Last November, I experienced one of the greatest joys of my life: the birth of my daughter, Abigail. Like many working moms, I knew that balancing my career with my daughter would be a challenge, and it’s something I planned for before her birth.
But I never imagined that airports would present one of my biggest obstacles as a new mother.
As a member of Congress, I travel a lot for work. Weekly flights from my district in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to Washington have become routine and fairly uneventful. While my disability can make traveling difficult, I found that traveling with my daughter is a different challenge entirely. Finding a clean and private space to breastfeed or pump breast milk in an airport can be burdensome and stressful, if not impossible. It’s not uncommon for moms to be directed to a bathroom. We would never ask our fellow travelers to eat their meals in bathrooms stalls, yet we ask new mothers to feed their children while sitting on a toilet seat.
Moms shouldn’t have to worry about finding a place to breastfeed while they’re traveling; they already have enough to worry about. Unlike other public spaces, travelers have little control over the amount of time spent in airports. No matter what they’re doing or where they are, breastfeeding mothers need to express milk every few hours. Missing even one needed pumping session can have several undesirable consequences, including discomfort, leaking, inflammation and infection, decreased milk supply, and ultimately, breastfeeding cessation.
The value of breastfeeding cannot be overstated: the health benefits can last a lifetime for both mother and child. Children who are breastfed are more resistant to disease and infection early in life, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. And in the longer term, breastfed babies have reduced risk of obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, asthma, and childhood leukemia. Women who breastfeed have a lower risk of getting breast and ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Whether or not a mother decides to breastfeed her newborn child, the opportunity to breastfeed in a safe and comfortable environment should be available to all new mothers.
We made progress in recent years by requiring employers to provide new mothers a private place other than a bathroom for nursing. This is a crucial step, but what about the breast-pumping mother who travels?
A recent survey of 100 airports found that only 8 percent met the minimum requirements for a lactation room. Even more troubling, 62 percent of the airports still self-reported that they were breastfeeding-friendly even though they did not meet the minimum standards. Some that do have lactation rooms have placed them outside of security zones, forcing moms to use public restrooms when in the terminal. It is clear that though airports have made sincere efforts, there is still a misunderstanding of what is necessary to accommodate traveling mothers.
Fortunately, there’s a movement in many states to make much-needed changes. Last year, California passed a law requiring airports to provide lactation rooms with electric outlets, chairs and a sink to wash breast pumps. In Illinois, similarly promising legislation is making its way through the Legislature. I’m now looking to make a change at the national level by introducing the FAM (Friendly Airports for Mothers) Act, which would require airports to provide accessible, safe, clean and convenient lactation rooms for travelers.
While I’m sure flowers will be much appreciated by new moms this Mother’s Day, I’m confident most would also appreciate a commitment to clean and comfortable places to breastfeed their children at airports across the country.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who represents Illinois’ eighth congressional district, is a candidate in the 2016 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate.