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How businesses are using designated areas to help lactating mothers

Interior of a free-standing lactation pod
Interior of a free-standing lactation pod

When Johnathan Fowler had his first child in 2014, it was the first time he realized how hard it can be for new parents to breastfeed.

"I was completely uneducated," Fowler told Morning Edition's Michel Martin.

Fowler remembers his wife nursing in her office when she went back to work after having their first child. Sometimes she'd use the bathroom to get some privacy. That's when Fowler decided his a car dealership with locations in Oklahoma and Colorado, would offer employees a different experience.

"I think the personal became the passionate for me," Fowler said.

Fowler installed eight designated lactation spaces in 2021 for his employees and customers to use — two years before a new law that makes designated breastfeeding stations available across American workplaces.

The PUMP Act, which went into effect April 28th, expands protections for people who chose to breastfeed. The bipartisan law passed in December as part of the omnibus bill. Previously, the 2010 Break Time for Nursing Mothers Act required businesses to provide a designated area and break times for hourly workers to nurse. The new law extends these protections to salaried workers, like nurses and teachers. It also allows workers to sue their employers if they do not abide by this rule.

The Center for American Progress estimates that this act will expand breastfeeding protections to an additional nine million women in the United States.

A Fowler Automotive employee standing next to one of eight the lactation pods Jonathan Fowler purchased.
/ Mamava
A Fowler Automotive employee standing next to one of eight the lactation pods Jonathan Fowler purchased.

"This normalizes that women and women's bodies belong in all industries, and are worthy of respect," said Liz Morris, deputy director at the Center For WorkLife Law. She helped draft the model legislation that the PUMP Act is based on.

The U.S. has no national policy requiring paid parental leave. Through the Family and Medical Leave Act, most parents are eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. But since many can't afford to go that long without income, some parents return to work while they are still nursing.

About 83% of parents start out breastfeeding their children after birth, according to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.. By the time kids are three months old, 69% are breastfeeding, falling to 56% at six months.

Morris said parents are often forced to make tough choices: follow their healthcare provider's recommendations for giving their baby human milk, or continue to work and earn an income.

"That is an impossible and inhumane choice that no person should have to make," she said.

Sascha Mayer, the co-founder of Mamava, which creates freestanding lactation pods for businesses and public spaces said that having a designated area prevents women from pumping in unsanitary areas, like she had to do when she was a young mother.

"The default was often in a restroom, Mayer told NPR. "And that was essentially making food for a human in a place that's being used for the opposite."

Mayer said having these designated areas can help new parents returning to work feel like their workplace understands their needs.

"When you are breastfeeding, it's like an additional job," Mayer said. "By having a space your employer is communicating that they support you that this part of your life is important."

Exterior of a Mamava Pod
/ Mamava
Exterior of a Mamava Pod

Businesses are not required by the PUMP Act to buy a lactation pod. They just have to designate an area for breastfeeding, which means an empty office or supply closet could be repurposed as a nursing area. There are no size or equipment requirements for the room.

For Fowler, a lactation-specific room was what he wanted for his staff but it came with a higher cost. These pods have surfaces made of non-toxic materials, so breast milk can't be contaminated, benches and charging stations can cost anywhere between $10,000-25,000. Fowler paid for all eight lactation pods for his businesses without federal subsidies or support. The PUMP Act does not offer grants or tax write-offs for the costs of setting up a designated nursing area.

"I think that it's important that the government is trying to incentivize small, locally owned businesses that maybe can't afford these types of things, and try to help them be able to provide these opportunities," Fowler said.

Amra Pasic edited the audio version of this story. Erika Aguilar edited the digital version. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 16, 2023 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story misstated the title of Sascha Mayer.
Mansee Khurana
[Copyright 2024 NPR]