“Look down,” Pinar Yanardag tells me.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist was sitting with me not long ago in a large, bustling room in Cambridge, Mass. But the view in my virtual reality headset was of a dimly lit nursery with baby photos on the walls. I heard peaceful music playing.
When I looked down, I was startled to see an animated baby nursing at my left breast.
The virtual reality scene was a neat trick — but it’s also at the heart of a technology Yanardag hopes could one day transform the postpartum experience. The first step is what she calls “Virtual Letdown,” an immersive VR app that could let a user pump breast milk both more enjoyably and more effectively.
The project aims to address a common problem for new mothers: It’s easiest for the body to release milk, a process controlled by the hormone oxytocin, when a woman is relaxed. But relaxing can be difficult when you’re hooked up to a noisy suction device in a locked office or a bathroom.
With virtual reality, “you can basically teleport yourself into a nice baby nursery,” said Yanardag, who is originally from Istanbul. “You don’t need to see this environment, see all these pumps and wires and everything.”
Already some research suggests small environmental changes can drive physiological responses while pumping. A 2015 study conducted in India looked at 29 mothers of premature babies in neonatal intensive care units. The authors found that when mothers listened to music while pumping, they produced a greater volume of milk and had less of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.
Three years earlier, U.S. researchers studied the mothers of 162 premature babies who were also in intensive care. One group of moms pumped while listening to a spoken guided-relaxation recording. A second group heard the recording with guitar lullabies added, and a third group heard the words and music while also seeing pictures of their own babies.
All three groups pumped more milk than a control group; mothers in the experimental groups also made milk with a higher fat content. And the most striking results were in mothers who saw photos of their babies.
Yanardag knows how difficult it can be to relax when trying to pump or breastfeed. When her daughter, Ada, was born in January 2018, she struggled to latch onto the breast, was jaundiced, and wasn’t gaining enough weight. She was also diagnosed with a lip- and tongue-tie, which she eventually had surgery to address.
Finally, Ada started growing. “For a month, everything was perfect,” Yanardag recalled. “And then suddenly she just stopped breastfeeding. She started screaming when I tried to put her to my breast.”
From that day forward, Ada refused to nurse. Doctors couldn’t find the problem. So Yanardag started pumping milk to bottle-feed her baby. Eight times a day, for 25 minutes at a time, she sat hooked up to tubes and electronics, “reminding me that I failed at breastfeeding my daughter,” she said.
It was a difficult time. But in the midst of it, Yanardag started to think that she was lucky to have had the “amazing experience” of breastfeeding for even three months. She had started watching virtual reality tutorials. “And it all suddenly clicked,” she said: She would create an app that let other moms experience breastfeeding in a virtual environment — and let Yanardag revisit the activity she missed.
She got to work. After about a week of planning and another week of coding, Yanardag brought Virtual Letdown to a breast pump hackathon at MIT. Her work impressed judges, who gave her an award that came with five VR headsets.
Danielle Prime, a lactation scientist for Medela, which manufactures breastfeeding products, was at the MIT hackathon and tried out Virtual Letdown there. She said she had to resist the urge to reach out and cradle the virtual baby.
With the headset on, “I felt calm and serene,” Prime said. These feelings suggested oxytocin, the hormone that releases breast milk, was at work. “Perhaps the hormonal response could be triggered during this immersive experience as it would during breastfeeding,” Prime said. “I would love to see some scientific research exploring this further.”
Yanardag has been able to test the app with a few other women. One was her friend Laila Akbiyik, an architect and mother of two, who said she tried the app three or four times. Akbiyik said she normally finds it hard to settle down while she’s pumping. “Even if I try to relax, the view of our tiny pumping cabin is pretty depressing,” she said. She tries to pass the time by checking Instagram or Facebook on her phone. But the app put her in a different headspace.
“It was the first time I ever tried a VR headset, and the experience was pretty amazing,” Akbiyik said.
Yanardag now thinks mothers to premature babies are the best audience for her product. She’s especially interested in getting the app into hospitals, where virtual reality has a growing presence; many companies offer VR apps for surgery training or practice, for example. But she said she doesn’t know of any companies using the technology to address birth or postpartum health.
If the response to Virtual Letdown is good, Yanardag hopes to create more apps, building a suite of VR programs: a virtual lactation consultant, for example, and another app that could help expectant mothers overcome a fear of delivery by virtually leading them through different birth scenarios.
Yanardag also imagines a virtual doula app that could assist women in labor, maybe linked to the device that monitors a woman’s contractions.
Despite her early struggles, little Ada is healthy and happy now. She still drinks bottles of breast milk, which her mom still pumps. And Yanardag thinks being a mother gives her an unusual perspective. She sees few women in the field of virtual reality, she said, and even fewer mothers. The other researchers in the field may not have birth and babies on their minds.
“But I think I am now at a position where I can see the opportunity and actually have the incentive to do something in that area,” she said. “I think I am in a unique position that can make a difference.”