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When you are pregnant, everyone tells you that nothing can really prepare you for parenthood. What they should also tell you, however, is that nothing can really prepare you for the sound of an electric breast pump.
For many mothers, especially in the United States where paid maternity leave isn't mandated, choosing to breastfeed often means pumping several times a day. While breastfeeding is often toted as being cheaper than formula, breast milk is only free if you think a mother’s time isn’t worth anything. Many women, determined to produce enough milk for their babies, complain about feeling both physically and psychologically tethered to their pumps. While weaning may be bittersweet, the end of pumping is almost universally a cause for celebration, a feeling captured in this pump-smashing photoshoot inspired by “Office Space.”
"My son is 10 months old and I look forward to the day I can stop pumping, which I plan to do at a year. I hate how loud it is—I pump in my office and feel awkward wondering if my co-workers can hear it," one mom told me. "I hate how many parts there are. I’ve forgotten parts and had to go home to get them. Luckily I live close to work."
She added, "I feel like pumping has occasionally made me wish away the days until my son is one, when I plan to stop, rather than just enjoying how things are now. That makes me a little sad."
Electric breast pumps have existed since the early 1980s, but they are still a relatively new frontier for technological innovation. In 2014, MIT hosted its first hackathon dedicated to improving the breast pump. The event resulted in a research paper wryly titled “A Feminist HCI Approach to Designing Postpartum Technologies: ‘When I first saw a breast pump I was wondering if it was a joke.'" For many women, especially those who have seen tech improve almost every other aspect of their lives from light bulbs to ordering laundry detergent, building a better breast pump is indeed a feminist issue.
“A lot of women talk about how it’s almost like the pump runs their life,” says Naomi Kelman, founder and CEO of Willow, which developed a tube- and wire-free pump that women can tuck into their bras. “Everyone is told, if you don’t breastfeed or pump on a regular basis, your [breastmilk] supply goes down and then breastfeeding is finished for you.”
Companies dedicated to creating the next generation of breast pumps include startups Willow and Naya Health, as well as names familiar to generations of mothers like Medela and Lansinoh. While each take a different approach, a common theme emerges: not only do these companies want to make pumping breast milk more efficient, they also want to give women their comfort and dignity back.
After World War II, breastfeeding rates began to decline as commercial formulas became more common. For generations of American parents, formula feeding was the default choice. Then in the early 2000s, the rate of breastfeeding began increasing rapidly. The number of babies still breastfed at six months jumped from 35 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2010, according to the Center for Disease Control. That amount is still rising, thanks to breastfeeding initiatives by health organizations like the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But the push to increase breastfeeding rates is up against a major obstacle: the U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world without mandatory paid parental leave. The maelstrom created by these two opposing messages—breastfeed until your baby is at least six months old, but get back to work ASAP—puts an immense amount of pressure on mothers.
Many spend whatever maternity leave they get pumping to build up stashes of frozen breast milk to leave with caregivers and, once back at work, schedule pumping breaks about once every three hours (calling them “breaks” is a misnomer, however, because many women continue to work while pumping). Regular pumping not only allows babies to be bottle-fed their mother’s breastmilk, but it is also necessary to avoid painful health issues like engorged breasts, mastitis or plugged milk ducts.
The next generation of breast pumps are designed to be more efficient, comfortable and—just as importantly—quieter than older models. All of them can also be connected to apps that help users track the time and length of each pumping session.
Created by Naya Health, one of the most innovative new pumps uses water instead of air to create compression and suction. Founder Janica Alvarez says the pump, available for order on Naya's site, was inspired by her experience going back to work after giving birth.
“One thing I struggled with was the breast pump. I was frustrated that this technology has been around for so many years, but it’s not keeping up with a modern mom who works outside the home or just wants a better experience,” she says.
Alvarez, who spent a decade leading healthcare and clinical research teams, interviewed about 5,000 women about what their pumping experiences and worked with her husband, a mechanical engineer who specializes in medical devices, to create a prototype out of a surgical glove, washer, syringe and duct tape. Naya’s vacuum is based on a technique used in cataract eye surgery.
“If we use water, it really opens up the options of materials and we can use medical-grade silicone to basically create a baby’s mouth. We have a really unique flange that ungulates because of water, and it feels more like you are nursing a baby than a machine,” Alvarez says. “So it solved two pain points, which was better efficiency and better comfort.”
While Naya is quieter than many breast pumps, Alvarez notes that it is not the quietest pump on the market. On the other hand, its users have reported an unexpected benefit: the sound of water is much more soothing than an air vacuum.
One of the most tedious parts of pumping for many women is sitting tethered to a machine several times a day. Willow wants to give them more freedom with a pump that fits into bras and has no wires or tubing.
Before founding Willow, CEO Naomi Kelman spent more than a decade in leadership positions at Johnson & Johnson, including five years as president of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, which makes contact lenses. During that time, she met Willow co-founder and CTO John Chang, and serial inventor and doctor Josh Makower, both of whom are experienced consumer medical device developers.
While designing Willow, the startup’s team asked women what their dream breast pump looked like. Not only did they want something that would allow them to move around, but also wouldn’t require them to get undressed.
