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Wearable Tech

Willow breast pump wants to put the focus back on moms

Most tech for new parents puts all the attention on the baby, but Willow's unconventional breast pump believes moms should get great tech too.

A woman presses a button on the breast pump she's slipped into her tank top

Willow is an unconventional breast pump that puts the entire pumping apparatus inside two independent gadgets you can wear inside your clothing. 

Willow

It's apt that breastfeeding has a term called "letdown."

Most breast pumps haven't changed significantly in their design since they were modified from the mechanized gadgets designed to milk cows. And using one today, you feel -- literally -- the lack of innovation. Enter Willow, one of a crop of new breast pumps that aims to reinvent the concept by making it easier for women to pump as they go about their day. 

A new breast pump that improves mobility and flexibility would be a boon to working mothers -- a fundamental part of the broader workforce. About 70 percent of mothers work, and 40 percent are primary family breadwinners, according to the US Labor Department. But even though US pediatricians recommend babies be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months (and the World Health Organization recommends babies be breastfed for two years), more than half of new moms are back on the job within four months of giving birth.

For many of us, that means pumping. 

Standard electronic breast pumps consist of a motor -- usually loud -- that tethers to a woman by tubes connected to plastic siphons. Conventional breast pumps require you go to a private place, partially undress and sit there with blowhorn-like flanges cinched to your chest that spit out milk into bottles, while the grunting motor tugs at your breast tissue for about 10 to 20 minutes.

Finish and repeat two to four times each workday.

All told, I spend at least one hour every day I'm working in what I call pumping prison. I partially wrote this story in a windowless room, latched to a breastpump. Over the hundreds (thousands?) of hours I've spent in pumping prison, I've tried to come up with an analogy for how disruptive, uncomfortable and time-consuming it is. 

The best I've come up with: Imagine donating blood plasm every three hours a day, each day you're working, no matter where you are or what else you need be be doing, half-naked and acting as your own nurse, too.

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The goal of Willow is "to give moms their lives back and dignity back," said Naomi Kelman, Willow's CEO.

Willow is a pair of gadgets generally shaped like a cupped hand that independently contain the entire pumping apparatus, so you can wear it inside your clothing. Encasing a near-silent motor, storage bag and battery system, the design of Willow means that women can pump out in the open, in the middle of doing whatever their doing, without most people even noticing. 

I won't lie: When I first heard about Willow, the concept blew my mind. 

Using Willow holds the potential for a less uncomfortable pumping experience, in several ways. Fundamentally, you wouldn't need to sit partially undressed for 20 minutes at work, of course, but Willow has other comfort-level advantages. Its suction is lower than traditional pumps -- Kelman says this is by design, because those pumps are usually creating suction through long plastic tubes that tether a flange on your body to the pump itself sitting on a table near you. 

Willow's two parts open to show the doughnut-shaped storage bag inside

Willow's doughnut-shaped storage bags fit inside the pump itself, which has its own cordless motor so you can pump as you go about your day.

Willow

And Willow doesn't need the woman to manually change its speed, because it automatically adjusts to your body's flow of milk: fast to trigger expression and slow to collect.

But Willow has drawbacks, too. 

Cost is the primary downside. The pump is priced at $479, at the high end of the range for non-hospital-grade breast pumps, the kind that most working moms use. And Willow doesn't yet participate in any health insurance subsidies. Since the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) in 2010, almost all health insurance plans are required to provide a free breast pump. Willow doesn't participate in any plans yet. 

However, Willow and its supplies qualify for purchase with pre-tax dollars in a health savings account, which can lower a portion of the cost.

Still, Willow's devices each have their own storage bag inside to collect milk, and each bag costs 50 cents -- so every time you pump, it costs you a dollar. The bags themselves store 4 ounces. At the height of your milk production, you may find that one breast might express more than that in single session, tapping the incremental costs higher. 

Willow itself introduced me to one of its customers, a physician who has been using Willow as she breastfeeds her second child, who said she couldn't put a price on the time and hassle she saves by using Willow. 

But for a woman who would use Willow over the course of an eight-hour work day away from her baby, spending $4 to $8 a day to use a device that costs almost $500 is simply a lot more expensive than...free. 

It's also important to note that pumping isn't just the domain of mothers who work away from their babies. Women who work as a primary caregiver, like full-time moms, still need to pump sometimes -- to build a back-up supply of milk, for example. The Willow customer I spoke with noted that because Willow was more convenient than traditional pumping, she found herself pumping not only on the job but also when she was reading to her older child or doing the dishes.

I haven't tried Willow, so I can't vouch for how much value I'd put on the amount of convenience it provides. As a longtime inmate of pumping prison, this get-out-jail card is powerfully enticing, even if it's far from free.

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