The Moms Behind MIT’s Breast Pumping Hackathon

Catherine D’Ignazio is one of the organizers of MIT’s Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon. She’s an artist and a breast pumper to three kids. She’s pictured here with daughter Maggie Jo.
Catherine D’Ignazio is one of the organizers of MIT’s Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon. She’s an artist and a breast pumper to three kids. She’s pictured here with daughter Maggie Jo. –Lorrie Lejeune

The breast pump needs hacking. There are too many parts, which are easy to forget. They often aren’t the right size and need routine cleaning. Not to mention that pumping sound.

It “reminds you that you are somehow a cow,’’ said Catherine D’Ignazio, one of the organizers of MIT’s Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon, and a research affiliate in the Civic Media group, a partnership between the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies at MIT.

D’Ignazio, who has had her art work displayed at the ICA Boston, Eyebeam, and MASSMoCA, has breast pumped for each of her three children. Her youngest, at 14 months old, hung out at the Media Lab for the first 6 months of her life.

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“The whole experience sucks, and it’s not just about the machine,’’ she said in an interview with Boston.com.

Some working mothers, such as bus drivers or retail workers, might not be permitted to breast pump during the day, D’Ignazio said. Larger corporations might have lactation rooms or “mom spaces,’’ but most offices do not. It’s a hassle for the hard working mother: “You have to go to those spaces that are there, and you’re losing time,’’ she said.

The goal of the hackathon is to find ways to improve breast pump functioning as well as to make breast pumping more acceptable in everyday life.

“We are working on what we can do right now,’’ D’Ignazio said. “We want to figure out real, concrete design improvements on the machine itself and on the potential space—how to find a comfortable and private space.’’

The weekend of Sept. 20-21, more than 150 breast pump users, engineers, designers, health care and lactation specialists, as well as educators will collaborate at the MIT Media Lab over two days to make breast pumping easier. Participants will attend guest talks and provide brief “rocket pitches’’ in teams. The first, second, and third place ideas will win $3,000, $2,000, and $1,000 respectively.

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Beyond the prize money, the event is more about getting good ideas in front of the right people. D’Ignazio and her team hope to create a dialogue on how to deal with lactation, a problem thousands of moms deal with everyday. There will be 150 attendees at the event, all from different states, cities, and organizations. As much as 40 percent of the group is estimated to be MIT students.

The hacking started in May with an informal brainstorming session of about 20 MIT researchers. The study’s blog post went viral, scoring high on Medium’s Top 100 list for May. The MIT Media Lab received over 500 long, creative emails from pumping moms and professionals offering solutions to create a better breast pump. The Media Lab started a “Hack the Breast Pump’’ Facebook group where ideas started (and continue) to pour in.

Clearly, there was still research to be done.

“We have to do this again,’’ D’Ignazio said in response to the first Hackathon’s continued buzz. “[We have the] potential to broaden the possibility to have impact. We are students and researchers, and at the moment we aren’t going to found the next breast pump start up, but maybe we can create crossroads for businesses, engineers, lactation folks, and mothers who can come together to create interesting ideas and create creative energy in the space [we’ve provided].’’

D’Ignazio said hacking the breast pump is “very much a learning experience’’ and she hopes others, including MIT undergrads, will want to explore pediatric and lactation research through attending the hackathon. The team behind the hackathon also hopes to foster connections between people with ideas to improve the breast pump with top breast pump manufacturers such as Medela, Inc. and Naia Health. The motive is to “convene in as high a profile a way this diverse group of people to catalyze change,’’ she said.

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Do you have ideas to improve breast pumps? You can submit them for the hackathon on MIT Media Lab’s website.

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