As an event organizer, I have been asked for a lactation space a handful of times, but I never understood what exactly made for a good space. In one case, I offered requesting attendees access to a lovely mother’s room with all of the amenities, but it would require an escort, because it was behind the host’s secure area. The room was great, but the access was not. After the fact, when I asked one attendee about her experience, she said that she ended up pumping in her car, because it was more convenient.
When I myself became a mother and I needed a lactation space during an event, I was offered the same situation — access to a space, but that space needed an escort. The event was located on the first floor right near the entrance of the building. The building itself took up an entire city block. To get to the escort from the conference, I had to walk halfway down the building to the elevator, down to the basement, then halfway back in the opposite direction, putting me almost directly below the conference. Then, the escort and I would walk back to the elevator to the fifth floor, then halfway across the building again to the mother’s room. The escort would unlock the room, then they would walk away. When I was done, I was to lock up and let myself out. By the time I arrived back at the conference space, I had walked about three city blocks or about a half a mile.
It takes approximately 30 minutes to pump. Then there is setup and clean up — +10 minutes. In the case, I described above, it also took another 10 minutes to get to and from the lactation space. All-in-all each pump session that day took me about 60 minutes, and it’s best to pump every three hours. If an event is all day — about nine hours, that is about three hours of time lost to pumping. Because conference sessions don’t nicely line up with the time it takes to pump, for every one pump session, I lost the ability to attend two full conference sessions.
The second time I was to attend an event where I was told the lactation space required an escort. I decided not to attend solely based off of this fact. It is frustrating, adds to the exhaustion of pumping and of attending an event, and it feels a little like asking for permission to use the bathroom.
Good lactation spaces in work places are such because someone put thought into them and due to their permanence, much thought should be put into them. Events are very limited time periods and often the person responsible for setting up a space has no experience being a pumping mother nor with the difficulties that pumping mothers often face. It is easy to have a bad space.
After pumping in a variety of spaces outside of my home, I have come up with the following list to help event organizers figure how to best accommodate mothers at their events. By not providing a comfortable arrangement, mothers may forgo attending the event, like I did, or skip pumping sessions. Skipping pumping sessions can lead to having milk production dip, which means less food for baby, or swollen breasts, which could be painful. This could also lead to leakage, which could be embarrassing and cause an attendee to retreat to their hotel room or home.
Privacy and accessibility
None of the items in this section are required, but this could make or break the inclusion of lactating mothers at an event.
- Provide a place that convenient to the conference talks / activities and isn't a 20 minute walk that requires multiple turns and is separated from the event area completely. A comfortable space that is close is better than an official space that is far away and inconvenient.
- Provide a place that doesn't require an escort or special access.
- Provide a room that is intimate — no bigger than an medium-sized office or small conference room.
- Make sure the room has a lock. Signs that say “do not open” will be ignored. I speak from experience. People will walk in.
- Provide individual privacy. If you’re responsible for setting up a lactation for a conference, early on you should decide whether or not you’re going to have a communal space or individual space(s). Make the decision on an individual space versus a divided space based on the space that you have and the number of inquiries you receive before the event. Keep in mind that that moms will probably be wanting to pump at the same times — for example at the end of the day, but before going to dinner or maybe during lunch.
— Communal Space? Room dividers. A lactation space can house multiple people, but there should be room dividers that offer each space visual privacy. In one case, I have pumped in a conference room with another mother. It worked, but it is like sharing a table at a restaurant across from each other — you both don’t want to talk, but you both feel pressured into small talk. The last thing anyone wants is to have to talk to someone they don’t want to for 30 minutes. They don’t have to be completely private, but something that allows moms to hide away a little bit. The NICU unit at the hospital divided the spaces in their lactation room with curtains hanging on tracks from the ceiling or movable privacy screens. Those might a little too permanent or expensive for an event. A good temporary solution is to use foam core boards or hack something together with poster board. They don’t have to be blank. This is a great way to reuse boards that you might have lying around the office or better yet poster presentations from the conference.
