Amid the activity and noise of Penn Station is a new oasis of sorts, an enclosed pod decorated with sky imagery, where women can nurse infants and pump milk. It’s equipped with benches, a fold-down table and electrical outlets to enable a practice that doctors promote as beneficial to the health of babies — but many moms find hard to do when in public.
The station is one of five where Amtrak is adding the pods after hearing from customers who said they would like to have a private place to feed their babies and pump.
“Women don’t have to go in there, but it is an option for mothers who are traveling and wish to have a little privacy or a confined space where they can take other children who are traveling with them,” said Beth K. Toll, an Amtrak spokeswoman. “It’s an oasis for moms to get away from the hustle and bustle of the station.”
The passenger railroad joins airports, hospitals, stadiums and other businesses around the country that have improved such accommodations for women who say they want to do what is best for the health of their babies, but get discouraged by the lack of support for breastfeeding. Many find themselves stuffed in bathroom stalls or hiding under blankets in the open.
Such facilities are part of a growing movement to “normalize” public breastfeeding, which has been legally protected for years but is still viewed as unacceptable by some. Doctors say breast milk is a better nutritional source than formula and that it protects against gastrointestinal diseases, allergies, asthma and other medical problems. Lactating women must pump or feed every few hours to prevent their breasts from leaking or becoming engorged. If they go too long without releasing their milk, signals are sent to the brain that stop production.
Nicole Phelps, wife of local Olympian Michael Phelps, recently posted on Instagram about feeding her babies in public, which garnered a deluge of support from mommy circles. She said that “being able to breastfeed is a gift” and told her followers about pumping at a recent gala for her husband’s foundation. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah is using video of herself breastfeeding her infant daughter Alana O’Mara in a political ad to promote the need for more mothers and women in state leadership.
The Breast Express, a bus that has been making its way across the country since April to support mothers and promote breastfeeding, will be at the Hampden Farmers Market Saturday and Dovecote Cafe in Baltimore Sunday. “Our hope is that this journey amplifies the movement to change perceptions, places, and ultimately, the percentage of women who meet their breastfeeding goals,” according to the group’s website.
“The momentum is really building,” said Dr. Dana Silver, director of outpatient pediatrics at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore and a member of the Maryland Breastfeeding Coalition, which promotes the practice. “As women are breastfeeding more in public and becoming more vocal about the issue, it is starting to get on people’s radar.”
But other options like the pod are needed because not all women are comfortable pumping and breastfeeding in public, doctors and lactation specialists said. Pumping is particularly difficult because the machines can be loud and bulky and electrical outlets aren’t always readily available.
“Until we get to the place where it is socially the norm and accepted, I think accommodations like the pod are good for moms who don’t feel comfortable breastfeeding and pumping in public,” said Dr. Sahira Long, a pediatrician and president of the DC. Breastfeeding Coalition.
Gill Barrell Jones, who is from the United Kingdom, saw the pod Friday and said she couldn’t wait to tell a nursing friend she was staying with in Baltimore.
“It’s has ample space and privacy, so she doesn’t have to be in the middle of the station with everyone,” she said.
To avoid the public display, some women will instead bottle-feed their babies in public and only breastfeed when at home, doctors and lactation specialists said. The logistics become such a nightmare for some moms that it forces them to stop breastfeeding earlier than they would like. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least a year, including exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life. Eighty to 90 percent of women intend to breastfeed, but only 25 percent are still doing so by the time their babies are six months old, Silver said.
“Any deterrent like this just gives them one more reason not to reach their goals,” Silver said.
Doctors and public officials applauded Amtrak’s decision to add the pod, created by Vermont-based Mamava, to Penn Station. The 5-foot by 9-foot mobile pod is located on the concourse level near the police office and stairwell and across from the ticketing line. The walls depict a background of clouds in the sky to create a peaceful setting, Toll said. The door can be locked for privacy. Women use the Mamava app to unlock the pod and check if it is occupied.
The lactation pods are also available at Amtrak stations in Washington and Philadelphia. There are also plans to open in Chicago and at New York’s Penn Station at later dates. Amtrak may also add pods to other stations if they become popular. In Maryland, Mamava also has pods at Thurgood Marshall BWI Airport, Montgomery College, Walter Reed Medical Center and Medstar Union Memorial Hospital.
Mamava co-founder Christine Dodson said she and her partner created the pods for pumping, but found that many women, tired of being sent to the bathroom to breastfeed, were using if for that as well.
“You are making food for your child, and that is kind of gross in a bathroom,” she said.
Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said the pods are a good idea. Wen breastfed her 9-month-old son Eli for seven months, but said she thought every day about quitting, in large part because it was so difficult to fit into her busy schedule. She recalled once pumping on an Amtrak train to the dismay of a businessman on a conference call who asked if she could stop the noise. He also told Wen that what she was doing was unsanitary.
“We need to improve the accommodations for women to do what we say is so important,” Wen said.
Karen Sperber, who was waiting for a train at Penn Station Friday, said she remembers how difficult it was finding places to pump and breastfeed her two children. The Baltimore resident said she thinks that it’s great that the latest generation of moms, including her daughter-in-law, who is now breastfeeding Sperber’s grandchild, have better options.
“It’s nice that moms today can have the choice of going somewhere that is a little more private,” she said.
Amy Preto, a lactation consultant at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, said the pods are a good step, but she would like to see even more such spaces.
“If you want women to breastfeed, you have to try and support them,” she said.