Milky boobs are harder to handle than you might expect. They leak and can be incredibly painful if the breast milk isn't regularly drained, either into a baby or a bottle for safekeeping. Even women who use wearable tech to track all kinds of bodily functions still face age-old challenges when it comes to breastfeeding.
"For decades, women have struggled to keep nursing," says Kristy Burns, VP of marketing at Willow. "Often because they have to stop what they are doing and get to a private place to pump."
New parents also struggle to manage feeding schedules and measure how much milk the infant consumes straight from the breast. Luckily, there are now several tech startups developing wearables that tackle the complex science of breast milk.
Willow, one of the leading startups in this space, was founded in 2014 and finally debuted its hands-free, cordless breast pump at CES in January. The dual device, one tear-drop shaped pump for each breast, is so compact it can be inserted inside a bra. It's also reportedly much quieter than traditional breast pumps and connects with an app that creates a timeline for milk volume, which helps women understand their bodies and manage their schedules.
"We listened, really listened to first-time moms, experienced moms, lactation consultants and doctors," Burns says. "We didn't feel improving on current technology would be enough."
Confronting the stigmas
Willow's smart connected breast pumps
This gadget was largely made for women, by women. More than half of Willow's team are women, including CEO Naomi Kelman. Their team even includes new moms who participated in testing the product.
After years of development, Willow announced that the product will be available on its website this spring for the hefty price of $430, almost twice the cost of other electric breast pumps. Although a mobile breast pump may seem simple enough, it actually represents an important step towards empowering women to confront the stigmas surrounding lactation.
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The health benefits of breastfeeding are indisputable. The World Health Organization and UNICEF agree that newborns should consume only natural breast milk for the first six months. Yet women still routinely face harassment if they breastfeed in public. Breastfeeding women are often denied their legal right to pump breast milk at work by discriminatory employers.
This is exactly the kind of dilemma that Willow helps users address. "Working women are thrilled they can now take conference calls without hitting the mute button and continue to work while pumping because their hands are free," Burns says.
Beyond sexism, another challenge that often deters breastfeeding mothers is the inability to measure consumption. Unlike bottles, a nursing mother can't measure the quantity of milk in her breasts while feeding. According to a study published in the health journal Pediatrics, a survey with 532 first-time mothers revealed that 44% were concerned about producing enough breast milk to keep their children healthy. This concern drives many new moms to ditch breastfeeding altogether, according to a report by the Surgeon General's office. However Israeli startup MomSense launched a wearable device to tackle exactly this problem.
"A lot of wearable tech products have been designed by men, for men"
MomSense is a small circular stethoscope that sits under the baby's chin, just along the jawline. It records the infant swallowing and translates that data to graphs inside the parent's smartphone app. It's smart enough to detect the difference between a gurgle, a half gulp and a full swallow, which helps parents understand when to detach the infant and investigate a problem. It also creates a feeding timeline, to help track how often and how much the baby drinks.
"As a mom, developing the smart breastfeeding meter was so rewarding," Noa Zuckerman, MomSense product manager, tells Wareable. "Now, using Momsense with my one-month-old baby, the practicality of having all this knowledge is so real to me. The stress and worry is now removed as I nurse my second baby."
MomSense is already available at a variety of retailers from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. Marketing director Shelley Berdugo tells us that Momsense has analyzed over 13,000 nursing sessions around the world. Their data can help pinpoint more than just a full baby belly.
The timeline also helps parents track growth spurts and the onset of health problems, among other changes in the baby's health. "When your baby has a really bad cold and cries all the time, the natural intuition of the mother is to feed," Berdugo says. "But that's not always the solution. You can look and see if he's eaten enough, then maybe the problem is something else."
A wider shift
The MomSense helps parents understand how their babies are feeding
Like Willow, this second breast-centric startup is another anomaly in an industry where women are underrepresented. Momsense launched its product in 2016 under the guidance of Israeli scientist Dr. Osnat Emanuel. Although the company recently transferred leadership to a new CEO, Ken Zweibel, around half of their staff are still women. Both Willow and Momsense represent a wider shift in wearables, with more companies promoting women scientists and prioritizing women's health.
"A lot of wearable tech products have been designed by men, for men," Marija Butkovic, cofounder of the professional network Women of Wearables, tells us. "The more women enter this industry, the more diverse ideas we'll have."
WoW has been around for less than a year and already has more than 1,000 participants worldwide. Butkovic said many of her professional peers in the network describe struggling with the same glass ceiling and social stigmas. Ironically, at the CES conference in Las Vegas where Willow debuted, event organizers told a female tech reporter last year to pump breast milk in the bathroom, an unsanitary and humiliating rebuff. There's still a long way to go until the industry fully embraces women.
"It's also a problem of how investors perceive women," Butkovic says, arguing investors needs to look beyond affluent men as quintessential early adopters. "Only by producing more tech that focuses on women and average people will we see what works... I was talking to my husband and said I'm going to need Willow when we have a baby."