— Room for one or limited communal space? Scheduling. If a space only has room for one mom at a time or there is limited communal space there should be a schedule, managed digitally, so individuals can reserve their times. The time slots should be managed to align with conference talks and not to leave 20 minutes between two possible pumping times.
- Consider how you will keep non-pumpers out of the room and take appropriate actions. Sometimes people think lactation rooms are great places to take a private call.
- Bathrooms are not adequate spaces. Pumping is the process by which a mother makes food for her baby, which does not have a strong immune system yet. If you think a bathroom is okay, then why aren’t you preparing your lunch in bathroom?
- Lactation space should be open at one hour before and one hour after all official events. At one event, the talks ended at 5:30 p.m, but dinner was at 6:00 p.m. I thought this could be a good time to pump, and I could just arrive to dinner a little late, but the space closed at 5:00 p.m. I had to then make the decision to go home and skip dinner or go to dinner and suffer though the difficulties that come from a delayed pump.
Furniture and supplies
- Power outlets (required). Each pumping mom needs at least one outlet to pump. In a perfect world, it would be nice to have a second to charge a laptop or phone while she is waiting.
- Make sure the space has comfortable seating because the woman pumping is going to be there for awhile. The more comfortable the mother is, the better the output.
- Provide a fridge to store milk that moms can label and then pick up at the end of the day to take with them.
- Provide a place to store ice packs somewhere during the day OR access to ice at the end of the day -- this is to transport the milk to next fridge or freezer. If a mom carries ice packs all day they will be melted by the end. Also, having fresh ice packs and/or access to ice at the end of the day allows the mother to attend dinner with others while carrying her milk without having to rush back to her hotel risk and possibly missing a group dinner... this is especially important if the person is not staying in a hotel or living RIGHT next to the conference.
- Provide access to a sink with hot water to clean pump parts (required). If there is no sink inside the room, then a room with a sink close by, for example, next to a kitchen. Dish liquid is another nice touch. A bathroom can be used in a pinch, but again that is a little gross. Try to provide a wash tub.
- Provide hot water for washing (required). I know this is mentioned in the previous item, but I wanted to drive this point home. Often faucet run by sensors are barely warm or cold.
- Provide pump wipes. This is akin to placing tampons in the women’s restroom. It is a really nice thing to have, especially if all the access for washing pump parts is the bathroom.
- Provide sanitizing wipes, because some people dribble milk and maybe it was an accident or maybe they are gross — whatever the reason is, it becomes a health issue to have a bodily fluid just lying around.
- Provide disposable gloves to put on while using the sanitizing wipes, because if the sanitizing solution from the wipes gets on one’s hand and then on the nipple that could hurt.
- Provide a place to store pumping equipment securely throughout the day. Pumps are cumbersome to carry around. Conferences are already exhausting. The case for my pump is about the size of a shoulder bag. At a conference I am also carrying my purse and laptop bag. It is a lot. Pumps are hundreds to thousands of dollars and paid for by insurance, but insurances will only cover one pump in a three year period. There is a liability for storing pumps, but I think most moms would be willing to sign a release if the place to stash the pump was accessible and seemed reasonably secure.
- Provide general instructions for using, users responsibility for maintaining the space, and contacts if there are issues with the space (required). Put them online, but also print a copy and tape up on the wall in the space.
- Provide a way for moms to leave other moms a note. This could be a white board, poster board, or sticky notes. This allows for moms to connect with each other and also to address any issues that might be happening in the space.
- Healthy Snacks and drinks. Making milk burns about 500 extra calories a day. Snacks and drinks nearby help moms from getting dehydrated and hungry.
In conclusion, don’t just find a room and call it a lactation space, but be thoughtful about it. A space that is thoughtfully put together will help moms produce more milk, which will make them happy.
At tech conferences large companies are able to build out complete lounge areas, why not get one to sponsor the lactation space?
Did I miss anything? What has been the best experience you have had pumping at a conference? What has been the worst experience you have had?