Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Lactation pods can make travel less daunting for nursing moms.
Babies wail, throw up, and poop anywhere—they don’t care if you’re on a crowded bus, or an airplane experiencing lurching turbulence, or an express subway car hurtling past dozens of blocks. And when they’re hungry, they’re hungry. Right now. Hunger, at least, seems relatively easy to pacify: Just feed them. But for nursing moms, that’s not always an easy task.
Breastfeeding or pumping on the go can be accompanied by a litany of obstacles, from public reactions (Is anyone going to hassle me?) to logistics (Where do I sit? Is there a spot to plug in my breast pump?) to the headache of navigating regulations dictating accommodation for nursing mothers that are neither universally understood nor uniformly enforced. Airports can prove especially tricky.
In theory, passengers can bring bottles of breast milk through security in carry-on luggage. In the U.S., expressed breast milk is classified as a “medically necessary liquid,” which grants it an exemption from the 3-1-1 rule that governs Transportation Security Administration policies about most carry-on liquids.
Still, this doesn’t always go smoothly. Last April, the TSA agreed to pay a $75,000 settlement to a California woman after agents refused to allow her to pass through the security checkpoint at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport with bottles of breast milk.
Breastfeeding or pumping in a terminal can be a daunting prospect, too: Nursing mothers either have to stake out a quiet corner near the gate—often full of disgruntled, sprawled-out passengers—or find space in a potentially grungy airport bathroom.
Recently, a handful of airports around the country have made efforts to become more hospitable to moms who are nursing or pumping. Earlier this month, free-standing lactation pods were installed at New York’s LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark airports. (Designed by Mamava, the pods were imagined as “safe, clean, and functional” spaces that afford privacy and quiet.) Each lockable pod contains outlets to accommodate breast pumps as well as room for luggage. In addition to New York, lactation stations are up and running in General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee and the Burlington International Airport in Vermont. An accompanying app also identifies other pods and user-submitted locations nationwide.
This isn’t the first time that cities have experimented with ways to make breastfeeding more comfortable for women in transit. Last year, Quartz reported that public buses in China’s Zhejiang province were launching a program to set aside curtained-off seats for nursing mothers. Some women critiqued the privacy nooks. Leigh Anne O’Connor, a U.S.-based lactation consultant, argued that the shroud of secrecy around breastfeeding was actually a disservice to women:
“If we bring [breastfeeding] back, normalize it … we don’t have to hide behind curtains. It’s a normal part of life.”
As a culture, we do seem to be squeamish about breast milk. There are dozens of stories of women who have been shamed, asked to cover up, or escorted elsewhere while nursing, even though many states’ laws permit women to breastfeed in nearly any location, public or private. But if lactation pods or obscured seats make at least some breastfeeding women more comfortable, that seems to be a step in a more empathic direction.