Roughly a week ago, a mall in Kolkata made news for all the wrong reasons for denying a young mother a private space to breastfeed her newborn. The row underscored in stark detail how India’s society has still not learnt to be sensitive to the idea of breastfeeding in public spaces. However, in what promises to be a refreshing technological change to solve this problem, an all-women startup team in Kerala has fashioned a unique ‘lactation pod’ for mothers.
On Tuesday, ‘I Love 9 months’, a startup incubated at the Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) in Thiruvananthapuram set up a lactation pod for working mothers at the premises of Technopark, an IT park home to dozens of multinational companies in the state capital. The ‘lactation pod’ is essentially a 8 ft x 4 ft private space, built using fibre-reinforced plastic, where working mothers can breastfeed their newborn and even express and store breast-milk in a refrigerator for future use. Comfortable seating arrangements, a hygienic breast pump and allied accessories such as a hand sanitizer and tissues are provided for the mother’s use. The pod essentially gives mothers a secure, private space for breastfeeding, away from the watchful gaze of their colleagues.
‘I love 9 months’ was incubated almost two years ago as a venture with the aim of making meaningful strides in maternity wellness. The team of three women who had years of experience working in the healthcare sector brought out a mobile app that offered information for expecting mothers and those who are going through a postpartum phase. They also promoted the concept of birth companions, an idea suggested by the Union Ministry to cut down on maternal mortality rate in India. The idea of companions, trained to emotionally support the mother and assist her for hospital visits and postpartum care, was welcomed. It was then that they deliberated on the subject of creating a safe infrastructure for breastfeeding women.
Ganga Raj, one of the three co-founders of the startup, said, “As we travelled, we realised that women are struggling to breastfeed irrespective of the social strata that they belonged to. You see this at airports, railway stations and bus stands. A mother is standing covering with a dupatta or a husband needs to stand and give you private space.”
Understanding that creating the infrastructure was key to solving the problem, the three women put their heads together and researched for months before landing on the idea of ‘lactation pods.’ They have come up with two models: one for public spaces like railway stations or airports where the lactation pod comes in a 4 ft x 4 ft space complete with a foldable diaper table, and the other for working mothers in a 8 ft x 4 ft space, like the one installed at Technopark. The 4 ft x 4 ft model comes for Rs 1.5 lakh, whereas the 8 ft x 4 ft model is priced at Rs 2.5 lakh.
Saji Gopinath, chief executive officer of KSUM, said, “It’s a fantastic idea. I’m surprised that people haven’t thought about it. For working mothers, it helps them immensely to come back to work after their maternity leave. Technopark CEO was kind enough to give us the space to set up the pod.”
The response has been amazing, says Raj. They are already in talks with three firms at Technopark who want to install such pods individually at their premises. They also said the Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL) are interested in setting up the pods at each of the 16 stations. While airports and railway stations are feasible in terms of setting up the pods as they have housekeeping staff who can maintain them, the bus stations in the station are a real challenge, Raj pointed out.
While the lactation pods are certainly a new idea in India, variants of the same have been experimented in countries like the US. At least two dozen states in the United States mandate that employers must provide a safe space for nursing mothers to pump breast-milk. Mamava, a company in Vermont state of the US, has even come up with cubicle-like units complete with desktop and charging stations for working mothers.
Raj said sponsoring such lactation pods for corporates makes business sense as well as it’s a ‘huge branding opportunity.’ “If Airtel wants to sponsor and brand it, it becomes an Airtel pod. We can populate such pods using CSR funds of companies,” she said.