By Ethan de Seife
September 19th, 2013
Traveling with children is difficult enough. Traveling with an infant can be even more challenging, especially for a nursing mother who requires the use of a breast pump—a device that calls for a certain amount of space, time and privacy if it is to be used without complications.
Local design company Mamava, founded by Christine Dodson and Williston resident Sascha Mayer, has come up with a unique solution to that problem, and, lately, it has been attracting national and even international attention. Mamava’s prototype “lactation station,” underwritten in part by Vermont-based children’s apparel company Zutano, was recently unveiled at the Burlington International Airport.
The station, or “pod,” is a private booth designed for lactating mothers, and is intended for public spaces, where the use of a breast pump can be awkward. Inside, the pod features seating, a table and electrical outlet to accommodate the use of a breast pump, food-safe surfaces, soft lighting and space enough for luggage. Many a nursing mother will find it a welcome alternative to such inconvenient and unsanitary spaces as airport restrooms. “That’s making food in a bathroom,” Mayer said.
Pumping breast milk is not just a convenience, but a necessity. La Leche League, the international organization that promotes and raises awareness of issues related to breastfeeding, notes that a lactating mother may need to pump her milk as often as every few hours—a task rendered even more complex by long flights.
Creating a lactation station presented a number of design challenges. It needed to be welcoming, functional, safe and easy to clean. Inside, many surfaces are made of Corian, a material often used in kitchen countertops. “After all,” Mayer said, “we’re making food in here.”
The absence of sharp edges is a safety feature that also contributes to a “womblike” experience.
The media attention that Mamava has received—articles have appeared on CNN’s website and in The New York Times—has resulted in a flurry of interest from other airports, as well as from universities and retailers in 14 states and Canada. Mayer anticipates that the next phase of the rollout will entail the manufacture of about ten more pods, each costing approximately $10,000. These new models will incorporate certain design refinements that have yet to be finalized, but which may include video screens or adjustments to allow airport announcements to be heard more clearly.
Burlington International Airport Director of Aviation Gene Richards learned of the project in its early stages, and actively sought out and received the approval of the airport’s board.
“I didn’t even have to think about it,” Richards said. “It was just the right thing to do.”
Richards moved some vending machines to a different location, placing the Mamava pod in a prominent location beyond the TSA checkpoint.
“We’re just delighted to be involved in something like this,” he said. “I believe we’re getting closer to meeting the needs of the traveling public, and making the airport a better place.”
Mayer sees the mission of Mamava as going beyond providing a convenient, “serene” space for nursing mothers. The lactation station is the first of the company’s design-based solutions to larger problems concerning the public perceptions of women and of breastfeeding. “Many engineers and facilities managers don’t understand the logistics,” she said. “They ask, ‘Can’t you just feed the baby at home?’”
By placing their strikingly designed pods in public spaces such as airports, schools and workplaces, Mamava aims to raise awareness of a problem unknown to many people.
“I hear all sorts of stories, about pumping in bathrooms… about pumping in a boss’s office because it was the only private space at work,” Mayer said. “Once (people) hear about this problem, they say, ‘I can’t believe that happens. Let’s fix this thing!’”
Ultimately, the problem that Mamava is addressing is one of access to the space, time and resources needed for proper breastfeeding, which itself is necessary for infants’ growth and development. One provision of the Affordable Care Act is that companies with more than 50 hourly employees must provide both space and time for lactating mothers to pump or nurse.
Early reports seem to indicate that Mamava’s pod is a welcome addition to the airport. A traveler recently emailed to inform Richards that “BTV is (her) new favorite airport,” crediting the Mamava station as one reason. Nikki Dryden, a human rights and immigration lawyer in Burlington, noted that pumping is more difficult than actual nursing, and tends to produce less milk. The Mamava station allowed her “a little privacy to stretch out, open up our bags and just feed in quiet,” she said.
Cassie Lindsay, a Burlington resident who works for the Vermont Food Bank, also had a positive experience using the lactation station. “There’s this romantic notion (about nursing) of the mother and the child together,” she said. “But pumping is really mechanical, impersonal and artificial. … To have a quiet, designated space where you don’t feel ostracized or embarrassed or apologetic is really amazing.”