Creating the Sanctuary Public Breastfeeding Seat

Rendering of the Sanctuary Public Breastfeeding Seat

My final year as a student of Industrial Design offered me a unique and exciting challenge: to design a comfortable breastfeeding seat for the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.

According to research published by Toronto Public Health, women who feel comfortable breastfeeding in public spaces — such as malls, restaurants, public facilities, or workplaces — are 2.9 times more likely to continue breastfeeding to six months. 

The World Health Organization recommends that children be exclusively breastfed until at least six months, as breastfeeding can help prevent developmental and nutritional deficiencies. However, being comfortable breastfeeding in public can be difficult, as breastfeeding mothers face stigma and are still asked to move or stop.

Embarking on a design challenge

In fall 2017, with guidance from professor Chantal Trudel at Carleton University’s School of Industrial Design, I began to explore the principles of inclusive and universal design. I also went on site visits to observe museum environments and conduct interviews. At the time, the Canada Science and Technology Museum was closed for a full rebuild, so the project team visited the other Ingenium museums — the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum — as well as the Canadian Museum of History.

A young woman sits on a bench inside a busy museum, breastfeeding a baby draped with a blanket.

A nursing mother at the Canadian Museum of History

To get a better understanding of breastfeeding within the museum environment, I interviewed a Le Leche League member and breastfeeding advocate. The issues I identified included:
•    physical comfort,
•    social issues and the potential for embarrassment or harassment,
•    perceptions of safety and comfort, and
•    childcare and parental responsibilities.

My research uncovered a lack of furniture designed specifically for breastfeeding in public. The existing solutions I found were either chairs designed for breastfeeding in the home, or public lactation rooms that remove the mother from the social environment. This indicated a need to me. 

While lactation rooms are wonderful and provide a necessary function, they may embolden people who disapprove of breastfeeding in shared public spaces to say, “There is a place for that, why do it in the view of others? Cover up!” I wanted to create a piece of furniture that acts as an invitation for mothers to breastfeed in a shared space, and in some small way contribute to a more positive perception of public breastfeeding.

A sense of comfort, safety, and privacy

This idea gave focus to the next phase of the design. My aim was to create a seat that provides a sense of comfort, safety, and privacy for the nursing mother and child, and allows the mother to remain integrated in the social environment while breastfeeding. The next steps of the process were ideation and testing.

I wanted to explore issues around body dimensions, comfort, perception of safety and privacy, spatial awareness, and the social perceptions of breastfeeding. To address these questions, I conducted two forms of testing. The first was a posture analysis and observation, and the second was an online survey.

For the posture analysis, I built a wooden seat base that had many accessory attachments to change the dimensions. I used the base to test:
•    armrest distance,
•    armrest height,
•    armrest foam density,
•    backrest angle, and
•    privacy wall height and coverage.

A young woman is seated in a chair inside the museum; another woman stands in front of her.

Testing setup

I created an online survey, and recruited participants through my personal Facebook page. The survey was shared over 20 times, and garnered 360 responses from anonymous users over five days. Participants were asked about their experiences with public breastfeeding and how they were affected by different factors.

It was extremely valuable to hear the voices real breastfeeding women; I felt that my understanding of the issue was much richer after reading through the hundreds of responses I received. The following patterns emerged from their comments: 

Self-consciousness and judgment

“I breastfeed once in public. Even though the baby was covered, people complained, and I was asked to stop.”

“The glances and judgmental looks from people who don’t have a clue is what makes me uneasy about feeding my baby in public.”

Difficulty and distraction

“Visual and auditory distractions for baby makes it hard to feed.”

“None of my children ever appreciated nursing covers and would just push them off.”

Worry over making others uncomfortable

“It doesn’t bother me, but I don’t want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable. It’s a shared space so I try to find a restroom but sometimes there isn’t one nearby.”

“I worry about what other people may think.”

