COLUMBIA — Linda Blockus wasn’t satisfied with the options available to nursing mothers at MU. Blockus, director of undergraduate research at MU, once saw a young mother enter a bathroom stall in Memorial Union to use her breast pump.
“If that is the best a young woman can find on campus, that is not supportive,” Blockus said.
Blockus was fresh from a meeting about child care on campus and was still nursing her second child when she met with planners for the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center, which opened in 2004 and where she now works. She proposed that they set aside a space for nursing mothers.
To her delight, the planners agreed. The result is the Lactation Station, a small room in the Life Sciences Center designed to address Blockus’ concerns.
“In a science building, this is a visual indicator that women are warmly welcomed,” Blockus said.
And women account for more than half of all MU students, according to the University Registrar's 2008 enrollment survey. MU spokesman Christian Basi said the university doesn't track the number of student parents, but nationally, mothers account for nearly 15 percent of female undergraduates and nearly one-third of female graduate and professional students at public four-year institutions of higher education, according to the U.S. Department of Education's 2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.
Mike Chippendale, chairman of the Life Science Center's planning committee and the center's interim director in 2006, said he thought the idea of the Lactation Station was somewhat novel but that it accurately reflected the goal of making the building friendly for all users in the 21st century.
“I knew it was somewhat innovative,” Chippendale said.
Campus Facilities spokeswoman Karlan Seville confirmed it is the only facility listed as a lactation room anywhere at MU.
The room, which can be locked when in use, contains a table, chair and sink and is on the first floor of the building, off the central atrium.
Michele Doyal Carter, a fiscal administrative assistant in the Life Sciences Center, uses the facility regularly to pump milk for her 3-month-old daughter, Neviah.
“The accessibility of it is perfect,” Carter said. “I commend the builders.”
Because the room is open to the public, there are some limitations, Blockus said. It doesn’t contain a refrigerator, which means that mothers who use the space must make their own arrangements to store their breast milk, and there is no storage space for breast pumps.
The Life Sciences Center is designed to be a “welcoming, friendly building,” Chippendale said. The public areas of each floor of the building feature vibrantly colored ottomans and oversized chairs and tables; a large, helical sculpture called "Joy of Discovery" spirals down from the ceiling through the central atrium.
Carter said her open office space, with a modern black office chair and earth-tone walls, is more comfortable than the Lactation Station, which she described as cold.
Comfort is important for nursing mothers. Successful breast-feeding depends on the “let-down reflex,” which allows milk to be properly released, said Kay Libbus, doctoral program director and professor in the Sinclair School of Nursing. The let-down reflex is necessary for releasing the most nutritious elements in breast milk, but it is not automatic.
“If women are really uptight,” Libbus said, “they won’t let down properly.”
Public breast-feeding has been an uncomfortable issue for many years, said Libbus, who published a study in 2002 about attitudes toward breast-feeding in the workplace.
“It wasn’t that long ago that a woman got arrested for breast-feeding in her car at the post office,” Libbus said.
A 1999 Missouri law affirmed the legality of breast-feeding in public, but with the caveat that a woman exercise "as much discretion as possible." Breast-feeding advocacy group La Leche League says the law "does not promote breast-feeding."
The existence of the Lactation Station isn’t widely known on campus. Julie Shea, director of the MU Student Parent Center, a day care center for MU student parents, said the university doesn’t publicize the Lactation Station.
Although Carter once found the room locked and presumably occupied, she doesn’t actually know anyone else who uses it.
“A lot of people probably don’t even know it’s there,” she said.
Nursing mothers with children in the Student Parent Center use the center for their nursing needs, but other mothers on campus aren’t as fortunate.
"If I didn't go there, then I'd have no option," said Kristy Ensley, an MU senior whose two children are enrolled in the Student Parent Center.
The Status of Women Committee, a component of the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, is working to create a list of private spaces across campus that could be used by nursing mothers.
Ellen McLain, a member of the committee and senior director of development at MU's Reynolds Alumni Center, is in contact with building coordinators to determine the various amenities and sanitary conditions of each space.
“There is a difference between clean for work and clean for that use,” McLain said.
But aside from the Lactation Station, none of these spaces has been designed expressly to support nursing. For most of the spaces, the amenities include electrical outlets, chairs and curtains; ideally, they also would include sinks and refrigeration.
One new facility is being planned with nursing mothers — and campus parents in general — in mind.
A new Women’s Center, slated to open as part of the new student center in 2011, will include a family space with a work desk, children’s play area and pumping space within the room, said Laura Hacquard, coordinator of the Women’s Center.
The “nice-sized room” will include lockers and refrigeration, Hacquard said, and nursing mothers will be able to lock it for privacy.
It represents a long-standing goal of the Women’s Center “to really fully be family-friendly,” Hacquard said. “It’s something that’s fun to be excited about.”
But although the space is a step in the right direction, Shea thinks it is not enough.
“This university needs several facilities like that on campus,” she said.