Opinion

MIT holds contest to find a breast pump that doesn't suck

MIT's "Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon" drew 150 innovators from around the world.

pumping-breastfeeding

Photo: iStockphoto

It may have been the noise that drew him into the room—the loud whirr, whirr, whirr sound could have easily been an interesting new toy. But as soon as my eight-year-old cousin walked into my room and saw the breast pump attached to me, he ran away in fear. He could hardly speak to me for the rest of the weekend, and I hope he isn’t permanently scarred by the incident. The thing is, I understood his reaction. The breast pump scared the bejeezus out of me, too, and I was the one hooked up to it.

Let’s face it. The breast pump looks, sounds and feels like an archaic milking machine that was transferred from cow to human.

Read more: Breastfeeding and pumping primer>

The complaints over the electric breast pump are endless and would fill hundreds of pages. It’s big, it’s noisy and, ridiculously, it takes two hands to use. So say goodbye to drinking water, changing channels, reading a book or even holding your baby while hooked up to this machine. Never mind the fact that it’s a nuisance to clean. And, as someone on Twitter reminded me the other day, the “on” switch is at a precarious enough angle that reaching for it can cause the cups to shift out of their careful placement. To add insult to injury, the creators went with a bright yellow colour as if it were some desperate attempt to bring some extra sunshine into a new mom’s life.

But the worst part for me was that it was not very effective. All the electric pump does is suction the milk out of you. It doesn’t have any of the subtle movements of pressing and sucking that a baby, or hand expression, provides. The pump just did not retrieve as much milk as a baby. For those of us with low milk supply, the pump was a thrice-daily reminder of how little sustenance our breasts were providing.

Read more: 10 reasons for low milk supply when breastfeeding >

My brilliant idea is to have the minds at Dyson take it on. Maybe they could make a quiet, beautiful breast pump that’s effective and hands-free. But since they haven’t (or at least haven’t announced anything yet) then the brains at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are a very close second.

Last week, they hosted a “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon” where they invited people to spend the weekend coming up with better designs. The winning idea was the “Mighty Mom Utility Belt”—a discreet, hands-free solution. The inventors won $3,000 and a tickets to Silicon Valley so they can pitch it to some investors. Second prize went to a hands-free compression bra filled with soft beads that moves in a pattern like hand compression. The third prize went to a multimedia platform that would connect pumping moms with other mothers and lactation consultants.

You can check out all the submissions here.

The organizers hope the hackathon is a catalyst for a larger conversation about innovation in the area of maternal and neonatal health, which they say, “lags behind others in technological innovation.”

Read more: Breastfeeding and pumping: 8 tried and true tips>

If MIT can sponsor a weekend event that brings together 150 engineers, parents, lactation consultants and designers to discuss breast pump innovation, then maybe there is hope on the horizon. Perhaps the next model of breast pumps won’t suck—or will at least properly suck where they’re supposed to.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.