Sam Rudolph had no idea what a breast pump looked like, or how one even worked, until she read a New York Times op-ed outlining how awkward and uncomfortable they are. She didn’t have kids yet, but wanted to become a mother and figured breastfeeding and pumping would be part of the experience. But a hunk of hideous plastic, clamped to her nipple, whirring away as it siphoned milk—what the hell was that?
“When I got a sense of how outdated breast pumps were, I was really disappointed,” Rudolph says. “I mean, this is ridiculous.” She turned to her husband Jared Miller, an engineer, and showed him what she’d learned. “You know what,” he told her. “I think I can build a better one.”
How come everything else is getting so smart, but this device that millions of women rely on is still stuck in the ’80s? Naya Health co-founder Janica Alvarez
Three years later, the two of them have a son, a startup, Babyation, and a fresh take on a gadget that hasn’t changed much since the Civil War. The Babyation breast pump is sleek and compact, with a motor so quiet you barely hear it humming. It’s discreet, too—milk flows through a pair of tubes to bottles you can stash just about anywhere, so you don’t even have to remove your blouse. A smartphone app controls it all, while tracking production and inventory. “Very early, we honed in on this concept of ‘Let’s make this discreet,’” Rudolph says. “Let’s imagine a breast pump as though it had never been invented before.”
The Babyation pump arrives later this year, joining several others that fundamentally challenge the very concept of a pump. Forget the plastic funnel-like devices that look like airhorns. These new devices are thoughtfully designed, app-enabled, and feel more like a nursing baby than a vacuum cleaner. They are easy to use, easy to clean, and they look, if not elegant, at least nice. A lot of women, like Rudolph, see these as major steps forward. But they’re also wondering: What took so long?
The first breast pump design was patented in 1854 by inventor Orwell H. Needham. His prototype used a cone-shaped cup placed over the nipple and a pump squeezed by hand to create the suction needed to stimulate milk production. (Needham essentially cribbed from the design of a machine for milking cows.)
That approach remained virtually unchanged until the 1980s, when electric pumps became the norm. Still, pumps were relegated to hospitals until 1991, when Swiss manufacturer Medela introduced the first electric pump for home use. Medela marketed toward the modern mother, who could continue breastfeeding even after returning to work.
Electric breast pumps arrived at exactly the right moment. Forty-seven percent of American women worked outside the home in 1990; that number peaked at 60 percent just nine years later. Breast pumps allowed women to start a family and return to work while still feeding their babies breastmilk, balancing the demands of motherhood and the workplace.
And yet, many women find pumping a belabored, painful practice surreptitiously done in bathrooms or behind closed doors. Everything about the devices is horrible. The suction can leave nipples chafed and raw. Electric pumps run on clunky, noisy motors, the sound of which has been compared to an old dot-matrix printer. And they’re just plain ugly. No one feels good about themselves with plastic bottles dangling from their breasts.
“Imagine being attached to something multiple times every day for 12 months and hating every moment of it,” says Janica Alvarez, co-founder of Naya Health, which makes medical devices for mothers. “How come everything else is getting so smart, but this device that millions of women rely on is still stuck in the ’80s?”
Catherine D’Ignazio asked herself the same question a few years ago when, as a grad student at MIT. She’d just given birth to her third child and found herself slumped on the floor of a campus bathroom, grimacing as a pump pinched and pulled at her breasts. “I really felt like if MIT can’t solve this problem, then nobody can,” she says.
She and several colleagues organized the “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” hackathon in 2014, which drew more than 150 engineers, entrepreneurs, and parents hoping not only to fine-tune the technology behind breast pumps, but to reimagine the concept altogether. What if, instead of a hunk of plastic and a tangle of tubes, a pump contoured to the shape of the breast? What if they used compression technology instead of vacuum? How about a pump small enough to fit inside the bra, so you can keep your shirt on? Why not make them soft like a baby’s mouth, not hard like a machine?
D’Ignazio thought it was high time to reinvent the pump, because so many women use them. The Affordable Care Act required that insurance companies cover the cost of pumps, which made them more accessible. “Women are receiving breast pumps more than ever before,” D’Ignazio says, “and most of them are like, ‘What the fuck? This thing sucks.’”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Breast pumps can be quiet, comfortable, even elegant.
Back to the Drawing Board
Alvarez started rethinking the breast pump several years ago, after her own pumping experience left her exasperated. “It was very painful,” she tells me. “There were a lot of parts that had to be connected and disconnected, it was loud, and just generally gross to carry around.”
More than a decade in biotech left her convinced there had to be a better way, if only someone cared enough to find it. Like Rudolph, Alvarez is married to an engineer, who was at the time researching hydraulic medical device systems. Watching his wife suffer through the process of pumping, he wondered if such an approach might work with a breast pump.
Women have been waiting decades for the kind of technology that makes pumping a more comfortable, more discrete experience.
Their design, the Naya Smart Pump, uses water-based suction, which they claim is gentler and more effective than air-based suction. “It uses the movement of a small amount of water to create suction on the breast tissue, which allows us to create a more comfortable experience,” Alvarez says. The device weighs three pounds, making it a breeze to tote around, and uses an app to track production and offer personalized guidance. The breast shield—the part that goes over the nipple—is silicon, not plastic, to reduce chafing and irritation. Alvarez says the Naya feels more like a baby than a machine. That helps explain why the hospital-grade pump sold out almost immediately when Naya introduced it in December at $999. (You can pre-order one now; they ship in June.)
Naomi Kelman knew the breast pump was ripe for reinvention when she created the Willow Wearable Breast Pump. Women told her so. “They said, ‘Give me back my mobility and my hands, and give me back my discretion and my dignity,’” Kelman says. “So that’s what we set out to invent.”
Willow doesn’t look like a breast pump. The wireless sphere slips inside a nursing bra, and pumps into plastic bags rather than bottles. The whole thing snaps into three parts you can pop into the dishwasher. And because the milk flows into a bag, you can transfer it into whatever bottle you want, or freeze for long-term storage. Kelman plans to release the Willow later this year with a price in the $350 range.
And even Medela, which remains the market leader, has a “smart” pump. The Sonata debuted earlier this year at $399. Ryan Bauer, the company’s director of product development, likens it to a luxury car: beautifully designed, nearly silent, and effortless to use.
Beyond the Pump
All of these inventors believe their pumps make pumping milk far less arduous, but concede the technological advancements are relatively small. Still, they are long overdue. And although refining the shape, size, and mechanics of a pump may make the experience more comfortable, more must be done. As the New Yorker noted in 2009, there are other ways to ensure that women can feed their babies breastmilk for longer, like offering extended maternity leave or on-site infant care at work. Pumps are “the cheap way out.”
Still, D’Ignazio says new breast pumps create a path toward the next frontier. She and her colleagues are organizing another breast pump hackathon at MIT next year, but this one will focus on policy initiatives as well as prototypes. “We can solve the technology, but we also have to work on the other issues,” D’Ignazio says. “If we have no maternity leave, if you don’t have breaks at work to pump or nurse your kid, if you don’t have affordable daycare—all of those are worth hacking.”