Nursing mothers struggle to find lactation spaces at the U

The introduction of lactation pods at the U raises questions of accessibility, stigma.

Rilyn Eischens

For women who choose to breastfeed, finding an adequate place to pump on campus only adds to an already tense experience.

While University of Minnesota advocates have worked for years to add more lactation rooms on campus, some nursing mothers still struggle to find convenient spaces to use breast pumps, which can discourage women from breastfeeding or even delay their return to the University.

Lactation spaces

Since women don’t typically bring babies to campus, finding spaces to use breast pumps is the biggest problem for many nursing mothers, said Laura Duckett, associate professor in the University’s School of Nursing and member of the school’s Lactation Advocacy Committee and the Minnesota Breastfeeding Coalition’s local chapter.

When nursing mothers return to work, they must pump to maintain an adequate milk supply for later, said Susan Warfield, director of the Student Parent HELP Center and founder of the LAC.

There are over 20 public spaces for lactation at the University, up from the three available 15 years ago, Warfield said, adding more could still be done.

The Affordable Care Act and a Minnesota statute mandate that employers allow nursing mothers breaks as needed and a space — not a restroom — to pump, she said.

Generally, that space is a private, lockable room with an outlet and a seat, Warfield said.

“With a baby, you can hardly tell what a woman is doing,” she said. “With pumping, you literally have to expose yourself completely.”

While some point to public restrooms as a solution, they’re not always sanitary, Warfield said.

“Would you want to make a sandwich for yourself in one of the public restrooms that a hundred people use every day?” she said.

Another major issue is finding space close to a woman’s workplace.

“Most women are doing this two to three times a day,” said LAC member and University administrative assistant Jaclyn Adair. “If you have a room that’s not very accessible, that takes a lot of time out of your work day.”

One solution to this problem is the LacPod, a mobile lactation space constructed as a senior project in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. It was installed in Coffman Memorial Union last spring for a year-long trial.

Warfield came up with the idea for the LacPod because the demand for lactation spaces is fluid, and there can be long periods with no need for the spaces.

The project has received positive feedback so far, said University mechanical engineering graduate Paul Wichser, who helped design and build the LacPod.

Coffman is a great spot for the moveable LacPod because it’s a high-traffic area without a permanent lactation room, Wichser said.

The first LacPod was a prototype and wouldn’t withstand much moving, but its designers hope to create a profitable business from the idea, he said.

“Sex-obsessed and sex-phobic”

Breastfeeding is important to child development, said Tai Mendenhall, family social science professor at the University.

“The physical and mental benefits of breastfeeding are a thousand studies deep — in terms of the baby’s health, in terms of the baby’s ability to resist disease and infection, in terms of the baby’s allergies,” he said.

But western views of sexuality can produce a stigma around breastfeeding in public which makes it stressful for nursing moms to feed their children outside the home.

“We don’t have any problem with the supermodel showing most of her breast on the cover of … [a] magazine, but if we see even half of that out in public underneath a blanket as someone’s feeding their child, it’s offensive,” Mendenhall said.

U.S. culture is both sex-phobic and sex-obsessed, he said, complicating discussions over breastfeeding.

Duckett said the discussion around breastfeeding has grown more important in recent decades.

“The whole thing about breastfeeding in this day and age in a developed country is that … so many women are working outside the home or attending school, and we have both of those populations here at the University,” she said.

Added stressors

Adair said she joined LAC after giving birth to her son.

“I started thinking about where I was going to pump because my office is not private, and … the designated lactation space in [my building] at the time was subpar,” she said.

She found an unused office but often had to search for available conference rooms or other open spaces, she said.

University teaching specialist and LAC member Sarah Keene said she had trouble with meetings around campus when she was nursing. She said she’d leave meetings in buildings with no lactation room to walk to parts of campus with appropriate spaces, adding tension to her work.

“Coming back from leave is stressful enough because you’re leaving your child … and then on top of it you’re trying to make this pumping thing work which can be very stressful,” Keene said.

Students can face additional worry, Duckett said, because they may not even be aware of the lactation resources available, and when they do, they must use a number of spaces as they travel around campus for class.

“Anecdotally … we do know that it’s delayed [students’] reentry back into the U, and that’s absolutely not what we want,” Warfield said.

Studies by the University have shown at least 25 percent of nursing mothers surveyed at the University weren’t able to breastfeed for as long as they intended because of a lack of resources, Warfield said.

“Nobody expects that there’s going to be a student in the class that needs to leave to pump, but … we serve students every day that have to breastfeed on campus,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this article, entitled “Nursing moms stuggle to find lactation areas on campus,” which was printed on Sept. 26 incorrectly stated the characterized the lactation pods. There are 20 lactation spaces.