'Nurse-in' shows need for more breastfeeding support

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Breastfeeding in public is making headlines yet again. But before you get too excited, it's not the fanfare of exposed celebrity bosoms that had people talking a few years ago.

This time a nursing mom in Texas made national news when she tried to breastfeed her child in a Houston area Target store. Michelle Hickman found an out-of-the-way space in the women's section to nurse her baby. Yet despite Target's corporate policy that supports a woman's right to breastfeed anywhere in the store, staff at the store asked her repeatedly to move to a dressing room to nurse. For a variety of reasons, Michelle didn't want to have to relocate, leave her cart full of items unattended and be made to feel as if she were doing something wrong. She knew her rights and let the staff know that they were out of line in asking her to move.

Outraged, Michelle used Facebook to help organize a nationwide Target "nurse-in" to hold Target and other retailers accountable for protecting women's right to nurse in public if they so choose. I was proud to participate in the nurse-in at the Emeryville, Calif, Target nurse-in, where we thanked the management there for protecting our right to nurse on site.

But, as well-intentioned as the events were, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. First, why thank chain stores for upholding rights that are already on the books, rights that protect our desire to nourish our children in the best possible way? It's 2012, after all, and we know about the benefits of breastfeeding. Are we really still having this conversation?

Apparently, yes. In spite of laws in 45 states that protect a woman's right to breastfeed in public, and 28 states with laws that protect women from public indecency claims, many retail stores, restaurants and other public spaces do not respect these rights. Women are asked to move, leave or are threatened with indecency claims. Well then, it's no wonder that despite a desire to breastfeed among more than 80% of new moms, nationally, less than 12% of women breastfeed exclusively for six months, as organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and World Health Organization recommend.

What's more troubling still is that the majority of women participating in Emeryville -- and in the other nurse-ins as well, from what the news reports show -- are middle class white women who have the time or flexible work schedules to bring babes in arms to a mom-friendly demonstration at 10 a.m. on a weekday. The fact that the face of the nurse-ins was what TIME Magazine called "smiling, middle-class mommies" means that low-income women of color, the women most likely to abandon breastfeeding due to lack of support in hospitals and workplaces, were barely represented at the events.

News coverage of breastfeeding is important and I was glad to see the media attending to it. We need more reporting on the barriers to breastfeeding in public spaces and in workplaces. One recent BMSG study shows that this part of the story doesn't appear as often as it could.

Women are better able to start and sustain breastfeeding when the places in which they give birth, work and shop encourage it. When retail sites and other public spaces discriminate against nursing women, women are more likely to abandon efforts to breastfeed, especially low-income women. Hospitals, retail stores, restaurants and other public spaces need to comply with state laws that encourage breastfeeding and protect a woman's right to breastfeed in public. Policies that make it easier for all women to breastfeed will lead to healthier mothers and babies and a healthier society overall.

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