More than 150 people gathered at the MIT Media Lab this weekend with a single goal: “Make the breast pump not suck!”
That was the rallying call of the sold-out Breast Pump Hackathon organized by moms and members of the MIT Media Lab. Their goal was to shakeup the sorely neglected breast pump space, to get new, better designed tech to new moms everywhere.
Over two days, teams brainstormed and then built prototype designs for the machine that moms almost universally love to loathe. On Twitter and Facebook, moms from around the country posted suggestions about features and design modifications that would ease their own pumping experiences.
The team that took the top prize designed a discreet and portable belt that carries bottles and a pump. Strapped on at the waist and worn under a blazer, the “Mighty Mom Utility Belt” could let moms pump on the subway, while at work, or at home while running the dinner show for the rest of the family, the team explained. With the hackathon victory, the team received $3,000 and a trip to San Francisco to pitch their idea to investors.
“Breast pumps have always been terrible and no one talks about it,” team member Robyn Churchill, a midwife, consultant, and Cambridge mom of two, said. Her kids arrived before portable breast pumps did. “So I spent a lot of time creatively avoiding them.” The pumps—not the kids.
Today, even the portable pumps are not that different from what you may have seen at a dairy farm, according to Churchill. They’re just smaller and, well, human-shaped.
“What we did that changed the design is that we took the motor and the storage off the flange that goes right on the breast,” Churchill said. “If you have to hold a bottle attached to a suction device attached to your breast, you can’t keep your clothes on—you can’t be discreet.”
But with a motor and spare bottles in a belt on the waist, “all you have is a tube that goes up under your shirt,” Churchill said, with the flanges holding fast to the breast. Other groups at the hackathon were working on better-designed wearable flanges, she pointed out.
“Batman has this utility belt that has all these gadgets on it,” said Don Blair, another member of the team, a fellow at Public Lab.
When a breast pump is separate from a container, it needs to be connected with a pipe, but such tubes are hard to clean.
The team built a “zip tube”—a chopped and heat-sealed Ziploc bag—to serve as a conduit for the milk. Taken apart, it could be unzipped and easily cleaned out.
“When we came up with the zip tube idea, we took a photograph and tweeted it,” Blair said. Shortly after, another team sought permission to use the technique in their design.
For Team Mighty Mom, the goal is also to gather data about the milk using optical sensors—information about fat content, alcohol content, and even acidity to check for spoilage.
Besides the focus on maternal healthcare, there were several ways this hackathon was different from the usual fare.
For one, the event was BYOB—bring your own baby— making new parents welcome. “We will having a nursing area, a diaper changing station, a private pumping/nursing room, and a kid play area with pushtoys,” the organizers wrote in an email to attendees before the event. “If you would like your partner or a friend to watch your kids on-site while you participate in the event that is no problem.”
Also, travel scholarships to the event covered childcare. Parents, pump designers, public health workers “who could speak to the challenges that lower income women face in breastfeeding or pumping breastmilk for their babies” were invited to apply for the $500 travel award.
Still reeling from the shock of winning big, Churchill is giddily optimistic about change afoot.
Will nursing moms ever embrace the breast pump? “If I have anything to do with it—YES!” she said. “Where they be dragons—we’re going there. And those dragons will have really good breast pumps.”