Designing for Nursing Mothers at Work

In 2010, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to ensure that employers provide reasonable break time for nursing employees to express milk – or to extract breast milk and store it for later – for up to one year after the child’s birth. This amendment also requires employers to designate official mother’s room spaces that are accessible, private, and are not bathrooms.

With the growing awareness of mother’s rights in the workplace, we are starting to see more clients ask about how to approach these kinds of spaces in regards to providing the appropriate components and elements within each room, the location and placement of the rooms, and the conversion and renovation of existing space to accommodate them. Recently, SMMA began working with global biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb to improve and expand their existing mother’s rooms. As a new mother myself, I was delighted to get to work on a project with a client who dedicated thought and research into such an important, yet commonly unaddressed, need for nursing employees.

The Bristol-Myers Problem

Bristol-Myers approached SMMA knowing they needed to increase the number of options for their nursing mothers. On their campus in Devens, Massachusetts, they currently have 19 mothers utilizing two mother’s rooms, which – as one can imagine – leaves the rest of the mothers out when both rooms are occupied. The two rooms were also located on the far ends of the Bristol-Myers campus, meaning that mothers were forced to walk long distances of over ten minutes in order to utilize them. If you take into consideration that most mothers need to nurse about three times a day, potential inclement weather, and that it’s common for mothers to finally reach the rooms only to find them already in use, the small trek became a major inconvenience. Though the company made a few exceptions through empty offices and other available areas nearby, these rooms were still ill-equipped for nursing needs.

Learning from Competition

The team began by conducting in-depth research on the subject. We reviewed industry standards, competitors, and looked towards larger model companies to see what others provide for nursing mothers. We also kept in mind that after giving birth, it’s extremely hard to return to work; thus, the team wanted to make sure that mothers come back to environments that are not only more easily accessible, but also inviting and comfortable.

The Solution

Following the research and validation phase, BMS worked with the interior design team at SMMA to begin the process of adding additional mother’s rooms to their campus. With open space a premium, the team strategically selected spaces based both on availability and location throughout the campus. Our solution doubled the number of mother’s rooms, which all now included a counter with a sink, a refrigerator, a microwave for sterilization, and a comfortable chair to sit in. Using these basic guidelines as a starting point, we went to work.

Another important objective was to make the spaces feel a little warmer, and less like a hospital room. To achieve this outcome, we chose warm and softer materials using a Chilewich – a woven fabric that is cleanable but looks closer to a carpet than a hard surface – on the floors. We also added a textured wall covering, sconces, curated framed artwork and detailed mosaic back splashes to complement the neutral tones throughout. Guiding the client on best practices gained from previous projects, we incorporated privacy curtains to allow for mothers to access the room to retrieve their belongings at the end of the day, while still creating a visual barrier between the chair and the refrigerator for when the room is occupied.

Leading by Example

According to the United States Department of Labor, 62% of women with births in the last 12 months participate in the labor force. With so many mothers in the workplace, companies need to prepare themselves to accommodate mother’s rooms as expected and designated spaces. The Bristol-Myers example is one of introspection and thoughtful consideration and encourages others to take the same initiative to improve their existing conditions.

As we move forward, I expect to see mother’s rooms not only becoming more prominent spaces, but also better-equipped with nursing appliances, supplies, and technology. With these rooms being used for up to a half hour at a time on average, multiple times per day, designers and companies alike need to start incorporating more impactful design for the end-user. Larger companies, such as Facebook and Google, go the extra mile to provide things like milk storage bags and nursing equipment so that mothers have everything they need in the room already. From my personal experience, it would also be wonderful to be able to multitask and get some extra work done during those 30 minutes through creating rooms that are better suited for technology use. As the learning curve continues to adapt more places to accommodate the modern-day workforce, we can all draw from words that helped inspire Bristol-Myers:

"It takes very little for an organization to move from simply compliant to best in class."

Julia Beck

The Washington Post