Persecution of the Breast Feeders

jen macy


Babies.  Many places we go, there they are.  Maybe you have one, or know one.  Maybe you come no closer than the next aisle in the grocery store.  Even if one had no experience with babies, we all know what they eat: formula, or better than that, breast milk.


The World Health Organization has recommended that infants be breast fed for the first two years of life, minimally.  The American Academy of Pediatrics has voiced similar support for breast feeding.  The benefits to infants are well documented, and manufactured formulas still cannot match the nutrients of breast milk, although vast improvements have been made since Henri Nestle invented the stuff in the late 19th century. 


The rate of breastfeeding an infant in the hospital in the day(s) following birth was 68.4% in 2000 across the U.S.  This is up from 51.5% in 1990.  In 2000, 31.4% were still nursing babies at 6 months of age.  The rate of mothers who worked outside the home and still breast fed at 6 months is 22.8%.  The survey was done by Ross Products, the makers of two of the most popular infant formulas.  So, while many mothers still nurse, the majority do not, and there are several causes.  One is the distribution of “breastfeeding support kits” distributed at many hospitals when mothers take their babies home.  These kits are sponsored by formula companies and include formula samples and coupons.  Other causes relate to the public response to breast feeding, and even the very topic.


Despite all the benefits of breast feeding for babies and mothers, the practice is frequently not accepted within eyesight.  Many people are uncomfortable in the presence of a nursing woman and child.  Here in America, we consider breasts to be sexual, not functional, therefore should remain hidden.  For example: Deborah Wolfe, a Canadian flying from Houston to Vancouver, was threatened with terrorist charges when she refused to move to the back of the plane, out of sight, to nurse her infant.  An American male passenger was upset when she nursed the baby in his view, and the flight staff sided with the offended man, not with the mother.  Wolfe was forced to sign an agreement that she would not break Continental Airline’s rules or speak to Americans, otherwise she would be turned over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for detainment for terrorist activities, since the American felt himself a victim of terror by Wolfe’s behavior.  Wolfe’s behavior is protected by Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Canada is a signatory, but the plane was in international airspace, contributing to the possibility of terrorist charges.


In another case,  Jacqueline Mercado, a Peruvian immigrant, was arrested for a photograph she took, when the developer considered it suspicious.  The image was Mercado nursing her year-old son.  Mercado and Johnny Fernandez, her boyfriend and the child’s father, were charged with “sexual performance of a child”.   Mercado and Fernandez’s house was searched for child pornography, and their two children were seized by the state.  The District Attorney, who originally obtained the indictment, dismissed the charges in March, after reporters started asking pointed questions.  These arrests and removal of the children occurred in October and November 2002, and the children have not yet been returned to their parents.  While this event did not occur from nursing in public, it does serve to demonstrate the hostility with which breast feeding is received in many circles. 


            To get a feel for how nursing mothers perceive the acceptance, or lack thereof, of nursing in public, I queried mothers who frequent an internet message board,  Twenty-one women responded to 10 questions based on their experiences breast feeding in public and expressing breast milk at their work places.  All agreed to be quoted, identified by the user id they use on the web site.  Most breast feed daily or weekly in public places, ranging from college campuses to parks to malls. All of the women are moderately to completely comfortable nursing in public, although they did not necessarily begin their nursing experiences that way.  Several were uncomfortable nursing in public with their first child, but have since become very comfortable.  Nearly all the women take some measures to reduce public visibility of the activity.  Many turn to sit away from prying eyes, several  have the infant in a sling or wrap that allows completely private nursing.  As one participant put it: “most people think she is sleeping”. New styles of nursing clothing serve to reduce what is visible to passersby.  Several women use blankets to cover them from shoulder to waist, but others feel that the blanket draws more attention to what’s going on underneath than nursing without it would.  Only a few women don’t alter their behavior at all while nursing in public. 


