The Longest Shortest Time

EPISODE #40: Building a Better Boobie Trap

Alexandra Metral was an installation artist, making exhibits of blown-up photos of her bellybutton scrapings and growing fungus and sweat stains from ballet costumes, when she gave birth to her first child. Soon after baby Beatrix was born, she came down with a high fever and had to go to the NICU.

Alexandra's notes on the inside of a ballet costume

Alexandra’s notes on the inside of a ballet costume

Alexandra and Beatrix in the NICU

Alexandra and Beatrix in the NICU

The NICU nurses wheeled out a giant ancient breast pump for Alexandra and told her that if she wanted to feed Beatrix breastmilk, she’d have to pump every couple of hours. Alexandra’s nipples were already sore and cracked from Beatrix’s bad latch, and on top of all of that, the pump felt like a torture device. So she and her husband started hacking the pump—glueing openings tighter and melting the plastic to look less 1980s Madonna and more like a real breast. Their hacks sort of worked, but they never lasted long.

Two children and tons of pumping later, Alexandra was talking with her art school friend Catherine about how much pumping sucks, and they thought maybe they could make a Hate the Pump art project. Then, after talking to some friends at MIT’s Media Lab, they realized, maybe they could actually change the pump altogether. And the Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon was born.


Last week 150 engineers, scientists, doctors, designers, and lactation consultants came together at MIT to improve the pump (see hackers above). I sent This American Life’s Sean Cole to check it out. Sean’s a good friend of mine. We’ve worked together, drank lots of wine together—he even officiated my wedding.

Sean (right) with me and my husband after we signed our marriage license

Sean (right) with me and my husband after we signed our marriage license

Sean has no kids, and had never seen a breast pump in his life, so he learned a lot! He seemed particularly interested in the Helping Hands bra prototype (he called it the “breast massager”), which helps with plugged ducts, mastitis, and milk production. Watch it in action below:

More on the Hackathon
You can find the winning prototypes, including Helping Hands, here.

Another amazing thing that came out of the hackathon: an adapter that uses a part from an Ameda pump to make Medela’s Pump In Style safely shareable. This is a remarkable development because the Pump In Style is the most shared pump model—but since it is an open system, it is impossible to sterilize.

This is what the adapter parts look like (courtesy Open Source Breast Pump)

This is what the adapter parts look like (courtesy Open Source Breast Pump)

If you have access to a 3D printer, you can download the adapter parts to print and test. If you don’t have access to a 3D printer, the parts will be available for wider consumption soon and you’ll be able to print them for around $20 at a 3D printer store like this one. Much less expensive than buying a whole new pump! There are other exciting affordable, open source parts being developed that you’ll be able to use with your existing pumps. We’ll keep you posted through Facebook and Twitter, so subscribe!

The Hackathon is over, but the organizers are still taking ideas. Submit them here.

Does your pump talk to you?
Lots of moms say their pumps “talk” to them—there was an awesome thread in our Facebook group for moms on this. We asked people to send in audio of what their pumps say, and the results were a real window into the mind of a pumping mom. You can hear a collection our favorites in the middle of the show—or listen below! This segment was produced in collaboration with our friends at WNYC’s New Tech City.

If you missed our call for audio, write what YOUR pump said in the comments!

How do you want us to use childless men on this show?
I had so much fun sending Sean into the world of lactating boobs and breast pumps that I want to make childless men a regular feature on the podcast. We’ve got a lot of ideas cooking, but we need more! Parents: What situations do you want to hear childless men in on our show? Childless men: What do you find baffling about parenthood and babies? Tell. Us.

Photos: Sean Cole (top); Che-Wei Wang (hackers working); Aaron Wickenden (marriage license)

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