There are travelers for whom grabbing a flight is second nature, those for whom flying is a necessary evil, and then there’s everyone in between.
Talk to any new mom, though, and you’ll soon learn that whatever your feelings about travel, most of us have it easy compared to those who have to nurse a baby or pump breastmilk while in transit.
That’s why Pittsburgh International Airport and many other airports have created quiet, private places in the terminal dedicated to nursing moms.
“Breastfeeding and pumping in public is daunting,” said Samantha Stedford, Director of Customer Experience at PIT.
The airport’s well-appointed lounge opened in the Airside Terminal’s Concourse C in May 2015. But what officials didn’t know at the time was that they were also creating a community of strangers who share a profound bond.
Rainbow of Post-It notes
At PIT, those women have turned a lactation space into a safe haven all their own.
Since early 2020, moms using the Mothers’ Nursing Lounge have written encouraging messages on Post-It notes to shepherd each other through the challenging logistics and emotion of nursing or pumping away from home.
“We’ve seen similar notes of affirmation in restrooms used by women and gender-diverse people on local college campuses,” said Dr. Jessie B. Ramey, director of the Women’s Institute at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.
“In some ways, these notes of mutual support reflect older patterns of anonymous messages, especially bathroom graffiti, but are nearly always positive, and often meant as an intentional small kindness to lift the spirits of a stranger.”
Heartwarming notes on emotions, gear, logistics, and just a lot of “atta girls” can be found all over the walls of the lounge in a rainbow of colored squares:
“Thanks, mamas—these notes help as I leave my baby for the first time. For anyone having a tough day—YOU GOT THIS!”
“Your baby is proud of you—and so am I!”
“You are a GREAT mom doing a HARD JOB, and you should be really proud of yourself!!!”
While there is a logbook in the room for visitors, there are no Post-It pads. It’s likely the airport will never know who posted the first message, although it’s clear she had a sticky notepad handy.
Her idea has helped countless women adapt to the rigors of traveling while nursing.
“Breastfeeding has been one of the most rewarding aspects of motherhood, but it can also be very challenging, especially when traveling,” said Haley Noonan, of Greensburg, Pa. “The Mothers’ Nursing Lounge at PIT was a lifesaver during our vacation.
“As a mom to a nursing toddler, the lounge provided me with the needed privacy to feed my child comfortably,” she added. “I was pleasantly surprised to see all of the inspirational notes providing mothers with encouragement, which is always needed.”
Building a safe space
In 2018, the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act required all medium and large airports to provide private, non-bathroom lactation spaces in each post-security terminal building by 2021. The law was updated in 2020 to include small airports, with a deadline of 2023.
With a second nursing lounge for airport employees in the Landside Terminal, PIT has also made accommodating nursing mothers on staff a priority.
“Space for lactating people is incredibly important, and it needs to be safe, welcoming, comfortable, and gender-inclusive,” Ramey said. “The role of good design is crucial, since lactation actually requires the body to relax, which is difficult in an airport.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that women continue to breastfeed and/or express milk while they’re traveling. In fact, whole businesses, like Milkstork and Mamava, revolve around the goal of making air travel easier for nursing moms.
While legislation, public health guidance and private businesses can all be important parts of the process, ultimately the matter is in the hands of nursing mothers and the deeply personal act of feeding their children.
Moms talking to moms and exchanging often hard-won and time-tested advice is something many research firms and focus groups pay millions for. At PIT, it happens organically.
Ramey said the messages elevate the lounge from a simple room into something special.
“The notes of mutual comfort and support make the space personal in a way that even the best design cannot anticipate,” she said. “They are also a way of claiming that space and literally marking it.”
To encourage the practice, PIT now provides sticky notes and markers in the Mothers’ Nursing Lounge, and will soon begin stocking it with healthy snacks and bottled water.
Sometimes it’s best for the airport to get out of the way and let passengers dictate their own experiences in the airport, Stedford said.
“We want to enable our customers to create meaningful experiences on their journey,” Stedford said. “There’s power in building a community around shared experiences and the airport can facilitate that connection.”