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Breast pumps are getting a much-needed makeover

Ask many mothers and they'll tell you, pumping sucks in more than one sense of the word.

"It feels like you are a cow. You are hooked up to a machine - it's the opposite of breastfeeding," says Nina Emlen, who works full-time in college admissions and pumps milk twice a day for her son, Asher.

Women praise the pumps for giving them the freedom to spend time away from their baby -- to work, fit in a workout or run errands. But the complaints are manifold: The machines use harsh plastic parts, they are noisy and cumbersome, and they require a lot of maintenance and cleaning -- challenges for new parents.

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Now a growing number of startups want to make the breast pump more mother-friendly by using softer silicone parts, and keeping noise level down, for example.

It's not an easy task. The gadgets are considered medical devices and breast pumps sold in the U.S. must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

And though they are now covered by most health insurance plans, any redesign will be factored into new device costs. There are also patents to contend with from competing companies.

Most of the startups working on new pumps and accessories involve parents who grew frustrated with what's on the market today. Many ideas came out of a breast pump "hackathon" held over a weekend in 2014 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In attendance were engineers, computer programmers, clinicians and others interested in improving breast pump problems. In all, some 150 people attended. MIT provided sewing machines, laser cutters, a 3D printer and other tools. Medela, a leading pump maker, sponsored a prize, which went toward a bra that helps women manually express breast milk - an age-old technique - but without using hands.

Pumping generally involves time-consuming, and sometimes complicated, steps: finding a place to do it, wearing a special pumping bra, assembling the valves, tubes, bottles and various plastic parts that attach the pump to the breasts, then the actual pumping. At best, it is uncomfortable and awkward and at worst, it's painful.

"I resigned myself to the fact that pumping was going to be uncomfortable," says Erin McArthur, who lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and exclusively pumped milk for her baby for nearly six months. "That it was something I would have to put up with if I want him to have breastmilk."

Then there's the cleaning and sterilizing of the bottles and parts, at least daily if not more often. There are nooks and crevices to clean thoroughly so infection doesn't occur, wipes, bottle brushes and microwave sterilizers to confound and frustrate bleary-eyed new parents.

Medela, a privately held Swiss company, started selling its best-selling pump for home-and-work use in 1991, after realizing there was a market for it beyond hospital walls. Among its most important improvements is its two-phase expression technology, which mimics the way babies nurse. First, quick sucks simulate milk production, then long gulps once the mother's milk "lets down." The company started selling the improved pumps with the new technology in the early 2000s. Noting that many of today's moms are "digital natives" who like to have information at their hands, Medela also recently created an app that helps parents track their baby's activities and get help with breastfeeding.

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But more can be done, say parents, engineers and researchers working on the newest pump hacks.

Among the efforts to reinvent or at least improve the pump:

- A device called the Mighty Mom Hush-a-Pump wants to shush the grating whack-a-whack-a noise that can makes conference calls awkward for working-and-pumping mothers.

- Ahead of the curve, Freemie milk collection cups, by a husband-and-wife company whose premature twins needed pumped milk from their ER doctor mother, already has products on the market. Designed to work with existing breast pumps, they fit over a woman's breast and allow her to pump discreetly, without getting half naked.

- Recognizing that women often pump in awkward spaces, especially while traveling or working in non-office settings, the startup Mamava has come out with "lactation suites," basically pods, where women can nurse or pump privately. The suites have been installed in airports, colleges, hospitals and malls and even zoos around the country.

- A husband-and-wife startup called Naya Health has submitted a pump for FDA approval that uses water - hydraulics - instead of an air-based suction to express milk from the breast, and soft silicone instead of hard plastic to surround the nipple. The company has raised $3.9 million in venture capital funding.

Janica Alvarez, whose engineer husband concocted a breast pump using a surgical glove, duct tape and other stuff he found around the house, hopes to launch the Naya Health Smart Pump later this year. Because it uses a water-based technology rather than a vacuum motor, Alvarez, who nursed all three of her sons, says it is more akin to a nursing baby.

Emlen, who has not tried the pump, said she liked the idea of using silicone rather than rigid plastic.

"Even aside from the comfort, it seems like a friendlier material," she says. "Somebody thought, oh, I respect this woman who is going to be using this by giving her something soft and comfortable."