Pimp my pump

When I first heard about MIT’s recent “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon, I wasn’t sure what to think. But as one who would be first in line to bemoan the various factors that make breast pumping suck, I was curious about the results.

When I first heard about MIT’s recent “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon, I wasn’t sure what to think. Now, I’ll be the first in line to bemoan the various factors that make breast pumping suck:

  1. Breast pumps are loud.
  2. Breast pumps aren’t comfortable, and you either have to plop down more money for something hands-free or else awkwardly hold them while fumbling with the cups in order to also listen to those podcasts downloaded with the best of intentions.
  3. Breast pumps are bulky and add another piece of luggage to get out the door each morning.
  4. It’s embarrassing to have to announce to one’s coworkers that one has to go milk oneself if one works in close quarters (and then subsequently your coworkers hear that loud pump croaking away–see #1).
  5. Breast pumps have what seems to be a million little pieces that all have to be painstakingly washed.

I could go on and on.

As explained by the event’s organizers:

The goals for the hackathon were to educate ourselves and our colleagues about the mechanics of breast pumping, discuss design challenges posed by current technologies and societal norms, and generate ideas for how we could change our machines and our society to make breastfeeding and breast pumping a normal, painless, and not-degrading experience for moms.

They referenced some of the problems faced by women, noting “in particular, low-income, working women are rarely able to take extended maternity leave, to afford the cost of a pump, or to pump breastmilk at their workplace.” Don’t get me wrong, these are wonderful goals to aspire to and problems to address. But could a single hackathon really bring about the enormous changes being referenced? Could the event change our Puritan-rooted society into not being squicked out by breasts doing what breasts do? I was curious and waited for the results.

The first place team designed a pump called the Mighty Mom Utility Belt (I recommend watching the linked video) that can be worn discretely, is hands-free, and logs data about your pumping. Their infomercial-style video suggests that one could pump while commuting to work, while teaching a class, while caring for other children, or doing one’s job as a nurse.

I don’t like to snark on the smart engineering and design folks, because lord knows they’re probably smarter than I am. That said, am I really going to use a pump while I’m waiting in line for my coffee? If texting and driving is extremely dangerous, wouldn’t dealing with a pump that’s sucking at my body be a form of distracting driving as well? Would I really want to be pumping while caring for a patient, or standing in front of a class? How discreet would it really be? I don’t have an iota of desire to multi-task my pumping beyond getting in a podcast-listening session. If I wanted to make my pumping suck more, doing it while commuting is how I imagine I’d go about it.

Of course, maybe it’s simply a matter of preference, or more importantly, means and support. At work I’ve got the luxury of being able to knock on someone’s door to ask for use of her office.1 I’m busy as heck at work and know what it’s like to miss a pumping session, so I can look at this objectively and say that while I’d hate this method of pumping, maybe it would offer a solution to someone very committed to breastfeeding but without the necessary support to do so easily at work. And yet… if a woman has trouble getting the appropriate place and allotment of time to pump at her job, I don’t think offering a more discrete pump-on-the-go option is the answer to her problems–because her problem is her employer, not her pump.

If anything, the existence of such a thing might send the message to employers that “hey, giving women a room or adequate time to pump isn’t that important; we can make it work by using this device.” This is less than optimal. We need a place and we need time, and being told that “breast is best” is useless if we’re then pressured to make do in suboptimal conditions. I’m not sure this is the social hack that’s really needed.2

Interestingly, the team that won the Popular Vote and the Pioneer Award is the team that I’d have pegged for addressing the goals of the Hackathon most directly. Their Compress-Express (Your Breasts!) pump is “virtually silent” (!!!!!!!!!), hands-free, and mimics hand-expression by using simple compression design. A SILENT PUMP SOUNDS AWESOME. I’m so sick of my pump croaking “make it work make it work make it work” at me like a broken Tim Gunn.3 It also sounds like it would potentially be less expensive (fewer parts, etc.), thus making it more affordable to more women.

— ∮∮∮ —

I know what you’re probably thinking: “But Hayley, if you don’t like all these hacks, what hacks would YOU do to the breast pump?” Glad you asked! Here are a few hacks of my own I’d like to suggest:

  1. A breast pump that spits out little encouragements on fortune-cookie paper slips. Stuff like, “You dressed really sharply today” and “Keep up the good work!” and “It gets better” or “Any amount of breastfeeding is a success.” If I’m spending an average of seven hours a week with my pump, our relationship should be a little friendlier.
  2. A built-in USB charger so I can listen to podcasts while I pump and not worry about killing the battery life on my phone. I have to keep up with my Longest Shortest Time!
  3. A tiny little washing compartment/option/thing for those pumping “accessories.” You could fill it with water (like a steam iron), plug it in, and all those bits and pieces get cleaned by the pump instead of…in the communal kitchen sink at work.

So, as you can see, I’m clearly just as smart as all those smarty-pants MIT people. OK, I kid, I kid. All criticism aside, I applaud them for putting together such an event, and I hope it’s a step in the right direction towards making pumping easier for women.

Photo by: kanarinka

  1. Compliant employer = luxury. 
  2. I’m sure there are women out there who would like to pump while standing in line for coffee, and to those women, I say more power to you! I’d love to hear your thoughts, dear reader! 
  3. Breast pumps “talking” is totally a thing! I’m not crazy! At least not entirely! 
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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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