I’ve never come across a woman, physically or virtually, who enjoys pumping milk. It’s an activity done out of a sense of duty, one that sucks one’s time and nipples with equal might. To sit down to pump milk is to submit oneself to the one-two punch of physical discomfort and a mind flooded with all the other things you could be doing at the very same moment. For the many women who lack adequate, or any, maternity leave, this includes being with their baby.
Women don’t like pumping, but unless they spend all day with their babies, they must pump. As such, there’s demand for better gadgets, ones that make women feel a little less bovine and a little more like the having-it-all queens that popular culture has told them they can be. I recently did some informal research on moms’ opinions of traditional breast pumps via Facebook mom groups, and the most common complaints I heard include: the noise, the weight, the discomfort, the many parts to clean, the way they force you to hunch over, and their dependency on an outlet.
Manufacturers have started to listen. Following a widely shared 2014 essay by Courtney E. Martin and John Cary in the New York Times about the inadequacy of pumps in the age of the iPhone, and a hackathon at M.I.T. dedicated to improving the pump later that year, a number of breast pump companies, new and old, have set out to improve the gadget.
The newly released Smartpump ($199) from Lansinoh weighs less than a pound and emits 35 to 45 decibels while pumping; this makes it louder than a whisper but quieter than conversational speech. There hasn’t been any published research comparing the weight and noise levels of conventional breast pumps, but there is some evidence that the Smartpump represents progress. One pump currently on the market that includes the word “silent” in its name emits 58 decibels, and another ostensibly “discreet” one weighs eight pounds with its carrier.
The Smartpump also has three pumping styles and eight suction levels, which means women will be able to better match how their babies nurse. (This can trigger an easier release of milk.) It also has a closed-system design with a barrier in place to stop the milk from getting into the tubing that supplies suction, which means fewer parts to clean. (Milk that gets into tubing can mold or make its way into the motor, where it can stop the whole thing from working.) Lastly, the Smartpump is Bluetooth enabled and can automatically transfer the length and time of your pumping session to an app on your phone, which can be useful if you’re working with a lactation consultant, want one less thing to remember, or are just into tracking these things.
And there are more, better breast pumps on the way. Naya Health, a newcomer to the market, has one coming out this fall that incorporates a type of fluid valve technology used during cataract surgery. The manufacturers say their water-based suction feels more like nursing, and “eliminat[es] noise at the source and produc[es] a completely different sound sensation, peace and quiet.” Another new company named Babyation is also working on a quieter, lighter, gentler pump that, most notably, doesn’t require women to attach the bottles directly to their breast. Instead, the milk flows into tubes connected to bottles that can rest on the lap. While it’s probably still not something you’d want to do in a board meeting, I can imagine more women will feel comfortable using this pump at their desks than the traditional model. Another from Moxxly, due out later this year, also promises moms the ability to pump under their clothes.
One of the reasons breast pumps have remained pretty terrible for what feels like so long is because they actually haven’t been around that long. Up until the 1990s, breast pumps were only available in hospitals, where they were to be used by women with inverted nipples, or whose babies were unable to nurse. Then, in 1991, the Swiss company Medela came out with the first non-hospital pump. (For a more detailed history on pumps and pumping, read Jill Lepore’s fantastic 2009 story on the subject for the New Yorker.) So the technology of pumping is still relatively new.
Other reasons, as suggested by Elle’s Chloe Schama in her recent story on the need for better pumps, include our squeamishness around the topic, as well as the fact that most of the people with the skills and funds to improve upon it are men. “Just 14 percent of engineers and 3 percent of venture capitalists are women; 98 percent of VC funding goes to companies headed by men, and most of the companies pitching new ideas on the breast pump front are headed by women,” Schama writes. Unsurprisingly, many of the new pumps are from companies run, or co-run, by women.
The fact that pumps are getting better is great for moms, but a too-merry reception of these quieter, gentler, more discreet options would be shortsighted. The improvement to breast pumps that would be most useful is one that no engineer, venture capitalist, or lactation consultant can bring us: the option to pump less often or not at all. The best possible breast pump innovation of all? Universal paid maternity leave.