Catherine D’Ignazio had her daughter while a graduate student at MIT. When it’s time for new moms to go back to work or class, it’s widely accepted that it’s hard for them to leave their babies. But D’Ignazio soon discovered something else was hard, too: pumping milk.
The system D’Ignazio and other new moms use to pump milk for their kids had been basically the same for decades, maybe even a century. D’Ignazio set out to change that.
With the traditional system, each session can take nearly an hour, from assembling to washing. D’Ignazio said the first step is to “drag your heavy bag with a breast pump and all accessories and bottles into the bathroom.” Or, now that the Affordable Care Act has mandated that employers provide a private space to pump, drag your bag into a room that some women feel is little more than a glorified closet.
Then, you assemble the device. It’s a bit like a vacuum cleaner mixed with a science experiment. There’s a motorized pump, hollow tubing, funnel-shaped parts, valves and bottles.
You take off your top and then pump for 20, 30 or maybe even 40 somewhat uncomfortable minutes. The device suctions the milk out from the breast and drops it in a bottle.
“And then, come back three hours later, and do it all again, all while being very angry at your institution and the world,” said D'Iganazio.
D’Ignazio was angry because, like lots of moms, her life came to a screeching halt every few hours to pump.
“In no other space of technology would the technology provide for such a terrible experience,” she said. “So uncomfortable, so outdated, just so neglected.”
The first breast pump in the US was patented around the time of the civil war. It was similar to how farmers milked cows. And while the pump has become electronic, the basic technology hasn't been updated much.
Hoping to drag the breast pump into the modern era, D’Ignazio launched the first Make The Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon in 2014. And it is only recently that the market has begun to see real change.
The US dominates this market. Unlike other industrialized countries, which mandate paid maternity leave, American women often need to go back to work well before they’re done breast feeding — far sooner than moms in other countries.
One person who attended that initial hackathon — and was on the winning team — was Tim Brothers.
“A lot of people said it was uncomfortable. A lot of people said it was noisy. A lot of people said it took too much time,” Brothers said. “A lot of mothers, they want to take a sledgehammer to them when they're done.”
Brothers and his wife, Christine, figured part of the problem is that male engineers and venture capitalists haven’t had the experience of pumping. But there's another big issue. The pump is considered a medical device and so requires the Food and Drug Administration’s stamp of approval.
Because of that, Tim and Christine Brothers would have faced big hurdles had they tried to totally redesign the pump. So, they picked just one thing about the pump that drove them nuts: the noise.
“She would be pumping in the middle of the night, and we’re in a small apartment here in Somerville, and you could hear it through the apartment,” Tim Brothers remembered.
Christine Brothers remembers that time vividly too.
“He’s watching me cover my pump with sweatshirts and pillows and couch cushions. And he comes to me with a Tupperware case," she said. "It’s like covered in audio foam.” Christine said she immediately thought to herself: “Well, that’s a cute man solution: I can’t push any buttons with that."
They didn't give up. They formed a company — Mighty Mom — that makes what’s basically a muffler for the pump: Hush-a-Pump. It allows women to be on conference calls while pumping, or hear the radio or TV more easily.
They say if you measure the volume of the pump based on TV volume buttons, then the most common pump is at about a 40. But with their case, it goes down to an 18 or 20. After years of prototyping, their product just went on sale this spring.
In the past few years, there have been lots of new start-ups and products hitting the market. There are accessories, like hands-free bras so you can type or cook or hold your baby while pumping. There are more comfortable ways to attach the pump to the breast. There are also more start-ups looking to support pumping and breast-feeding moms, like Boober — uber, but for on-demand lactation support.
Perhaps the most talked-about pumping start-up is Willow. It is a wearable pump released last year. The idea is that you can slip it in your bra and go about your day without wires, cords, or bottles to attach. Suddenly, the bus driver and the line worker can pump.
Another pump – Freemie — does something similar. And there’s another new player in the pump market: Naya. It uses a water-based system instead of air-based suction to extract the milk. The company claims it’s more comfortable, faster and quieter.
And two of the historically big players in the market are also coming up with new ideas. Medela, which dominates the breast pump market, and Lansinoh, which is known for making breast pads, have recently come out with new smart pumps, which connect to mobile apps.
But most of the new products are expensive. Willow costs more than $400, and other new pumps are pushing toward a thousand. That’s far more than the $150 that Obamacare required insurance companies to cover.
So, the new pumps are still a small part of the market. But, “I definitely feel like we’re in a period of change,” said Susan Rappin, who represents Medela, the behemoth in this market. She admitted there’s more competition and that the current generation of moms expect more than moms of a decade ago.
When asked why things have historically been so slow to change, Rappin said, “The gold standard is the baby, and that’s how we like to think of it. And, I think, it’s a challenge to replicate something that’s so beautifully done.”
A lot of the fledgling start-ups don't think Medela is moving fast enough to address that challenge. They’re hoping to create breast pump technology that’s beautiful. But until the cost of new models is more in line with what most women can afford, it may be a while before the breast pump doesn't suck.