The Design Observer Twenty

Victoria Solan | Essays

The Prosthetic Baby

In an age when prosthetics and medical devices are making strides in comfort, usability, discretion, and verisimilitude, there is one apparatus that lags behind others: the much-maligned breast pump. Used to express milk for bottle feedings, the machine ostensibly makes it easier for mothers to return to work without a decline in productivity as workers or caregivers. Yet user enthusiasm for the now-omnipresent breast pump is low to non-existent, and the regime of pumping—whether at work or at home—is nearly universally detested. Organizers at MIT’s Media Lab sought to change this situation with a two-day “Hackathon” with the catchy title Make the Breast Pump Not Suck. On a fine September weekend, about 150 participants gathered in Cambridge to brainstorm, converse, and compete. The event was a sold-out success, drawing trade reps, engineers, coders, midwives, and babies.

The hackathon gathering, which might best be described as a combined academic symposium, high school science fair, and slumber party all, was a model of interdisciplinary collaboration and discussion: ideas flew across whiteboards while techno music pulsed through the atrium of the Media Lab. Local undergraduates learned how milk is extracted from the human body. Mothers from a variety of backgrounds talked about their frustration with noisy pumps, cumbersome tubing, and being relegated to dirty bathrooms to pump. Naomi Bar-Yam, Executive Director of Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, tutored engineers on the requirements for pasteurizing donated milk. Lactation consultants learned about industrial design. Additional ideas were crowd-sourced: contributions from around the world poured into the Breast Pump Hackathon website

On the second day, participants gathered to hear proposals from nearly a dozen small teams. Creative ideas abounded: most of them so achingly better in their conception than what is currently available to women that one wonders why they are not already on the market. Hands-free operation was a key part of many proposals. (The current dominant model, the Medela Pump in Style, requires users to hold bottles with both hands while sitting still, upright, and alert—hands-free bras are available but still restrict movement). There is currently nothing on the market that can solve the social challenge of either performing one’s job in public or supervising young children in private while strapped to an electric milking machine. 

Cloaking the distinctive groan of the pump mechanism, as well as improving the physical interface between the body and the machine, were problems addressed by more than one group. The winning proposal, “Mighty Mom Utility Belt,” answered a variety of user concerns: it would be truly hands-free, easy to clean, and would also track data. “Second Nature” emphasized discretion and offered a compression-based milking system. “PumpIO” offered software as a solution: using an iPhone, lactating mothers might track the chemical composition of their milk and connect with experts offsite. The “Milk Pod” team envisioned dotting the American streetscape with enclosed hi-tech lactation pods—which they very properly stopped short of calling pumping stations. 

A better designed breast pump would undoubtedly improve quality of life for the many thousands of women who choose to express milk for their infants. Perhaps it was only to be expected that hackathon competitors chose to focus on gadgetry and data management, rather than expanded caregiving options for mothers—the former are the easiest solution to dream up on short notice, require no political will or structural changes, and are also the most manageable to present in verbal and video form, as required by the organizers. Yet the organizers had explicitly suggested “a better maternal leave policy” as a possible hack, and the lack of uniform, generous leave policies in the American workplace is surely the underlying culprit in the United States’ abysmal breastfeeding rates. So, why the reliance on gadgetry? Why no quest for an app which tracks employer compliance with FMLA, or registers the number of mothers and children who encounter difficulty accessing health care providers and lactation counselors each day, sending the result simultaneously to the White House and The New York Times

The MIT hackathon was a brilliant opening move, and the start of a larger conversation about mothers and new technology. As a design community, though, we need to be vigilant about the perils of becoming fixated on the gadget. The breast pump can be understood as a mechanical stand-in for the baby, which may explain why it is so despised, even as it liberates nursing mothers from the need to stay home with their infants. Even the best designed of such machines bears a strange resemblance to an inversion of the mother surrogates which psychologist Harry Harlow famously used in his experiments on the nature of mammalian love in the 1950s. Harlow’s “wire mother” findings are now outmoded. Yet the idea of the wire baby is alive and well, and it may even go wireless.

Photo by Che-Wei Wang.

Victoria Solan Victoria Solan is a communications consultant at the World Bank Group. She holds a PhD in the History of Art from Yale University, and has taught the history of cities and parks at the University of Chicago, the University of Toronto, and Tufts University. She has consulted on public art projects in Boston and Ottawa, and has been a contributor to Design Observer since 2014.

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