Health & wellness

Daily Dose

MIT competition could bring a better breast pump

The need to build a better breast pump was strongly expressed at the “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon that was held at the MIT Media Lab over the weekend where more than 150 breast pump users, engineers, designers, health care and lactation specialists, gathered to brainstorm and listen to pitches from engineering teams who came up with new concepts to make breast pumping more palatable.

Incredibly, not much has changed in the 14 years since I last used an industrial-strength “hospital-grade” double breast pump, which left me feeling like Wanda the cow with little desire to keep nursing. Women still need to sit, with their shirts open, tethered to a motorized contraption that loudly sucks the milk out of their breasts with a loud whooshing sound.

The point of the Hackathon was to come up with something better.

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After using a breast pump to feed her 7-month-old twins, Katherine Ong, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, MIT, already came to the competition with ideas for improvements. She and her team won the $2000 second prize for designing a hands-free compression bra called Helping Hands to help women manually express breast milk.

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It has the potential to “get 30 percent more milk out with double the fat content,” Ong said. “When used with a breast pump, it might help the milk flow a bit faster and make sure that milk ducts don’t get clogged.” The prototype needs tinkering, she said, but the team was approached by two breast pump manufacturers at the event. “We’re hopeful one of companies will pick up idea and go with it.”

First-prize, $3000 and a trip to Silicon Valley to pitch investors, went to the team that devised the Mighty Mom Utility Belt, a hands-free wearable pump that can be worn under clothes. In theory, women can attach the device discretely and pump while they travel to work or teach a class. In reality, the design is still in the rough stages and will require extensive testing to determine whether it can replace the more the more cumbersome contraptions that require nursing mothers to sit in the privacy of their office or bathroom stall.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.