A startup called Lilu took the stage today at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco to show off their prototype bra designed to help breastfeeding mothers pump milk more efficiently, and hands-free. The device, which is meant to be worn over or even attached to a standard nursing bra, utilizes a built-in compression mechanism that simulates the breast massage that some mothers perform to help stimulate the flow of milk and prevent clogged glands.
The idea for the product comes from M.I.T. and UPenn graduates, Adriana Vazquez and Sujay Suresh, both of whom shared an interest in health care technology.
Explains Vazquez, she was inspired to create the device after a friend of hers returned to work after having a child.
"It was the first time I saw up close what it was like to be a working mother," she says. "It struck me how little I knew about the challenges that working moms face."
Vazquez then began interviewing working moms about their struggles, and found that one of the topics that came up repeatedly was how difficult it was to continue to breastfeed after returning to work.
"The biggest culprit was the breast pump," she says.
One of the problems with pumping is that you often end up producing less milk. One of the solutions that doctors and lactation consultants recommend, which is backed by research from the Stanford Children's Hospital, is using breat massage. This technique not only can help with production, but it also helps you get milk that's richer in fat content, can extend your supply for longer periods of time, and may allow you to pump your milk in less time.
However, breast massage ties up a woman's hands from other tasks while pumping - a process that can take 30 minutes or even an hour, depending on various factors.
With that understanding, the team at Lilu developed a device that simulates the massage process using compressed air. The technology applies similar compression patterns to those recommended by lactation experts, which not only frees up mom's hands, but also can help those who have to regularly perform massage from getting sore thumbs and fingers. (There's even a word for this: "mommy thumb," notes Vazquez.)
Lilu is worn like a bra, with a backstrap that clips together and velcro straps around the top and bottom. It can also optionally attach to your nursing bra for extra support. A round button in at the top center works as a power button and lets you control the strength of the massage itself. Access for a USB charger is below - yes, it's a battery-powered bra.
The device works with any standard breast pump, as well, as it's meant to augment the pumping process, not replace it.
Lilu, however, may face its own challenges as it prepares to launch.
For starters, not all moms even know about using massage to help with milk flow.
Plus, not every mother, nor even every breastfeeding mother, will have the sorts of problems with milk flow that require the use of breast massage. And among those who do, they may feel that using their hands is not something they feel the need to automate through a piece of technology.
That means this device will essentially appeal to a subset of nursing mothers at the start, and will then need to educate the wider market to broaden adoption among other potential customers.
Priced at $249, it's also one of those "luxury" baby products. It's not something as essential as diapers and wipes, but will compete for parents' dollars alongside other "baby tech" products, like fancy baby monitors, or booties that detect baby's vitals.
And the company can't currently claim that the device will help moms produce more milk than manual massage, because they haven't yet tested it at scale.
However, Lilu was built with input from those who understand the massage technique involved, including doctors, nurses, and lactation consultants.
The startup is also backed by the Y Combinator Fellowship, the National Science Foundation, and the HAX Accelerator in China, and has received a number of grants and awards from various competitions and funds.
Based in Philadelphia, Lilu is a very early stage team of three.
The company is taking pre-orders as of today's launch at TechCrunch Disrupt, and aims to begin shipping in 2018.