By Nancy Cook Lauer
Thursday, August 2, 2007
World Breastfeeding Week encourages nursing mothers in a practice recommended by leading health authorities. But legislative battles across the U.S. show that the right to engage in this natural mother-child act is still challenged.
HONOLULU (WOMENSENEWS)--Advocates often cite Hawaii as a leader in protecting a woman's right to breastfeed in public. New York is celebrated as the first state to enact strict protections of that right.
Yet, as a recent protest in Hawaii and an ongoing battle to get new legislation passed in New York illustrate, even the most progressive states falter now and then.
In states where breastfeeding rights are even less clear, the fight is far from over.
"Unfortunately, we have many instances of breastfeeding mothers being approached in states that supposedly have laws," Melissa Vance, an attorney with La Leche League International, based in Schaumburg, Ill., told Women's eNews.
Breastfeeding issues come to the forefront in August, when the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, a partnership that includes the World Health Organization, UNICEF, La Leche League International and a host of lactation specialists and consultants, sponsors World Breastfeeding Week.
The event, which will be celebrated in more than 120 countries from Aug. 1 through Aug. 7 this year, includes an attempt to create a Guinness World Record on synchronized breastfeeding in multiple sites. The event will start at 10 a.m. local time in each country on Aug. 8. Participants register at the Breastfeeding World Web site to be counted.
The record for a single site is held by Manila, where 3,541 mothers conducted a simultaneous breastfeeding last year, breaking the 2002 Berkeley, Calif., record of 1,130.
These mass events are meant to remind nursing mothers of their sometimes infringed-upon rights.
Earlier this summer, for instance, about 40 mothers and children engaged in a "nurse-in" at a Hilo, Hawaii, library after a breastfeeding mother was asked to move from the children's section because another mother complained that her son couldn't focus on his work.
The group collected 82 signatures for a protest petition. A library administrator said personnel just suggested that she move to a "more comfortable area in the library," but the state library system later clarified its policies so that "mothers can breastfeed in the library, whenever, wherever, however they would like to," said Hilo public librarian Claudine Fujii.
A few scant weeks before the state library system handed down the new rules, the Hawaii Legislature sent a resolution to its New York colleagues, backing the proposed Breastfeeding Mothers' Bill of Rights. That bill, providing mothers with basic rights before, during and after birth, and requiring hospitals to post those rights, passed the New York Assembly June 20 but remains mired in the Senate.
Pennsylvania just passed its Freedom to Breastfeed Act July 3, exempting breastfeeding from its indecent exposure laws. It came about after a mother at a Reading, Pa., mall was asked to breastfeed in a bathroom or her car. Almost 200 people turned out for a nurse-in at the mall prior to the introduction of the bill.
An Ohio woman who called her state senator after getting kicked out of a Wal-Mart for breastfeeding succeeded in getting legislation passed there last year.
Texas has breastfeeding protections in its current law, but several incidents where mothers have been asked to leave public places prompted a new proposal this year to clarify workplace rights and institute a $250 civil penalty for violations. The initiative died in committee.
Wisconsin, Colorado, Missouri and Alaska continue to grapple with bills. Tennessee's law applies only to breastfeeding infants under 12 months. West Virginia, Massachusetts, Missouri and Washington, D.C., have no breastfeeding laws at all.
With states so uneven on breastfeeding rights, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., thinks a federal law is needed and introduced the Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2007 to encourage continued breastfeeding by working mothers.
Federal agencies seem to back that philosophy. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2005 launched an aggressive campaign to educate women on the benefits of breastfeeding, establishing a breastfeeding hotline (800-994-9662) in English and Spanish to answer new mothers' questions and broadcasting a series of radio interviews with the surgeon general.
In a perfect world, legislation wouldn't be needed, said Irene Zoppi, clinical educational specialist for Medela, a Swiss manufacturer of breast pumps and breastfeeding accessories.
"If there are adequate educational resources available, it should be able to be accomplished without legislation," Zoppi said. "Breastfeeding is not just a lifestyle choice but a significant health choice."
Advocates agree that, if possible, breastfeeding is the best option for both mother and child. Breastfeeding transfers some immunity to diseases from mother to child, including respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Some studies have shown they have 50 percent to 95 percent fewer infections. Other studies suggest breastfed babies are at lower risk for sudden infant death syndrome and serious chronic disease later in life such as asthma, diabetes, leukemia and some forms of lymphoma, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
The health benefits may extend to mothers as well. Studies cited by advocates have shown breastfeeding reduces the risk of adult-onset diabetes and osteoporosis later in life. In the short-term, breastfeeding accelerates healing after childbirth, calming the mother and helping her shed up to 500 extra calories a day in pregnancy-related weight-gain.
"While the health, social and economic benefits are many, the barriers to breastfeeding are numerous as well, from the challenges of working mothers, short maternity leaves and general employer and public lack of awareness and support for mothers who breastfeed," Nancy Partika, executive director of the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawaii, told lawmakers considering that state's resolution.
The New York legislation--drafted by pediatricians, government personnel, New York State Department of Health staff and lactation specialists--requires publication of a toll-free complaint line for mothers to call if the guidelines aren't followed.
It spells out a mother's rights in detail: to receive information free of commercial interests; to be informed of and refuse drugs that will dry up her milk; to have baby with the mother immediately after birth and 24 hours a day and to breastfeed the baby "in any location public or private," where she is otherwise authorized to be, whether or not the nipple of her breast is covered at anytime during the breastfeeding process.
The legislation is of particular interest to the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, which says immediate initiation of breastfeeding and exclusive breastfeeding for six months could reduce infant deaths by 1 million a year.
Although about 70 percent of mothers start breastfeeding right after birth, only about a third are breastfeeding at six months and fewer than 20 percent are exclusively breastfeeding by that time.
"A lot of people view this as a personal rights issue for mothers," said La Leche's Vance, "but it's not just a mother's right, it's a child's right too."
Nancy Cook Lauer is Hawaii capital reporter for Stephens Media.
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