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Airports announce breast-feeding stations: Are mothers gaining ground?

Nursing stations are to be installed in Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia airports. The units are a clean, private solution for lactating women on the go, advocates say. 

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    Sarah Bell P.C. puts a sticker in the window of her law office showing her support of the Breastfeeding Welcome campaign after speaking with Dr Rachel Gagen about joining, in Lynchburg, Va., on Feb. 24, 2015. Although Virginia state law requires companies to allow women to breast-feed, women haven't always felt comfortable doing so in public spaces. As a breast-feeding-frien­dly organization, companies would become part of a citywide effort to change that by allowing women to breast-feed in their public space and agreeing to provide them the same respect given bottle-feeding mothers.
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With Mother’s Day just a few days away, two New York-area airports announced they would make it easier for traveling mothers to breast-feed their babies in private. Nursing stations are to be installed in Newark Liberty International and LaGuardia airports, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced Thursday.

Despite laws protecting nursing mothers, many observers note that breast-feeding outside the home can still be an uncomfortable experience for women. The new nursing units are a clean, private solution for lactating women on the go, and more should be installed, advocates say.

“It's not always easy for nursing mothers to find a private and clean place to discreetly breast-feed or use a breast pump. So it would be great to see this catch on at other airports as well as other transportation hubs such as train and bus stations,” Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, a family travel expert, told the NBC "Today" show after the first breast-feeding station was installed in a US airport in 2013.

Prior to that, two women from Burlington, Vt., launched Mamava, which provides clean, movable nursing stations for public spaces. The company’s owners viewed the issue of nursing in private in social justice terms.

Sascha Mayer, one of the company’s co-founders, told USA Today that she came up with the idea for Mamava after reading a New York Times editorial that detailed how the executives at Starbucks had more access to private spaces for breast-feeding at work than did the baristas.

"The idea that I had the privilege, but a teacher, a nurse, a woman at Wal-Mart wouldn't have the same privilege is a social justice issue," Ms. Mayer said. "That's what we're trying to solve."

Mamava nursing stations were installed in the Burlington International Airport in 2013, making it the first airport in America to install a dedicated breast-feeding and pumping station.

Now more airports seem to be following suit. Last year, Chicago's Department of Aviation opened a mother's room in Midway International Airport, as did Dallas Love Field Airport. In March, General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee installed three Mamava stations. And a nursing station is scheduled to open in Chicago O'Hare International Airport in the spring or summer of 2015.

Nonetheless, studies indicate that the majority of airports still do not have adequate facilities for nursing mothers. A 2014 study by scholars Michael Haight and Joan Ortiz concluded that 8 percent of surveyed airports provided the minimum requirements for a lactation room.

The announcement about breast-feeding stations in the two New York-area airports comes amid continuing controversy over where it is acceptable for mothers to breast-feed. In Lansing, Mich., about 30 women held a "nurse-in" at a downtown courthouse on Thursday after a Friend of the Court referee told a mother last week that she could not breast-feed her baby during a hearing, the Lansing State Journal reported. A judge apologized for what had happened.

Forty-nine states, as well as the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, have laws that specifically allow women to breast-feed in any public or private location. So when accusations arise that a woman was asked not to breast-feed in public, controversy often ensues.

“Breastfeeding can be hard, mothers are constantly judged, and many are in the midst of a hormonal rollercoaster of emotions or may be suffering postpartum depression. Even emotional health and breastfeeding experience do not necessarily protect against the shame, confusion, frustration and anger of being asked to cover up when a mother is simply feeding her baby. There is no polite, reasonable or respectful way – at all – to ask a woman to cover up or move elsewhere while breastfeeding,” wrote Tara Haelle for Forbes after an Illinois mother sparked outrage by announcing on social media that she had been asked to cover up while breast-feeding in a restaurant.

Others say that while breast-feeding stations are often beneficial, they should not be used to isolate mothers from those who feel squeamish about seeing women nurse in public. 

"If a mom wants privacy to nurse because she feels more comfortable that way, that’s great. I’m a big fan of having lounge areas for nursing moms. But it should be for her comfort, not for yours. When I was nursing, I occasionally removed myself to nurse because it was too loud or I wanted a little space, but the times I removed myself because of my worries about other people, I felt exiled. When a mom feels that she needs to hide to breastfeed, the message is that there’s something shameful or wrong with what she’s doing. And that’s not right," wrote blogger Annie Reneau on her site "Motherhood and More."

Many, however, say that offering women the choice to nurse in private is a step in the right direction.

"A lot of people breast-feed in the public. We totally welcome that if you have that comfort level," Gene Richards, Burlington International Airport's director of aviation, told USA Today in 2013. "But for people who want privacy, we want to make sure they have a place to do it."

The new units in Newark and LaGuardia airports will include bench seating, a foldout table, and a power supply for pumps, the Associated Press reported. Space will also be available for luggage and strollers, and the unit can be locked from the inside.

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