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Education About Breastfeeding Needs to Start Earlier—Much Earlier

| August 7, 2014

Before the second blue stripe appeared on my home pregnancy test, I had already decided to nurse my baby. From talking to friends and family about their nursing experiences as well as conducting my own research, I knew about breastfeeding’s many benefits. It reduces the chance of baby developing allergies and obesity. It also strengthens immunity. Studies even suggest that it may reduce multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune illness I live with. Plus, nursing is good for the mother. My mother twice had breast cancer, and while researching her illness, I learned that breastfeeding might decrease my risk of breast and ovarian cancer

But regardless of its benefits, the idea of public breastfeeding unnerved me. A woman in my prenatal yoga class said she’d been ordered by a Southern business owner to breastfeed in a broom closet where, in tears, she nursed her baby. After hearing her story and others like it, my anxiety intensified as my due date approached. My friends, family, and even doula, who told me about the silly-named Hooter Hiders nursing cover, offered advice about how to nurse discreetly, and it worked. Each time I publicly nursed on a Chicago El, in a coffee shop, or at a park, people never harassed or shamed me for simply feeding my daughter, who did not care when and where she was hungry.

Sadly, my experience is not the norm. Many like my yoga classmate are shamed into nursing in filthy areas such as bathrooms or broom closets or told to leave public places. Most recently, a homeless Hawaiian woman was ordered by a shelter employee to cover herself while nursing or leave the shelter, prompting Hawaii's Institute of Human Services to re-evaluate its position. Even in the twenty-first century, breasts remain viewed as sexual accessories instead of critical body parts to sustain life. On an episode of Modern Family, actress Sofia Vergara’s breasts were blurred as she nursed a baby. 

This narrow viewpoint results in far-reaching legal and psychological costs. At this time, there are no uniform state laws protecting public breastfeeding. Three states do not legally entitle public breastfeeding: Idaho, South Dakota, and Virginia. Until Governor Rick Snyder signed the Breastfeeding Antidiscrimination Act on June 24, Michigan also did not offer legal protection. On BrestfeedingLaw.com, Jake Marcus points out that in states without public breastfeeding laws, owners and managers of private businesses with public accommodations can tell a mother to leave the premises, and “[i]f she refuses, she might be removed by the police or placed under arrest for trespass.” Even two states that legally protect a nursing mother have stipulations. In Illinois, where I live, nursing mothers have to “comport” to the views of places of worship, and in Missouri, “discretion” must be utilized. However, if a mother nurses her baby in a federal building, no matter in what state that building is located, she is protected by federal law, which states that “a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a Federal building or on Federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location.” What is even more dizzying than the differences between state and federal laws is that legalities often conflict with the medical community’s breastfeeding recommendations.

Ultimately, getting advice from family members when a woman is pregnant, and promoting public support campaigns, are not enough to make public breastfeeding legally and culturally accepted. This kind of education occurs too late. For the United States to promote and accept public breastfeeding as an essential human right as well as a health benefit, breastfeeding education must be introduced in an age-appropriate manner during elementary, middle, and high school science or health classes. The case for school-age breastfeeding education already has some support within and outside the United States. Though it still remains only a recommendation, the New York Department of Public Health promotes primary and secondary school-age education and offers “A Breastfeeding Education Package for Grades K-12.” A search through the PubMed database of the U.S. Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Public Health reveals that a Portuguese health journal explored an elementary school breastfeeding curriculum and advocated “integrating this content into all science textbooks in the early years of elementary school.” If children and teenagers are taught the scientific facts about breastfeeding, they have a better chance of becoming informed adults who hold the moral and legal power to protect public breastfeeding nationwide. It may also help to alleviate the harmful and absurd idea that public breastfeeding is somehow lewd or dirty.

Science proves that if a mother can nurse, she should. With the high rates of cancer and obesity in the U.S., nursing serves as one of the best preventatives. Only with age-appropriate education promoting breastfeeding will my daughter and future generations view public breastfeeding not as an infringement on comfort levels or a sexual show but as a necessity benefiting babies, mothers, culture, and society. 

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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