It was supposed to be called Dove, to symbolize peace. But when Yuichi Nakata translated the word from Japanese, he ended up with Pigeon. To this day, the company that currently sells about 100 million bottle teats a year and has a more than 80 percent share of the Japanese market still goes by that misnomer.
It’s been 60 years since the late Nakata started his company, which is now run by his grandson, Yusuke Nakata. Because of plummeting birth rates in Japan, Nakata is migrating the business to China, and hopefully all around the world. For the millions of mothers who opt not to use traditional breastfeeding as the primary method to feed their children, bottle feeding is the second-in-command. And it’s Pigeon that hopes to make the alternative as smart and science-based as possible.
It didn’t start out that way. Yuichi Nakata’s original master plan for researching artificial teat design was going up to lactating women and asking them if he could drink their milk himself. Many, astonishingly, said yes. Nakata reportedly drank the milk of over 1,000 women, of all backgrounds and professions. Of course he also had rejections. "My grandfather was even slapped by women after he made the proposal," Yusuke Nakata, now the company’s managing director at Pigeon's Singapore office, told Reuters.
The researchers eventually (and thankfully) moved to a more scientific method — placing video cameras underneath the baby bottles, hoping to see up close how exactly babies drank. While this came with less collateral damage, it was still too crude a method. But the best option — asking the babies directly — wasn’t possible, Nakata said, “so we came up with using ultrasound devices.”
This method, which finally has allowed Pigeon to hit its stride in the global market, employs a tiny wand that a clinician waves under babies’ chins while they drink from a bottle. These devices pick up the subtle movements of the babies’ tongues. Researchers can use this data to build a more efficient teat that mimics the natural sensation of a mother’s breast.
Luckily for Nakata and his team, babies don’t need to be convinced to use the products. Babies are born with a natural sense to latch onto a mother’s nipple. When the nipple hits the roof of their mouth, their tongue engages in a reflexive action called peristalsis. On numerous occasions this rhythmic suckling has acted as a barometer for the team’s latest advance. "When a difficult baby drinks using our prototype teats, we're thrilled," said Satoru Saito, general manager of Pigeon’s R&D center, to Reuters.
The advances have been great, Saito explains. What began as a rubber teat that turned out to be easily breakable eventually turned into a durable silicone-made model that was even more flexible than its predecessor. Pigeon hopes its innovations in the teat market will capture 50 percent of the global market share by 2020.
What implications that holds for global health, however, will remain unknown. One 2013 study found that babies who are bottle-fed are twice as likely to become obese by age 2. The researchers behind the study cite the easy tendency to refill the bottle, and thus overfeed the child, as the primary cause. So while babies may enjoy a more realistic feeding experience with Pigeon’s growing advances, there may be an upside to keeping the experience less than perfect.