One small change for America's small airports: One big difference for breastfeeding families
© Greg Nash

Breastfeeding is a proven primary prevention strategy, building a foundation for life-long health and wellness for parents and children. If 90 percent of infants were breastfed according to medical recommendations, 3,340 deaths, $3 billion in medical costs, and $14.2 billion in costs of premature death would be prevented, annually! The good news is that today, most families choose to breastfeed, however a range of obstacles can make it difficult to fit breastfeeding into families' busy lives.

We know that 80 percent of mothers intend to breastfeed, and 83.2 percent actually do breastfeed at birth. Yet only 24.9 percent of U.S. infants are still exclusively breastfed at six months of age and 60 percent of mothers report that they did not meet their personal breastfeeding duration goals. These distressing statistics drive the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) to work towards establishing the policy and practice changes that breastfeeding families across the country need and deserve.

No matter what they're doing or where they are, breastfeeding people need to feed their baby or pump breast milk every few hours in order to keep up their supply. Airports are just one of many public places where they face challenges finding a clean, private space to pump. Missing even one needed pumping session can have undesirable consequences, including discomfort, leaking, inflammation and infection, decreased supply, and ultimately, breastfeeding cessation. As a result, traveling can present a significant barrier to breastfeeding.

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Unfortunately, there is no shortage of horror stories shared by breastfeeding people traveling through airports that don't provide a clean, accessible space. One mother wrote:

I traveled for work in 2018 a few months after my daughter was born. I was on the same flight as my boss on the way home. There were no lactation rooms in this particular airport and no outlets for my electric pump in the bathroom, so I spent 45 minutes sitting on a toilet hand expressing milk from my breasts into paper towels. It was messy and time-consuming, but if I hadn't done it, I could have gotten an infection that would have kept me out of work for days. I felt so disrespected and unsupported by the facilities that I also felt like I couldn't explain what I was doing to my boss. We can and must do better.” – Anonymous, Maryland

Thanks to the Friendly Airports for Mothers (FAM) Act, which passed through Federal Aviation Authority reauthorization last year, all large- and medium-hub airports will soon be required to provide a clean, private, non-bathroom space in each terminal for the expression of breast milk. The FAM Act is already being implemented in airports across the nation well ahead of the required 2021 implementation date, and we've already seen the positive change it can make. Here's a story of one breastfeeding mother impacted by FAM:

As a Federal employee, I traveled a decent amount while I was breastfeeding, meaning that my pump and I became close travel buddies. Luckily I only had a long layover on one trip, sitting in the MSP airport for a few hours. I was THRILLED with their lactation room and the peace of mind that it gave me while traveling home to my son.” – Genevieve, Missouri

Building on this success, the recently introduced Friendly Airports for Mothers Improvement Act (S. 2638)/Small Airport Mothers' Rooms Act of 2019 (H.R. 3362) would extend these provisions to small hub airports. These airports would have three additional years to come into compliance, and would be able to use Airport Improvement Program funds for the purpose of complying with the new requirement. In total, this bill would ensure that breastfeeding people traveling through an estimated 81 airports in 41 states and territories would have access to lactation spaces. That's a positive change for thousands of families. The Friendly Airports for Mothers Improvement Act would help keep our nation's families healthy by ensuring that breastfeeding travelers and airport employees (in airports of all sizes) have access to appropriate facilities. This is an important step toward ensuring all families have the opportunity to reach their personal breastfeeding goals and in improving public health for everyone in our country.

Nikia Sankofa serves as executive director of the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, a coalition of more than 100 organizations that support its mission to drive collaborative efforts for policy and practices that create a landscape of breastfeeding support across the United States.