MIT Media Lab goes to source, nursing moms, 
for help inventing a better breast pump



Last modified: Saturday, October 04, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — After Jennifer Bourbeau’s son, Henry David Bassette, was born five weeks premature in November 2013, he was required to stay in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit for 12 hours. During that time, she started using a breast pump to supply him with her milk.

After Henry, now almost 11 months old, came home, he did not take to breast feeding, she said, so she has continued using the pump in order to provide him with the most nourishing food she could give him: his mother’s breast milk.

These days, Bourbeau pumps four times every day: once in the morning, twice during the day when she is at her job as a paralegal at Fierst, Kane & Bloomberg on Gothic Street in Northampton, and once before going to bed at night.

Then she freezes or refrigerates the milk so she can feed it to her son in a bottle.

For those who may not be familiar with the contraption, a breast pump uses a motor to extract the milk into bottles attached to suction cups on the breast. This is a design that Bourbeau and other mothers have found to be less than ideal.

“Your whole collection bottle dangles off your breast,” she said during a recent interview at her office. “It doesn’t hurt but it’s very awkward. There’s nothing discreet about it.”

Sometimes, she said, she has had to pump during phone calls with the noisy motor running in the background.

“It just seems crazy to me that these aren’t better designed yet,” she said.

So when a friend posted on Facebook about the “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, she jumped at the opportunity to participate.

A hackathon is an event that brings a large number of people together solely to work on solutions to a particular problem.

The hackathon to build a better breast pump took place Sept. 20 and 21 at the MIT Media Lab, where 150 people organized into teams of between five and 10 to worked to find new, mom-friendly designs. Registration was open to public, with mothers, engineers, designers among those who were encouraged to sign up.

At the end, the projects were judged by a seven-person panel of guest experts on product design, lactation and maternal health. Awards were given for first, second and third place as well as “Most Outstanding User Focused Design” and “Winner of the Popular Vote,” according to the MIT website.

Bourbeau, 44, of Belchertown, was among several pumping mothers who attended the event as roaming consultants who advised the teams on what they would like to see in a new kind of breast pump. Her partner, Ryan Bassette, and Henry both came with her, and during the event, Henry stayed in a designated children’s play area among other babies who came with their parents.

“He was a hackathon baby for two days and it was great,” she said.

She said she kept stressing to them that she wanted a design that would allow her to walk around or hold Henry while she pumped. Now, she said, she typically has to have her partner or her mother, Nancy Cowen, look after Henry while she is pumping.

Her favorite invention, dubbed the “Bundle,” was created by Ermal Dreshaj, Julie Legault, Savannah Niles and Cory Schmitz, all of whom are Boston-area researchers, designers or MIT graduate students.

Their invention consists of a pillow-like case that holds the pumping mechanism and bottle, and a cotton blanket that wraps around the mom and the mechanism, giving the appearance of holding a baby.

When the mother is not pumping, the mother can wrap the baby in the blanket, a feature that allows the blanket to absorb the baby’s scent, which later can help a pumping mother with milk production, Bourbeau noted.

The invention also includes two tiny speakers that record the sounds the baby makes while held, that can be played back while the mother is pumping, another way to stimulate milk production.

Bourbeau served as the model for the group’s presentation of their project. They took photos of her using the Bundle while she pumped and holding Henry wrapped in the blanket.

“I loved that project. It resonated with me right away,” she said, becoming visibly emotional. “When I was separated from my baby in the NICU, that was the experience I wanted. So something about it just really spoke to me.”

The pump that won first place was named “Mighty Mom utility belt,” an invention that features a hands-free pump mothers can wear on a belt that logs her pumping data.

The team won $3,000 and a trip for two members to Silicon Valley to pitch their idea to investors, according to the MIT website.

Though the Bundle won no prizes, Bourbeau said she heard a lot of talk among other mothers at the event whose babies had spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“I think it particularly has a place with NICU moms,” she said. She said she had initially planned to pump her milk for a year and then stop, but the hackathon experience prompted her to try pumping for a longer period, “if I can hang in there long enough for a new pump design,” she said.

Henry is her only child, and she describes having had him as “a wonderful surprise.”

“He’s such a joy, an absolute joy,” she said. “As much as I complain about the pump, it’s a problem I’m really happy to have.”

For more information on the hackathon and to see all of the winning projects, visit breastpump.media.mit.edu.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.


 


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