Yes, this is a review of a nursing bra. No, this is not me getting all mommyblogger. If you are a woman with a new kid and you work, then milking yourself is a weird and frequent part of your work schedule. It's also obnoxious. So I want to make sure you know about two ways to make it a little less obnoxious. One is a Kickstarter-funded product (i.e., a handy solution to an everyday problem created by an inventive Maker). The other is a simple hack you can do at your desk for $1.50. In other words, this is about boobs and babies. And it's also very BoingBoing.
First up is the Arden Bra, an all-in-one nursing/pumping/bra-ing bra from a company whose name is sadly so cutesy it kind of pains me to type it ... The Dairy Fairy. Yeah. Anyway, the Arden is the production-scale result of a Kickstarter campaign that ran last year. It's the invention of Emily Ironi and it fills a serious need in lady undergarments.
For those of you who don't (or don't yet) have babies and are confused about the context, let me briefly explain why this bra matters. Breastfeeding is a supply and demand system. So if you want to breastfeed, you have to keep draining your boobs as though you are feeding a baby even when that baby is not around. If you don't, you produce less milk and can't feed said baby when it is nearby. This is why women use breast pumps at the office. It's why I just spent the last five days running around a major science conference with a breast pump in my work bag. And pumping, I'm sad to say, is frustratingly inconvenient. Beyond the rigamarole of finding a place to pump — for some reason, pumping feels obscene to me in a way that breastfeeding doesn't, so I'm not going to just whip it out in public — and getting the pump itself set up, you also have to deal with how you attach the pumping mechanism to your boobs. Usually, there are two choices. Either you sit there holding the funnels in place for 15 minutes while you stare into space, or you free up your hands with a hands-free pumping bra. The problem with the latter is that it requires you to take off the bra you're currently wearing and replace it with a zip-up bustier, which basically means getting half undressed every time you pump. Which is 3-6 times each workday (and more if you're at a conference miles from your kid). Fun!
The Arden bra solves this problem because the hands-free pumping bra is built into the standard nursing bra. You've got the usual snaps on the shoulder to drop the cup for nursing. And you've got little hooks around the band that allow you to open the bra in a different way, revealing a slit opening that the pumping funnel fits into. You don't have to take off your shirt. You don't have to awkwardly zip a second bra over the top of your first. You don't even have to get your boobs all the way out in order to make this work.
I bought an Arden and used it last Wednesday through yesterday while I traveled to Chicago and back and it was fantastic. The bra did a great job of holding the pumping system in place, so I had my hands free to work. It was also incredibly great for the variety of places I found myself pumping — by the sink of an airport restroom, in some random person's office at The Shedd Aquarium, in my shared hotel room, and in several different conference center bathrooms. None of these spots were private. The Arden bra was discreet enough that I felt like I kept at least a shred of my dignity while engaging in a behavior that looks, at a distance, like it belongs in a fetish club. As a bonus, the bra cups are cut lower than your standard nursing bra, so you can wear it under your regular business casual clothing without having bra sticking out from around the neckline. It was also plenty comfy to sleep in for those great middle-of-the-night pumpings.
The downside: The Arden Bra costs $68. In the grand scheme of things, this isn't ridiculous. A nursing bra alone usually costs more than $40 and you'll pay at least another $30 for the zip-up hands-free pumping bra. But I also wanted to test out a cheaper option.
Enter pony-tail holders. This morning, I followed the directions on KellyMom.com that allow you to turn a normal nursing bra into a hands-free pumping bra using four hair elastics, two for each side. You just make the figure eight shown above, loop one end around the pump funnel and the other end over the snap on your nursing bra. That, and the suction produced by the pump, is enough to hold the funnel in place. Ba-da-bing. And it does work. But, here's the thing, depending on the kind of work you do and where you do it, you might still want to pay up for the Arden Bra.
While I will likely use the hair-tie method when I'm working from my home office, there are two big flaws that make it less than ideal for traveling. First, you have to pull the whole boob out to make it work. That's not a big deal. I do it when I'm nursing my baby all the time. But without the baby, it does feel more awkward. When you're crammed up between the sink and the towel dispenser in the airport ladies' room, it's kind of nice to, at least, not have your boobs out while you do it. With the Arden Bra, only the nipple is visible and even that is pretty much hidden inside the pumping funnel.
The second problem is leaks. I've used the hair-tie method twice now and it dribbles. Again, no big if I'm at home. But I don't want little breastmilk stains on my big-girl work clothes. It's completely plausible that I just don't have it down well yet and, with a little practice, I'll be able to do it leak free. But you should know it's a risk that's being taken here.
Caveats aside, both of these options are better than the zip-up, bustier-style hands-free pumping bra. Much, much better. It's amazing how a small measure of added convenience can improve your quality of life. If you're breastfeeding, I would highly recommend ditching that thing and either buying an Arden Bra, pulling out the hair ties, or both.
Image: Vintage breast pump. Some rights reserved by Cherrysweetdeal
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.