 10 months, she’s continued to tweak her prototype through her new company, Kohana, with the intention of turning her idea into a market-ready product.
Thompson’s invention, called the Gala Pump, uses a compression technique similar to Limerick’s. However, her device is designed to be used hands free and underneath clothing. It entails placing electronic caps on the breasts that use compression and suction simultaneously; milk is then collected in round storage bags. When enough milk is expressed, the bags can be taken out and refrigerated.
Thompson has already tested the product on breastfeeding moms and is preparing a trial to compare the total milk volumes expressed over 15 minutes from her compression pump with the standard vacuum breast pumps on the market. She has worked with experts in the field to design this experiment and has collaborated with Northeast Biomedical, a medical device company, to manufacture the prototypes that the subjects will use. In total, the trial is set to cost $110,000.
Even though there is an enormous market for a better breast pump and a breakthrough in this technology could be very lucrative, one of the major challenges to innovating in this space is acquiring funding, which is why Thompson is opting to crowdfund her project, at least at this early stage. Thompson points out that unless you have personally experienced the challenges of breast pumps, it can be hard to understand exactly how unpleasant the process can be. Given that just 4.8% of investing partners in venture capital are women, it can be hard to convince a room full of men to invest in a new breast-pump concept.
However, Thompson is hopeful that attitudes in the VC community are changing. Both Thompson and Chakravartula are planning to pitch investors on their breast pump ideas when they are further along on their respective projects and have established their proofs of concept. Thompson, for one, thinks that men are slowly beginning to understand the pain points of pumping as they watch their wives experience the process. “Any male investor whose wife has used a breast pump will get how annoying it is,” Thompson tells me. “I think there will be more and more men in this category who are willing to hear us out.”