On the sixth floor of MIT’s Media Lab last weekend, babies and strollers seemed to outnumber laptops. The bathrooms were stocked with diapers, wipes, and essential-oil atomizers. Private spaces for nursing, with soft lighting and fuzzy pillows, abounded.
The occasion was a hackathon that brought together developers, designers, and others to, as the event’s title puts it, “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck.” One team developed LactPac, a waterproof kit for breastfeeding in the event of a natural disaster. Another suggested modifications to traditional Pueblo regalia to make it easier for Native American women to breastfeed. One of the tech-focused solutions was a virtual-reality app intended to increase oxytocin levels and thus help induce the release of milk for mothers pumping away from home.
The event was a reboot of its 2014 predecessor, which focused more explicitly on engineering and product design: how to build a better breast pump. Optimization of products and design is something that engineers do well—and hackathons can be accelerants of that process.
But after witnessing the conversations among midwives, doulas, engineers, designers, and parents at the inaugural event four years ago, Catherine D’Ignazio, one of its organizers, says it became clear that there was a divide between these groups—the technical crowd and the users. They hadn’t really talked to each other before. D’Ignazio also told me that the conversations the 2014 hackathon sparked indicated that breastfeeding is experienced quite differently by different socioeconomic and racial groups.
What emerged was an awareness that the challenges surrounding breastfeeding were not just technical and equipment-based. There were practical, social, and economic obstacles that needed to be addressed. Even under perfect circumstances, breastfeeding will not work for every family, but at the core of the hackathon’s vision is that it definitely could be much easier for many people, and there are plenty of borderline cases for which changing the circumstances, technologies, and systems could have a real impact.