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Someday the Breast Pump Will Not Suck!

Photograph by Getty Images

In the U.S. and Europe, breast pumps have become one of the most essential tools of motherhood. They are critical for so many working moms, who rely on pumping to provide breast milk for their babies when they return to their jobs, often only a few weeks after giving birth. And with the global market estimated to reach $1.03 billion by 2018, it's a marketable industry.

So the complete lack of innovation in the breast pump industry is completely surprising.

The mechanical pumps on the market today have hardly changed since the very first one was invented in the 1920's! In this modern era where cars drive themselves and glasses communicate with the Internet, you would think things might have moved forward a bit. A single company, Medela, dominates the breast pump industry, and with so little competition, they have zero incentive to improve their product.

RELATED: 9 Reasons It Sucks to Be a Pumping Mom

And so in September 2014, the geniuses at MIT came up with the first ever breast pump hackathon, aptly titled "Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!" A group of about 150 experts, designers, and parents gathered over two days to brainstorm and build prototypes that would address the grievances of breastfeeding moms about this loathed device, and the top prize of $3,000 went to a creation called the Mighty Mom Utility Belt.

This was not actually a redesign of the breast pump, but more an accessory that would minimize several of its worst offenses: the noise, the awkwardness, the feeling of being a cow trapped in a commercial milking machine. Oh, the joy of motherhood! The Mighty Mom Utility Belt made pumping quieter, more discrete and hands-free. It moved the collection bottles to waist level and contained sensors to analyze milk quality, including contaminants like medication and alcohol. While not exactly a breast pump revolution, it certainly seems like an amazing idea.

So, is the Mighty Mom Utility Belt on its way to mass production? Apparently not.

I followed up with team member Robyn Churchill, a midwife and Maternal Newborn Health Senior Advisor at the Clinton Health Access Initiative, who explained that while the team was thrilled to have participated in a national conversation about pumping, none of them were willing to quit their day jobs and dedicate themselves to making the Mighty Mom Utility Belt a reality.

On the upside, it seems reasonable to hope that my own daughter won't be subjected to the same medieval torture machine that so many of us are forced to use.

But two things give me hope that someday, in the not too distant future, pumping might suck just a little bit less. First, the Mighty Mom concept hasn't completely been discarded like an old homework assignment. One member of the Hackathon's winning team has decided to take a simplified version of the project forward.

Tim Brothers is a father of two, and he was inspired to join the MIT event after his wife pumped almost exclusively for their first child for nine months. Tim's new Mighty Mom is still a portable case that reduces breast pump noise by about 50%. It protects the pump against impacts (um, like when it falls off the arm of the couch), and it can be secured on a belt, allowing you to move around. He is currently testing prototypes among a small group of mom friends and working with a manufacturer. So, it might be available sooner rather than later. Yay!

Tim is an inspiration. But there's something both exciting and depressing about his passion for the Mighty Mom. While it's fantastic that men are getting involved with this issue, why is it that the only person willing to actually make something useful was not a health professional, or an activist, or even a company looking to grab a piece of a billion-dollar market, but simply a concerned dad who realized that something was better than nothing?

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I know I said there were two positive things, so here's the other one. The 5th prize winner at the MIT hackathon was a team that has now become a company called Kohana Inc., and they actually redesigned the breast pump! For real. Their prototype is a completely new technology that uses compression instead of suction, based on the centuries-old technique of hand expression. They claim the result is more comfortable and efficient milk removal and a "discreetly wearable, virtually silent and hands-free breast pumping experience." Now this sounds like actual progress!

But before you get super excited and start planning a Medela pump smashing party, it's going to be a while before Kohana's "Gala Pump" is available on Amazon. The group has raised over $100,000 through donations and a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a trial study comparing their compression breast pump to the standard vacuum pump. But the FDA approval process for a new "medical device" can be anywhere from three to seven years. (Sigh.)

On the upside, it seems reasonable to hope that my own daughter won't be subjected to the same medieval torture machine that so many of us are forced to use. The Kohana website states that their goal is "to help busy mothers successfully breastfeed their infants for as long as they choose." That's a big objective, and one that goes far beyond building a better breast pump.

I hope my daughter gets to see that dream come true.

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