Lack of seating

“Physically I get a little sore when there isn't proper seating. I take my nursing pillow with me everywhere to alleviate back pain, but it does get a little awkward hauling an extra piece of equipment around.”

Armrests and tabletops

“Arm support on chairs can make it difficult to breastfeed, depending on size and design of chair since baby's legs stick out.”

“Tabletops for a diaper bag are always a plus.”

The testing gave me a better understanding of the necessary dimensions and elements of the chair. It was decided that there should only be one armrest, to allow people of any body size to use the seat and prevent it from being an obstruction when nursing bigger children. It was also determined necessary to have a tabletop for personal belonging storage. Foot support was also considered, but ultimately discarded as it would likely be separated from the rest of the seat.

Combining function and aesthetic appeal

After the testing phase, the design started ramping up. I continued to sketch and make models with increasingly finer detail. 

Besides the functional aspects, I also considered the visual aspects. I wanted to make sure that my design fit in with the fun, playful atmosphere of the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Six images in blue and brown tones, showing winding roads, rock formations, and wood grains that gave inspiration to the chair’s design

Visual inspiration came from natural layered patterns

By the time the school year was over, I had a version of the seat that incorporated the functions and some of the aesthetics that I wanted. However, the version I had created was still quite unpolished.

When my design was selected by the museum to be manufactured, it was clear that the details still required working out. At this point, I started working with Leszek Arkuszewski to refine the design and to ensure its manufacturability. Leszek is an experienced furniture design and maker and has shared his expertise with students at Carleton University and Algonquin College in woodworking courses. He and I had multiple meetings to discuss the seat’s design, and with his guidance a much more polished version of the seat emerged. Going through this process was hugely educational, and the final project was better than what I could have accomplished on my own.

Two images show the early design and the final design of the chair

Design produced by the end of the school year compared to the final design

Leszek worked with me to strip away unnecessary and inelegant elements of the design and to increase the cohesiveness of the overall aesthetic. He also helped me to understand what kind of manufacturing techniques would work for a low-run production, and how to reduce material costs and waste. He helped me to also reduce the complexity of the upholstery. With his guidance, the seat design became more beautiful, more cost effective, and more feasible to manufacture. He also aided me in the design of lower-cost accessory benches that use the same design language as the original seat to help increase the number of seats available in the overall seating arrangement.

After this process, Leszek began the manufacturing process in his studio. The seats were constructed with Baltic plywood. Profiles of the plywood were cut out with a computer numerical control machine; Leszek then laminated these layers together to create the base and seat back structures. Creating these pieces was a labour-intensive process. The upholstery of the seats was done by a third party.

After a lot of hard work on Leszek’s part, the seats were ready to go into their new home at the museum! 

Eight different seating options grouped together, made of a pale wood with bright red cushions

The final seating arrangement; the round stools are the work of Leszek Arkuszewski and fellow student Jenny Suh

I am so thankful to the Canada Science and Technology Museum for giving me, a young designer, the opportunity to create something that came to be! I am thrilled with the result, and visiting the museum to see the seat in use was such a valuable experience for me. 

Special thanks for the support of Professor Chantal Trudel, Christina Tessier (President and CEO, Ingenium), Lisa Leblanc (Director General, Canada Science and Technology Museum), Gabrielle Trepanier (accessibility advocate), Francis Audet (Exhibition Maintenance Technician, Canada Science and Technology Museum), my student team (Parker Langois, Jenny Suh, Shanny Ndayiragije, Carmilla Sumantry), and Leszek Arkuszewski (arkWOOD).

Profile picture for user Alanna Bamber
Alanna Bamber

Alanna completed a college certificate in illustration before receiving her Bachelor of Industrial Design from Carleton University, where she graduated with high distinction. She is currently in Carleton’s Master of Design program, working on her thesis, “Sensory Experience of the Built Environment and Mental Health.” She is interested in supporting embodied awareness and enhancing well-being for individuals and communities through design. To see more of her designs, visit her website.