Nursing moms serving in the Air Force will have more places to pump after three bases announced new lactation rooms, just the latest salvo in the service's efforts to accommodate women who have children while in uniform.
The expanded access for nursing airmen comes as maternity uniforms for both airmen and soldiers, long hard to come by due to supply chain issues, are due to return to base exchange shelves in the coming weeks.
Officials at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, Hill Air Force Base in Utah and Robins Air Force Base in Georgia have created private and secure spaces for breastfeeding airmen to pump, the Air Force announced on Saturday.
That includes lactation pods, which are small enclosed booths airmen can discreetly use. At Robins Air Force Base, officials also developed a digital map that shows service members where rooms are located and who they need to get in touch with to unlock them.
"Our primary goal was to provide current information to connect people who needed to use a lactation room with the contact people for requesting use of those rooms," Megan Kane with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center said in a press release. "We also wanted to bring awareness of the requirement for lactation rooms for nursing airmen to everyone on base."
Tinker and Hill Air Force Base officials are developing similar maps at their installations, service officials said in a release.
Lactation pods have been slowly rolling out at Air Force bases as an additional way to provide access for pregnant and nursing airmen since 2019, in response to a mandate that secure and sanitary spaces be made available. The pods provide a quick solution that avoids more extensive construction costs or delays.
"We received a lot of feedback from nursing mothers about having to pump or nurse in less than ideal facilities," Maj. Alea Nadeem, Air Force Women's Initiative Team chief, said in a 2019 statement about the mandate. "They were having to pump in bathrooms, locker rooms and borrowed offices, and this sometimes discourages new mothers from continuing to express milk."
Prior to that 2019 directive, Air Force bases had only a handful of lactation rooms that had been specifically designed for that purpose, meaning older buildings would often be without spaces for nursing mothers.
The Air Force has worked to clear other obstacles for nursing moms who access secure areas. Some airmen use breast pumps that rely on Bluetooth-enabled technology, but those devices were not allowed in some secure spaces until a 2021 mandate was issued.
That 2021 rule allowed some pumps with Bluetooth capabilities into secure facilities so long as they don't have audio, video, photo or Wi-Fi capabilities. Airmen are also required to disable the Bluetooth features when they enter secure spaces.
Additionally, the Air Force is working to expand access to maternity uniforms.
Pregnant mothers are issued maternity uniforms by regulation, with active-duty women getting three sets and National Guard and Reserve troops get two. Service members often rely on their local Exchange to purchase extra uniforms or replacements for those received from a unit.
But months long delays earlier this year due to supply chain issues left many airmen unable to acquire maternity uniforms. Aftermarket companies began selling virtually identical versions at more than double the standard exchange prices for items like the maternity coat and pants.
The Army and Air Force announced this month that their maternity uniforms are expected to be back in stock at Exchange stores and online by September after demand left shelves empty for months.
That's on top of the Air Force's Maternity Uniform Pilot Program, otherwise known as "Rent the Camo," which was announced earlier this year and will give pregnant airmen free maternity uniforms at certain bases.
Airmen and Space Force Guardians at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; Joint Base San Antonio, Texas; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey; Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina; Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina; as well as Yokota Air Base and Kadena Air Base in Japan will be able to participate in that pilot program.
Expectant active-duty service members will be temporarily issued three sets of maternity uniforms, and will return them to the service six months after they give birth. They will then be inspected, cleaned and then reissued to other airmen.
Congress passed the Rent the Camo: Access to Maternity Wear Act in 2020 establishing the program. It is expected to continue through 2026.