            Most women shared stories of their experiences on the subject.  More reported positive comments than negative, especially from older women.  One woman, nursing her daughter on an airplane, was relieved to hear that the older woman sitting next to her was on her way to meet her new granddaughter for the first time.  mum2sarah writes: “She was touched by the tenderness of the moment my daughter and I were sharing through nursing.  This experience really encouraged me not to let nursing in public make me feel uncomfortable.” 


But negative reactions were reported as well.  sswilcox related this story:


I was [breastfeeding] my [daughter] at a restaurant at a relatively 'slow' time of the day, and I was kind of out in the middle of the mostly empty restaurant when a lady walked up behind me and said "I cannot BELIEVE she is BREAST FEEDING RIGHT THERE!!!". All I could say was, "Well, I AM!!!" And had she not been walking into the SMOKING SECTION, I would have followed her and continued to feed my baby right in front of her!


            Relating a story of nursing on a couch in the ladies restroom in Sears, Jen says “the door swings open. It is a man with a little girl, I'd say about 4. He's trying to "coach" her into the bathroom. She won't go in. Meanwhile, he is standing there with the door wide open and staring at me. He made me feel like a cheap piece of meat because I was feeding my child.”     


            Many women reported people averting their eyes from the scene, but other people have approached and expressed curiosity.  Some women are so comfortable in the situation that they don’t notice glances or comments.  badger reports on breast feeding her son: “He thrashes about quite a bit, which you imagine would draw attention but if it does I can't say I have noticed. I suppose now I am very secure in the knowledge that I am doing the best thing for my son and if anyone objects well then that's their problem!”  And Christy notes: “My baby's hunger is priority to me, and as long as I'm the provider then she will eat wherever and whenever she gets hungry!


Many of the respondents do express milk at work, where their overall comfort is slightly less than in other public places.  Many have their own offices or separate “lactation rooms” for pumping, but most expressed some concern that their co-workers still knew what they were doing at those times.  mum2sarah, who ended up resigning her position at work, made a strong argument:


While I feel that my employer had some nice options and good attitudes, it was not really optimal, especially when compared to other developed nations which often offer long, paid maternity leaves and on-site childcare. I feel that this is the biggest obstacle for nursing women in America today: making working and nursing compatible. It would be nice to see more enlightened employers or even legislation to help new mothers financially during leaves of absence. I am happy now that I am a stay at home mom, and since I was a music teacher, I have been able to integrate teaching private students out of my home with my style of mothering. I enjoy this greatly, although it does not pay very much. Unfortunately many mothers do not have options to work from home or take their baby to work or work part time or become a stay at home mom. Many moms have a financial need to work full time and not take a long unpaid leave. This presents them with a great challenge to breastfeeding success, but if our society valued breastfeeding more, perhaps working full time would not pose such a great challenge because the two would become more compatible.

            Three of the respondents do now or have in the past taken their nursing children to school or work with them, with varying reactions.  lil reported getting into an argument with her secretary about whether it was ok to nurse children over a year old.  “Well, we don’t do that in Oklahoma”, the secretary rebuffed, unconvinced that the phenomenon occurs, let alone that it’s encouraged by many.


The responses were all quite supportive of this report on the topic.  The contributors were all enthusiastic about participating in research that advocates breastfeeding in public.  The final comments of most messages expressed excitement about the project and strong interest in reading the results of the research.  Since they have joined this on-line community, most of the women are interested in breast feeding advocacy.  Alexandra said it best:


I was breastfeeding my son in the nursery when a little boy came up and started asking what the baby was doing.  I tried to answer delicately but truthfully, since I didn't know his family well.  His mother was fine with what I said and his questions, but it illustrated to me again how much we are socializing our own children to what is normal.  My sons have grown up with it being normal for babies to breastfeed.  I truly think we will see breastfeeding as much more the cultural norm in the next generation because of the growing awareness of breastfeeding and the commitment of today's mothers to nurse their own children.






Breastfeeding, Bicultural Perspectives

The Politics of Breastfeeding (Palmer)

Milk, Money and Madness (Baumslag and Michels)