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Nursing in Public: When Did It Become So Controversial?

Written by Robin Kaplan, M.Ed., IBCLC

When I look back at 2012 and recall the variety of breastfeeding stories that were covered by American media, I can’t help, but grimace and wonder,

“When did breastfeeding become so controversial?”

News story after news story depicts a breastfeeding mother being harassed for breastfeeding in public:

Charlotte Dirkes was asked to stop, cover up, or go somewhere else when she breastfed her 10-month old at a water park in Englewood, Colorado.

Tiffany Morgan was asked to stop breastfeeding her 6-month old, cover up, or leave Denny’s in Sedalia, Missouri.

Dawn Holland was asked to finish breastfeeding her 20-month old son in the bathroom of Applebee’s in Georgia.

Photo via Nurse-In @ Hollister Facebook Page

Photo via Nurse-In @ Hollister Facebook Page

Most recently, Brittany Warfield was screamed at and forced to leave a Hollister store in the Galleria Mall in Houston, Texas, when she breastfed her 7-month old, sparking a nurse-in across the United States and Canada of over 1,000 breastfeeding mothers, children, and friends on Jan 5th, 2013.

What ensued during this most recent nurse-in was truly shocking.

Three women participating in the Hollister nurse-in at Wilmington, Delaware’s Concord Mall were asked to remove their signs (written about normalizing nursing in public) and move to another part of the mall.  After taking down their signs, they continued to nurse in front of the Hollister store.  The mall’s security guards called the local police, who ended up not taking any action with the mothers once they showed them a copy of Delaware’s law that protects a woman breastfeeding in public.  The security officers took it upon themselves to continue to harass the mothers by threatening them with removal from the mall and then followed the mothers throughout the mall.

Photo via Nurse-In @ Hollister Facebook Page

Photo via Nurse-In @ Hollister Facebook Page

When other mothers heard about what happened at the mall, they posted on the Concord Mall’s Facebook page that they should be ashamed for calling the police when mothers were just feeding their babies.  In response, the Concord Mall responded that the breastfeeding was an ‘eyesore’ and that they ‘hope you guys don’t mind if I suck on my wife’s breasts in public.’

Since this Facebook exchange, The Concord Mall has disabled their Facebook Page (and denies that it ever had a Facebook page).  They also have apologized to the three mothers, yet the apology never admitted wrongdoing or that the women were treated improperly.

By the way, all of these harassment stories took place in states where breastfeeding women are protected by law to breastfeed in a public space.

While this type of harassment ruffles my IBCLC-feathers, it truly upsets me as an avid advocate for a breastfeeding mother’s right to meet her personal breastfeeding goals.  How can we expect mothers to breastfeed for any decent amount of time if they are relegated to their homes, cars, and public restrooms whenever their babies are hungry, just to avoid degradation and humiliation?

How can we, as mothers and IBCLCs, create the necessary change in our society where women will be able to feed their babies as nature intended?

I asked these questions to a group of mothers at my breastfeeding support group today, as well as of the followers on my business Facebook page, and their answers were honest and insightful.  Here’s what they had to say:

  • More women need to breastfeed in public so that people become desensitized to it, just like ‘we’ (Americans, in general) are desensitized to the sexualization of the breast and to violence on TV.
  • More breastfeeding on television shows and in movies, rather than always bottle feeding.
  • Public service announcements about how breastfeeding protects the health of the baby and of mom.
  • Have easier access to the laws that protect breastfeeding mothers, to use as a defense when asked to stop breastfeeding in public, cover up, or leave a public place.
  • In addition to the laws that protect a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, there is a need for laws that involve recourse for those who harass a woman for breastfeeding in public.

Fortunately, breastfeeding advocates are already thinking these same ideas!

Thanks to the Breastfeeding Law website, breastfeeding mothers can find all of the laws in the United States that protect their rights to breastfeed in public.

In California, on September 28, 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB2386, which states that it is unlawful to engage in specified discriminatory practices in employment or housing accommodations on the basis of breastfeeding or medical conditions related to breastfeeding.  What this means for breastfeeding moms… they are now considered a ‘protected class’ of citizens and will receive a full spectrum of workplace discrimination protection.

In October, 2012, Best for Babes announced the launch of their Nursing in Public Harassment Hotline.  Now, breastfeeding mothers can report incidents of nursing in public harassment, document them, and receive guidance on how to deal with the situation and approach the offending institution.  The goal… to have enough documentation to influence policy makers to create laws that require enforcement of existing breastfeeding in public laws, the creation of laws that cover harassment and discrimination against breastfeeding in public, and educational and sensitivity trainings for employees.

Even MTV is changing their stance on breastfeeding.  While season 2 of Teen Mom removed scenes showing Kailyn Lowry breastfeeding, season 3 star, Katie Yeager, stated on Facebook and twitter that the show “will show me breastfeeding for a year.  I’m breaking the stigma and normalizing it again.”  That’s quite a commitment for a 16 year old!

For me, I plan to hand out a business card-sized copy of the California state laws that protect breastfeeding in public and prohibit discrimination in the workplace and housing to every breastfeeding mother I work with.  Hopefully having it in her wallet will provide some comfort that the law is on her side.  I also plan to submit an editorial to my local newspaper every time I hear a story about a mother being harassed for nursing in public.  I figure, it’s my job to educate my community about a mother’s right to feed her baby in public, without fear of persecution.  Lastly, I plan to promote Best for Babes Nursing in Public Harassment Hotline.  The more documentation they can collect, the better chance we have of creating a REAL change in our communities to help mothers meet their personal breastfeeding goals!

What plans do YOU have to create change in your communities for protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public?

RobinRobin Kaplan received training to be a Certified Lactation Educator and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant from UCSD. She holds a Masters in Education from UCLA, a multiple-subjects teacher credential from UCLA, and a BA in Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis, MO. In 2009, Robin started her own business, the San Diego Breastfeeding Center, where she offers in-home breastfeeding consultations, free weekly support groups, breastfeeding classes, and online support through her business blog.  In addition to her private practice, Robin was the founding Co-editor of theInternational Lactation Consultant Association’s (ILCA)blog, Lactation Matters, and a regular contributor to ILCA’s E-Globe newsletter.  She also is the host/producer of The Boob Group online radio show and the Director of Marketing for  Robin lives in her native San Diego, where she enjoys cooking, hiking, trying new trendy restaurants, and traveling with her family.


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