A hackathon is an event where a group of people come together to improve a product or service. Most of the time, it's a bunch of Silicon Valley dudes working to make some minor aspect of their own lives better.
"They (use hackathons) to help them, like, find more women in bars," said Willow Brugh, by way of example. Now Brugh is an adviser to a hackathon with a slightly less bro-tastic aim: to find ways to build a better breast pump.
This weekend, engineers, designers, software and hardware developers, healthcare experts and parents are coming together at MIT for the "Make the Breast Pump Suck Less Hackathon" with the hope of finding a solution to an annoyance that plagues many new mothers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends new moms exclusively breastfeed for the first six months. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only a quarter of mothers make it that far.
Pumping breast milk is time-consuming and not particularly comfortable, either physically or in terms of the cognitive awareness that you're hooking tubes and suction cups to your nipples just a few feet away from your co-workers.
The hackathon hopes to address those issues. Attendees will present their "rocket pitch" about how they want to "hack" the breast pump and break off into groups based on which idea they're the most passionate about. A panel of judges will award prizes to the most promising ideas.
Jessica Werner's son, Tate, was born in June. After 30 days of maternity leave, Werner had to go back to her job as a substitute librarian in Seattle. Every two hours, she takes a break and has to find a room to pump in whichever branch she's assigned to that day. She says none of the branches have a dedicated place for pumping; a few have a spare office she can use, but in some cases, she ends up next to an outlet in the bathroom. She described the pumping ritual:
"You have to assemble the bottle, the pump, the hoses, attach the bottle to the flange [the part that goes up around the nipple], put on a special bra that holds the flange on your boob," Werner said. "You have to hook up various parts, and then you pump and you sit there and it's just weird. … The bottle is attached to the flange on your nipple, so you can't pull your shirt down. Then there's a tube to this bottle on a machine that makes a distinct pumping noise."
Here's how it works:
Amy Emmert went back to work after each of her three children were born. She had a private office at her job as an adviser to a college newspaper in Los Angeles, but left the door open all the time so students could come in and ask questions. Obviously she had to close it while she was pumping, though she said that didn't stop students from knocking the entire time.
"And you're never really sure what to put on the sign. Do I want to say "I'm breastfeeding"? On a sign that I have on my door?" Emmert said. "It was just awkward and inconvenient to be sitting naked in your office with a machine hooked up to your breasts."
It was worse for her sister: As a psychologist at a prison, she wasn't allowed to cover the window on her office door, so she had to walk to another building on the property just to pump.
Worse still was what happened to Werner's friend who worked as a manager at a retail store. Her employers told her she couldn't use the only private office in the building to pump breast milk, calling it an "undue hardship" on the people who shared the office. So she had to pump breast milk in the parking lot in her car. She gave up after three months and put her baby on formula.
Alexandra Metral, a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab who helped organize the breast pump hackathon, said stories like those are what made her call the breast pump "the grim reaper of nursing."
Emmert said the pump itself — while not exactly the most sleekly designed piece of technology in the world — wasn't really the problem.
"What's wrong with breast pumping is not the breast pump. It's all of the stuff around the breast pump, like workplaces making allowances for women to pump, and the convenience or inconvenience of it," Emmert said. "It just sucks to pump. And a lot of women who want to work and commit to breastfeeding do it, but they can't keep it up for very long, because it's not convenient and not supported (by workplaces)."
Hopefully, Metral says, this event will help. Katherine L. Record of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School will be giving a speech on maternal health policy. She says part of the purpose of the event is to make people more aware that maternal health technology is lagging in the first place.
Send your ideas for how to build a better breast pump here.