“We heard one story from a mom who was going on her first date night after having her baby. She was all excited, but she also knew she couldn’t wait to pump, so she brought her pump with her,” says Kelman. “The mistake she made was that she wore a dress, so she had to go into a public restroom and undress to pump. It was meant to be a joyful moment of reconnection with her husband, but instead all her clothes were off and she was naked in a public restroom and it was terrible.”
Shaped like teardrops, Willow combines a collection bag, flange, tubing and pump into a single unit designed to be worn inside bras. Kelman says they are also quiet enough for women to do conferences calls without needing to press a mute button.
Among women who have pumped before, the Willow has elicited comparisons to the Freemie, or breast milk collection cups by Dao Health that are also made to fit into bras. The Freemie isn’t a pump and it needs to be connected to compatible pumps with tubing, but its popularity underscores the need for pumps that give women more freedom.
Lansinoh and Medela
Tech startups aren’t the only companies working on the next generation of breast pumps. Both Medela and Lansinoh, companies that have provided breast pumps for decades, sell pumps that are designed to attract millennial moms.
Founded in 1984, Lansinoh launched the first Bluetooth-enabled breast pump last year. Called the Smartpump, it connects with the Lansinoh Baby app to help women track their pumping sessions. It also has a rotary motor, which is quieter and gives users more control over the suction and style of pumping.
“We heard from mothers who said they wanted more ability to track. It was hugely important for them to track what their baby eats and how much breast milk they can leave for their baby when they are apart,” says Gina Ciagne, vice president of healthcare and media relations at Lansinoh.
Started in 1961, Medela is one of the oldest and largest makers of breast pumps in the world. It started selling the Sonata, its first Bluetooth-enabled breast pump, at the end of last year. It is also the company's quietest pump (Medela sent me one to test out and I can confirm that its noise level is a huge improvement over most breast pumps).
David Cho, Medela USA’s lead product development engineer, says many women interviewed by the company referred to the loud noise of their previous pumps as “an emotional burden.”
“A lot of the research that we do is what vacuums need from an engineering perspective, but the truth is that it needs to be psychologically and experientially comfortable for her, too,” he says.
There's an app for this, too.
All breast pumps mentioned in this article connect to apps that record when and how long users pump. Some, like the My Medela, also give women access to breastfeeding advice and consultants. For women who already use their phones to track their exercise, sleep, nutrition and budget, using an app to quantify pumping and breastfeeding is a logical step.
“My wife is an engineer and she was very meticulous about recording her pumping behavior, even at 2AM in the morning,” says Cho. “With seamless integration, she doesn’t have to think about that. All the information is there.”
One thing that many new mothers discover, however, is that remembering to enter how many ounces they pumped is easier said than done when taking care of a newborn. At the end of this year, Naya plans to launch a smart baby bottle that automatically tracks how much breast milk is pumped and also how much a baby eats (it can also be used with formula).
“There’s a lot of anxiety around how much I’m producing and how much my baby is feeding,” says Alvarez. “We wanted to serve that as well by making the pump smart, so that mom is going through the experience knowing more information and spending less of her time tracking all these elements of the experience, and making that simple and automated.”
What's the price of a better breast pump?
The first question many expecting mothers ask about next-generation breast pumps is “how much does it cost?” Buying a breast pump is fraught with uncertainty because women don’t want to spend too much money for something that they might only use for a few months. On the other hand, a pricier pump is often more comfortable and effective, and that in turn can help them breastfeed for longer.
In the U.S., the Affordable Care Act requires health insurance plans to cover the cost of a breast pump. Since the current administration’s attempts to repeal Obamacare have failed so far, women can still get reimbursed for breast pumps as long as they pick one covered by their provider.
The Medela Sonata retails for $400 and the Lansinoh Smartpump for $200. Some companies make double electric breast pumps that cost as little as $30, so this means they are relatively pricey, at least for women whose insurance plans don’t cover them. The list price of Naya’s breast pump is $999, but the startup is also working with insurance providers for more coverage, and planning a rental program since the pump is closed system, which means it is designed to prevent cross contamination between multiple users.
The retail price and availability of the Willow hasn’t been announced yet, but Kelman says that it will be in a premium bracket, at least initially.
“We don’t have economies of scale as a startup, so over time we hope to seek insurance to make it more broadly available to women,” says Kelman. “Insurance takes some time to get, so we are always balancing getting it out really fast, because the need is there, and then seeking insurance.”
The Willow can’t be rented or resold because it is designed for single users only, but Kelman says the company’s goal is to encourage women to use their pumps for at least a year and then offer a recycling program.
The best advertisement for breast pumps is word-of-mouth, however, and as more women buy them, companies hope to be able to lower prices while continuing to innovate. The breast pump market is expected to reach an estimated global value of $1.03 billion by next year, with electric pumps being the fastest-growing segment. At the same time, more investors are paying attention to startups that focus on women's healthcare. In time, things like Bluetooth and tube-free pumping might become the standard instead of the exception, along with other tech-enabled features to make pumping less burdensome for women.
“I see the advancement of breast pumps as a really big way to spur innovation and open collaboration and information sharing to expedite the market,” says Deanna Gilbert, the global director of user-centered design at Medela USA. “Being competitive means being part of the conversation.”