World & Nation

Opinion: If ‘breast is best,’ why are our devices for pumping breast milk the worst?

A scene from the documentary movie “Breastmilk.”
(Cavu Pictures)
Guest blogger

A breast pump often means the difference between a mom being able to feed her babies breast milk, or not. It’s a tool crucial to many new moms trying to fulfill the “breast is best” mantra, whether they’re trying to keep up their breast milk supply while working, or pumping for a sick baby who’s in the hospital. Massive public health efforts exist worldwide to make sure babies get only breast milk for the first six months of their lives, and the breast pump can play a major role in fulfilling those goals. So why then does the breast pump design suck? 

Technology expands its scope all the time. Phones can operate as our personal assistants. Electric and hybrid cars promise to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Drones can deliver pizza! However, the breast pump design has remained largely unchanged since its patent in the 1920s

Luckily, innovators at the MIT Media Lab intend to try to change that with a “hackathon” entitled “Bringing Innovation to Maternal Health: Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!” Over the next couple of days, a civic-minded group of designers, engineers and parents will gather at MIT to try to rethink and redesign the breast pump. 

So what’s so terrible about pumping? If you ever want to know what it feels like to be milked by a robot, try using a breast pump. Imagine inserting some of your most tender body parts, which will be sucked on repeatedly, into hard plastic cones. Then imagine doing this for 15-to-20-minute interval, every hour, around the clock, for months at a time. When you turn the machine on you’ll look down to see your nipples being sucked in and out like the teats of a cow on a dairy farm. 


And that’s just the actual process of pumping milk. Awkward design makes transferring the precious liquid to a safely closed container perilous. Anyone who’s said you shouldn’t cry over spilled milk clearly has never dumped freshly pumped breast milk on themselves. 

Imagine awkwardly holding clear cones, or flanges, over your nipples in just the right way to make sure you get good suction. Proper placement of the flanges can be what optimizes milk production or kills it, doing it wrong could result in serious injury. After a while you may get used to the wheezing and rhythmic mechanical noises the motor makes -- unless you are trying to hide the sound from co-workers or a partner, in which case it may become a repetitive reminder of the kind of bodily sacrifice a mother makes. Never mind the solitary hours spent anxiously pumping: “Please don’t let anyone walk in on me doing this.” 

A redesign should keep cost in mind, because breast pumps are expensive. A commercially available double electric pump, which is the kind many moms need if they are trying to establish or maintain breast milk supply, ring in at about $250. Which is curious considering they consist mainly of a plastic tubing, flanges and case with a little motor inside. Also, worth mentioning: Because an Obamacare provision requires insurers to pay for breastfeeding support, including breast pumps, demand for the machines will likely increase. So if nothing else, there’s money to be made from a better design. 

Of course, the outdated breast pump design could be indicative of how sexist and male-centric invention and innovation has tended to be. Courtney E. Martin and John Cary wondered the same thing in a blog post in The New York Times


“We are reminded of Gloria Steinem’s ‘If Men Could Menstruate,’ an article published in Ms. Magazine in 1978, in which she used satire to point out how different the world would be if gender roles were reversed: ‘Men would brag about how long and how much.’ If men could breastfeed, surely the breast pump would be as elegant as an iPhone and quiet as a Prius by now.”

I know how complicated a mother’s relationship to her breast pump can be. If it weren’t for one, I would never have been able to breastfeed my daughter. After being born two months early because of health complications, she had to spend the first month of her life in the NICU. She was too small to live outside of her incubator, let alone try to breastfeed. I pumped breast milk every hour around the clock for months to simulate the feeding patterns of a newborn baby and I did it in order to start and maintain a milk supply. Eventually, I was able to breastfeed her, but we still needed to give her vitamins and calorie boosting formula in a bottle. So I both pumped and breastfed.

That first month of her life, I likely spent more time pumping than with my newborn. And that kind of cold and lonely experience may not be anything anyone can fix with a new design. But perhaps a pump that works a little better or looks a little less like an industrial milking machine could be the key to helping moms during those difficult hours? 

Today, moms are expected not only to exclusively breastfeed their infants, but they often have to work outside of their homes to support their families. The breast pump is what makes this difficult balancing act possible, if at times awkward, embarrassing, and painful. An improved breast pump design could mean more moms being able to breastfeed their babies for longer --which could revolutionize life for parents and babies everywhere.

Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.

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