Business & Tech

New perk for breastfeeding moms: Lactation pods signal changing times (and laws)

The new Mamava Mini lactation pods are designed for offices and come with a work station.
The new Mamava Mini lactation pods are designed for offices and come with a work station.

Not that long ago, new mothers didn’t have many options when they needed to express breast milk at work.

They would sit hunched in bathroom stalls, juggling pumps on their laps as they tried to keep the milk from spilling, feeling self-conscious about the noise and more than slightly disgusted by the unsanitary conditions.

Or they ducked into a closet. Or a car. Some simply gave up breast-feeding all together.

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Now, as a new Massachusetts law mandates that employers provide a designated space for nursing mothers, businesses are increasingly looking for ways to accommodate breast-feeding workers.

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And a small Burlington, Vt., firm is poised to become a go-to resource for companies that don’t have the room, or the time, to create a spot just for mothers to pump.

The company, Mamava, which has sold about 450 pods to airports, arenas, colleges, and large businesses such as Amazon and Walmart since it was launched in 2013, is introducing a cubicle-like unit designed for smaller workplaces, with a desktop and charging station that allow women to work as they pump.

Cambridge Public Library director Maria McCauley, mother of a 9-month-old girl, stood near the library's Mamava lactation pod.
Dina Rudick for the Boston Globe
Cambridge Public Library director Maria McCauley, mother of a 9-month-old girl, stood near the library's Mamava lactation pod.

These pods, the result of a collaboration with the office furniture company Steelcase, are smaller than the original and sell for $8,500, including shipping and installation. Only a handful have been sold so far, but the company is anticipating that interest will continue to grow as more employers seek to attract and retain women.

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Roughly two dozen states have laws requiring employers to provide a place for nursing mothers to pump. In California, pending legislation modeled after a new ordinance in San Francisco recommends that employers provide a lactation room with running water, a refrigerator, and a hospital-grade breast pump.

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Many of these state regulations augment a 2010 federal law that requires employers to provide a time and place, other than a bathroom, for mothers to express milk for a year after a child’s birth. The federal law only applies to hourly workers, however, and does not apply to employers with fewer than 50 people if it creates an undue hardship.

The Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which went into effect April 1 and is enforced by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination , requires employers with more than six workers to provide a “private, non-bathroom space” for nursing mothers — unless they can prove it’s too difficult or expensive to do so.

In 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated its pregnancy discrimination guidance to add lactation and breast-feeding to the protections provided by Title VII, the law that prohibits sex discrimination on the job, and several federal appeals courts have upheld this protection.

A Mamava Lactation Pod on the mezzanine floor of the Cambridge Public Library.
Dina Rudick for the Boston Globe)
A Mamava Lactation Pod on the mezzanine floor of the Cambridge Public Library.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, who will become the first sitting US senator to give birth when she has her second child in late April, has introduced a bill to require airports to provide spaces in each terminal for women to express breast milk. Dozens of airports, including Logan International, have already installed Mamava pods for breast-feeding or pumping.

The rise in protections for employees who are nursing comes as efforts are being made to level the playing field for working women in many ways, including closing the gender wage gap and preventing sexual harassment. And having a clean, secure place to pump milk — whether it’s a curtained-off corner or a high-walled cubicle with a comfy chair and a lock — is another step in that direction.

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“It’s a really exciting moment for breast-feeding moms,” said Cheryl Lebedevitch, senior workplace program manager and policy analyst at the United States Breastfeeding Committee, a nonprofit coalition that promotes policies to support breast-feeding.

The main branch of the Cambridge Public Library is one of a handful of sites in the Boston area that has installed a Mamava pod, open to both patrons and employees. Many new mothers do their work at the library, said director Maria McCauley, and while they are free to pump or breast-feed wherever they choose, “We wanted to have a place where people could have a little privacy and not have to be in a bathroom,” she said.

McCauley, who has a 2½-year-old son and a 9-month-old daughter, knows what that’s like. Running a pump often requires an electrical outlet, which in a public bathroom is often located next to the trash can.

“It’s hard when you’re on the road, especially,” she said. “I’ve had experiences where I’m standing in a public restroom and people are walking by to go to the bathroom and I have my breast exposed.”

Mamava was started by two female executives at a graphic design firm who had pumped in all sorts of awkward places, including the back seat of a male client’s car, and were concerned that some working women might simply give up breast-feeding — a free, valuable source of nutrition for babies — because they didn’t have a place to express milk.

“It’s not about putting mom in a closet,” said cofounder Sascha Mayer. “It’s about understanding that it’s a complicated physical act, and that you need to feel comfortable to be successful.”

MIT Media Lab research affiliate Catherine D’Ignazio first encountered Mamava in 2014 at her Make the Breast Pump Not Suck hackathon, devoted to improving all things breast-feeding. The idea for the hackathon came to her, she said, when she was sitting on the bathroom floor of the lab pumping milk for her third child.

The Media Lab now has a Mamava pod, thanks to the efforts of several new millennial moms at the lab, D’Ignazio said — part of a generation standing up for itself in ways that previous ones haven’t.

“It’s an ethos of, you can’t silence us about our own bodies,” she said, “and we demand and should get more from the world around us.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.