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MSP is one of few ‘breastfeeding friendly’ U.S. airports, study finds

The survey found that although 62 of the airports said they were breastfeeding friendly, only 37 actually had a designated lactation room.

This week, MSP is opening two new, specially designed lactation rooms in the Lindbergh terminal, near gates F1 and C13.

Very few airports in the United States are breastfeeding friendly, although many think they are, according to a study published Monday in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine.

For the study, researchers surveyed customer-service representatives at 100 U.S. airports over the phone and via e-mail about whether the airport was breastfeeding friendly and what specific accommodations it offered the traveling breastfeeding and breast-pumping mother.

The survey found that although 62 of the airports said they were breastfeeding friendly, only 37 actually had a designated lactation room. Furthermore, in 25 of those airports, the so-called lactation room was a unisex/family bathroom.

Only eight of the airports — including, thankfully, our own Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) — reported having a private designated lactation room other than a bathroom with the minimum necessities for breastfeeding and/or breast-pumping: an electrical outlet, a table and a chair.

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That is a dismal finding, and one that highlights how little our society understands and supports the importance of breastfeeding and the needs of nursing mothers.

The importance of breastfeeding

As I’ve pointed out here many times before, health officials, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, agree that breastfeeding confers numerous positive health benefits on both infant and mother. For that reason, they recommend babies be fed only breast milk for six months and that they be breastfed for at least another six months once other foods have been introduced.

About 77 percent of new mothers in the U.S. initiate breastfeeding after their infant is born, but only 16 percent continue to exclusively breastfeed for the recommended six months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Federal health officials have set a goal of upping that figure to 25.5 percent by 2020.) Women cite a variety of reasons for not continuing to breastfeed, including short maternity leaves, employers who do not make accommodations to enable nursing mothers to pump and store breast milk during working hours, and negative social attitudes about breastfeeding.

The Affordable Care Act is helping to reduce those obstacles. It requires insurance companies to cover the costs of electric breast pumps and visits to lactation experts for new mothers. It also requires employers to provide hourly waged nursing mothers reasonable time and a private place to express milk — a place other than a bathroom.

Women who want to continue breastfeeding their babies after returning to work must pump their breast milk when they are away from their child to maintain their milk supply and to avoid painful breast engorgement and infection (mastitis). They also need to be able to safely collect and store the milk so it can be given to their child when they are not around.

‘One of the biggest challenges’

As background information in the study points out, 56 percent of women in the United States with a child less than 1 year of age are in the work force. Although women with low-income jobs often face the greatest obstacles to breastfeeding — most notably, no time or privacy for pumping and storing breast milk during working hours — women in higher-income jobs also find it difficult to breastfeed their babies for a full 12 months, particularly if they must travel for their work.

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According to surveys, “[f]inding a clean, private room other than a bathroom to express her milk at the airport was the biggest challenge for the traveling breast-pumping mother,” the authors of the study note.

Their finding — that only eight of the 100 U.S. airports contacted had dedicated lactation rooms — underscores the continuing difficulty of that challenge.

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In fact, even the finding that eight airports had lactation rooms is a bit misleading, for only six of those airports located their lactation rooms in places travelers could reach after they passed through security. “A mother traveling will need to express her milk as close as possible to her boarding time to prevent engorgement and potential for mastitis,” the study’s authors write.

Of course, nursing mothers  who work at airports also need a private and clean room in which to pump and store their breastmilk.

New lactation rooms at MSP

As this study suggests, the MSP airport is one of the most welcoming airports in the country for nursing mothers. For several years, it has had a comfortable, well equipped “nursing mothers room” near Gate C13 in the Lindbergh terminal.

“It is meant for mothers who wish to breastfeed their children in private,” said MSP spokesperson Melissa Scovronski in an email to MinnPost. “Mothers certainly use it for pumping, but it does not have a sink.”

This week, however, MSP is opening two new, specially designed lactation rooms in the Lindbergh terminal, near gates F1 and C13.

“These rooms were designed specifically for women who need to pump breast milk,” said Scovronski. “They will be open to both employees and travelers.”

“The rooms will feature comfortable seating, adjustable lighting, a mirror and sink, artwork, and a generous counter space,” she added. “The rooms will lock from the outside and be cleaned after every use.”

“This has been an effort of our enhanced restroom program, which also includes Service Animal/Pet Relief rooms,” said Alan Howell, senior airport architect for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, in a separate email sent to MinnPost.  “The first two locations are areas that were able to be modified and fit within current budgets. As time goes on the program will expand to other areas” — and to the Humphrey terminal as well, according to Scovronski.

To access the lactation rooms, women will need to ask for assistance at one of the airport’s “Travelers Assistance” desks. More information should be available on the airport’s website by next week.

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FYI: The other seven airports identified in the study as having dedicated lactation rooms are San Francisco International, Baltimore/Washington International, San Jose International, Indianapolis International, Akron-Canton Regional (Ohio), Dane County Regional (Wisconsin) and Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional (Florida).