When Christine Dodson, a managing director at Solidarity Design in Vermont, first came off of her maternity leave years ago, she had to get up in the middle of an off-site client meeting to use her breast pump. The only place to do it was right in the middle of the bathroom. She was mortified.
It's an experience that she and her colleague, brand strategist Sascha Mayer, repeated again and again as both mothers traveled for work, passing through public spaces like airports and trade shows. It’s one that many new moms continue to know well. "Even though there’s so much pressure in society to breast pump and do the right thing for the baby, there’s not a lot of accommodations for it," says Mayer.
That’s what the two are trying to change with their company, Mamava, which they co-own with their employers at Solidarity Design. They’ve created "lactation suites," or free-standing mobile pods that offer mothers a private, clean, and calming space to pump or nurse when at work, running errands, or traveling. Already, they’ve installed about 10 prototype units around the country in several airports, school campuses, and even one at a Simon Properties shopping mall in Missouri. Over time, their goals are much larger: namely "transforming the culture of breastfeeding, making it more optimistic, realistic, accommodating, and inviting to all mamas."
They are going into business at the right moment. The Affordable Care Act recently set a mandate that employers with more than 50 hourly employees set aside dedicated lactation spaces as needed (these can’t just be a bathroom), which isn’t always easy depending on the space. Beyond that, employers of salaried staff in many fields are increasingly focused on attracting and retaining more women—and as a result, are thinking about workplace accommodations for mothers with a renewed sense of energy. Even designers are realizing this is a market that has been ignored for too long (MIT held a "breast pump hackathon" in September).
"The advantage of this solution is that you can put it right in the middle of anything. It’s a private space," says Mayer.
Mamava aims to not just provide a generic space for pumping, but one that carefully considers the psychology and ease of the experience. Created in conjunction with designer David Jacks, it avoids the feel of a bathroom and, instead, smartly uses wipeable food prep-grade materials, which makes sense since babies are feeding inside. Wheels pop out so the unit can be moved to where it is needed, and there’s enough space and seating inside for a mom’s luggage or stroller and child. A table folds out for a breast pump, and there is an electrical outlet. The logo is meant to evoke "happy breasts" rather than a stereotypically demure woman that implies lactating is something to hide. Even its shape and soft lighting is supposed to evoke a "Zen quality" feel.
"Lactation and letdown happen when you relax, when you feel calm," notes Mayer.
A single unit costs about $11,000, but Mamava is exploring an advertising-supported business model that would reduce the cost for facilities that host them. For example, the child’s clothing company Zatano is sponsoring the location suite at Vermont’s Burlington International Airport.
So far, the company has produced only hand-built prototype units that take up to eight weeks to deliver, but the founders hopes to scale-up manufacturing over time. They also want to design a smaller version that's suitable for offices or workplaces where the traffic flow is slower than in a shopping mall or airport.
One barrier is that while the end users are moms, the direct customers tend to be 50-year-old male facilities managers and operations types. Using social media and an iPhone locater app, Mamava hopes to build a grassroots strategy of "lactivist" moms who advocate for feeding and pumping facilities.
Indeed, more designers and architects are starting to become interested in the issue. But, according to Mayer and Dodson, no other company offers an easily portable standalone unit. What’s more, designers who lack expertise might simply get it wrong. For example, Mayer says there’s a nursing mothers lounge at the Minneapolis airport, but the plush seats are bad for spills and the lack of privacy and electrical outlets aren’t going to help mothers who pump. Mamava’s suites, on the other hand, were designed with breast pumps in mind, where a mother must be more exposed.
"This is conceived around pumping, but it’s also a space that’s comfortable to go nurse a baby," Dodson is careful to note. "It wasn’t about wanting to put nursing in a closet."