Moms at breastfeeding protest

(WOMENSENEWS)–The first time Lorig Charkoudian was asked to cover up was in early July, as she nursed her 14-month-old daughter in a Maryland Starbucks.

Only one other customer was in the coffee shop, and Charkoudian had her back to him. Still, a Starbucks employee asked her to cover her daughter’s face with a blanket or suggested she nurse in the bathroom. No one had complained, he said, he was just being pro-active.

Charkoudian isn’t alone when it comes to being told how and where to nurse in public. Even as the number of breastfeeding women rises, some breastfeeding advocates say their acceptance in public hasn’t kept pace, despite it being a legally protected activity in over 30 states. If anything, they add, as more women breastfeed, more are likely being discouraged from nursing while outside their homes, ultimately proving counterproductive to breastfeeding campaigns.

“The more roadblocks you put in the way of a new mom to nurse, the more chance she will feel embarrassed and shamed because new moms are already nervous and unsure with nursing,” said Lorrie Leigh, who’s been teaching childbirth and breastfeeding in Silver Spring, Maryland for five years. “When you discourage women to breastfeed outside, you encourage them to quit sooner.”

Legally Protected

Public breastfeeding is nothing new, though mothers potentially risk being cited for indecent exposure for doing it in the 15 or so states that do not protect nursing mothers.

The laws that do help to clarify or enforce a women’s right to breastfeed in public vary from state to state. Some of these laws ensure that breastfeeding isn’t a criminal offense, while other states, such as New York and California, go further and permit a mother to sue for civil rights violation if she is prevented from breastfeeding in public.

Maryland’s legislation, enacted in 2003, provides that a mother may breastfeed her child in any public or private place where they are authorized to be, without any restrictions or limitations on this right.

Starbucks has admitted it unintentionally violated this legislation, but has not agreed to adopt a national corporate policy to stop asking women to cover up when breastfeeding.

“While Starbucks does not have a formal policy regarding mothers breastfeeding babies within our stores, we welcome a broad and diverse group of customers to its stores, including nursing mothers,” Audrey Lincoff, director of media relations for Starbucks wrote in an e-mail to Women’s eNews. “Additionally, Starbucks complies with all applicable state and local laws regarding breastfeeding.”

Such new laws don’t necessarily change public attitudes. Mary Lofton of La Leche League International, based in Schaumburg, Ill., that educates mothers on breastfeeding, says that breasts are so over-sexualized, it’s hard for people to associate them with their natural function.

“At the beginning of the last century a woman in the South could breastfeed in church without people batting an eyelash,” said Lofton. “In the 1950s the breast became an erotic symbol in Hollywood. Now there’s a real aversion to opening the blouse slightly to nurse, even though the average teen-ager in a mall exposes more breast.”

Leigh is concerned that discouraging women from breastfeeding in public may set back progress. Breastfeeding rates have been rising after a low in 1971, when around 25 percent of women breastfed in hospitals after birth and only 5 percent were still doing so after six months, according to a survey by formula maker Ross Products in Columbus, Ohio. By 2002, breastfeeding in hospitals rose to 70 percent and after six months it was 33 percent.

Much of this is thanks to increased publicity about the health benefits of breastfeeding. Breastfed babies may have lower rates of diabetes, respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, allergies and obesity, while nursing mothers’ benefits may include a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women breastfeed through the baby’s first year. Less than one in five do, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The number of women who breastfeed initially is higher,” Charkoudian said. “Long-term breastfeeding–those numbers more reflect how accepted it is in public since the first six weeks are more or less at home.”

Fighting Back

A few weeks before Charkoudian’s incident, a woman breastfeeding in a Target at the same shopping center in Silver Spring was also harassed, said Leigh. Last fall, Kasey Madden in Chicago was asked to move by a manger at Lifetime Fitness health club for nursing her baby in the gym’s day care area.

Some of these moms are fighting back. When Starbucks didn’t respond to Charkoudian’s demand that they create a nationwide policy preventing employees from asking breastfeeding women to leave, she and around 30 nursing mothers staged a nurse-in. They filled the coffee shop in August, wearing shirts that read “What’s more natural than coffee and milk?” Their nurse-in encouraged another one by a breastfeeding group in an Austin Starbucks.

Meanwhile in Illinois, Madden took on the corporate offices of Lifetime Fitness by writing to state lawmakers. Her case was the catalyst for a new state law that was passed in August, giving breastfeeding mothers the right to nurse their babies in any location, other than in places of worship and private homes, adding Illinois to the list of states that legally protects breastfeeding in public.

Some women’s groups, however, say that public breastfeeding in now being used as an act of defiance when it really isn’t asking too much for some basic cover up.

Families at a protest in Austin, Tx

“Public breastfeeding should be done with discretion and regard to others’ feelings,” said Charlotte Allen, co-editor of InkWell, a Web blog on the Independent Women’s Forum site, a Washington-D.C.-based conservative women’s group. “It’s a question of desires of women to breastfeed babies versus social customs. We have a standard of decorum and some are offended.”

Groups like La Leche League International are working to change these social norms. They’ve been doing breastfeeding awareness and training since 1956, their latest programs focused on minority women, who have lower rates of breastfeeding.

In June, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also stepped in. They launched a public health campaign about breastfeeding with the Ad Council, a New York nonprofit. Their ads not only encourage women to breastfeed, but also warn of the risks of not breastfeeding.

“We wanted to make sure women understand that if they opt to not breastfeed, it’s their choice but it could have consequences. It created a bit of controversy,” said Kathy Crosby, senior vice president group campaign director of the Ad Council.

The campaign was supposed to be launched a year ago. Many breastfeeding advocates, such as Leigh, believe pressure from formula companies led to this delay and to the resulting “watered-down version” of the campaign.

But mothers like Charkoudian aren’t waiting around for the government effort to create a pro-nursing culture. Her next plan is to organize regular nurse outs in Maryland, where nursing women pick a spot in the city and collectively nurse.

“Some work is at the legislative level, some at the corporate level,” said Charkoudian. “And some of the issue is that people aren’t used to seeing a mom nurse a baby. The more you see, the more normal and part of culture it becomes.”

Juhie Bhatia is a writer based in New York City.