A family passes near a lactation pod in Terminal 2 at Chicago O'Hare International Airport on June 7, 2022. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
As travelers make their way through O’Hare International Airport this summer, they may notice a new amenity sprinkled among the newsstands, coffee shops and popcorn kiosks: portable lactation pods.
The Chicago Department of Aviation is installing 11 free-standing lactation pods across O’Hare and Midway airports, offering a private oasis for nursing mothers to use at no charge. Eight of 10 pods designated for O’Hare are up and running, while Midway’s sole unit is in place.
“The CDA is continually working to elevate the customer experience for everyone coming through Chicago airports,” Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee said in an emailed statement. “These lactation pods offer accessible convenience for our family travelers in addition to the Mother’s Rooms already available in our terminals.”
The 50-square-foot lactation pods, built by Burlington, Vermont-based Mamava, feature a table, two benches, a mirror, motion-activated lighting and ceiling vent, and a dual outlet for powering breast pumps. An app locates the pod and unlocks the door, providing a dedicated space for nursing mothers on the fly.
A lactation pod is located near a children's play area in Terminal 2 at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
The interior of a lactation pod in Terminal 2 at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The private pods are free to use and include seating, electrical outlets and a mirror. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
Launched in 2015, Mamava has installed over 2,000 lactation pods across the U.S. in offices, airports, malls, hospitals, military bases, universities and sports arenas. In Chicago, Mamava has pods at Soldier Field, McCormick Place and Navy Pier, among other installations.
“Our mission is around helping to support breastfeeding parents,” said Sascha Mayer, 51, CEO and co-founder of Mamava. “It’s just a nice contained environment when you really need to sit down and use a breast pump or nurse a baby.”
Mamava builds three different-sized pods at its Vermont factory, ranging in price from $10,000 to $25,000 each. The city paid about $220,000 total for its order of 11 extra-large pods at O’Hare and Midway, a Department of Aviation spokesperson said Tuesday.
Most of the Mamava lactation pods are sold to private businesses, but airports are a growing category, driven in part by legislation to accommodate nursing mothers, Mayer said. For many travelers, the pods are a welcome alternative to restrooms, which often serve as breast milk pumping stations, she said.
There are 176 Mamava lactation pods at 69 airports around the country. When the two remaining O’Hare pods are installed in Terminal 1 this summer, the airport will rank No. 2 in portable lactation accommodations, after Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
In Chicago, the pods supplement five nursing rooms at O’Hare and one at Midway, and help both facilities meet the Friendly Airports for Mothers Improvement Act, which was authored by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and signed into law in November 2020.
A person walks by a lactation pod in Terminal 2 at O'Hare International Airport on June 7, 2022. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
Building on the Illinois Democrat’s 2018 Friendly Airports for Mothers Act, or FAM Act, the legislation requires all airports to provide private spaces in each terminal for mothers to express breast milk.
“Expanding lactation spaces is critical in helping working moms across the country and making travel more family friendly,” Duckworth said in an emailed statement. “I’m glad to see our Chicago airports leading the way in providing even more accessible and convenient options for nursing moms.”
Mayer said the FAM Act has helped to increase pod sales at airports. She also cited the pending Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers, or PUMP Act, as potentially crucial federal legislation for getting lactation pods in more locations.
The PUMP Act, which was approved by the House in October but has stalled in the Senate, would require employers to provide sufficient break time and space for nursing mothers to express milk for up to two years after giving birth or beginning nursing.
Beyond legislation, the challenge of luring employees back to the office has raised the stakes for companies to accommodate nursing mothers in the post-pandemic landscape, Mayer said.
“Employment is such a challenge in terms of recruiting, finding and retaining people,” Mayer said. “So now there’s expectation around every facility or business, having a lactation space. It’s almost a given, so that’s really propelling us.”
Mamava generated 30% year-over-year revenue growth until sales stalled during the pandemic, as many people worked remotely, public spaces remained sparse and potential customers put lactation pod orders on hold. The Chicago Department of Aviation orders, for example, were “two years in the making,” Mayer said.
Items including diapers and snacks are for sale in a vending machine near a lactation pod in Terminal 2 at O'Hare International Airport on June 7, 2022. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)
But as the world emerges from pandemic stasis, growth is ramping back up and pod sales are expected to double this year, Mayer said.
Another factor that may boost demand is the formula shortage, which has left many young families scouring distant retailers and searching for alternatives to feed their babies.
Mayer said improving infrastructure and institutional support — including the installation of lactation pods at airports — will make breastfeeding a more viable option for many families, reducing the broader dependence on formula.
“There’s no formula-shaming or anything,” Mayer said. “But obviously, if more families have support to be breastfeeding ... the formula issue would be less so, because there’d be less people relying on it.”