Image: Women breast-feeding
Don Ryan  /  AP file
Marnie Glickman, right, breast-feeds her daughter, Calliope, while Rachel Brusseau breast-feeds her son, James, in front of the Delta Airlines gate at Portland International Airport in Portland, Ore. Approximately 35 mothers with children showed up in support of a woman that was removed, along with her family, from a flight in Vermont for breast-feeding her child.
By contributor
updated 2/2/2007 12:51:05 PM ET 2007-02-02T17:51:05

Julie Wheelan was confronted by a Rhode Island shopping mall security guard.

A restaurant assistant manager in Las Vegas criticized Emilee Holt.

And a lifeguard at a public pool in Washington state ordered Laurie Waldherr away from the water.

Their offense? Breast-feeding in public.

It seems that no matter how many protests breast-feeding moms stage in support of their rights, there’s always another confrontation right around the corner.

Even though health authorities have said for decades that breast is best for baby, American attitudes about nursing are still heatedly divided. In some cases, women who don't or can't breast-feed are made to feel like they're bad mothers. And those who do breast-feed — and nurse in public — can be the targets of complaints and outrage. Men often don't know what to do in the presence of a nursing mom and other women can be most critical of all.

Why are we so conflicted?

“Our society still doesn’t recognize the functional use of breasts,” says Karen Peters, executive director of the Breast Feeding Task Force of Greater Los Angeles. “It only recognizes the sexual aspect.”

In a 2003 national survey for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 percent of 3,976 respondents said they were comfortable with moms nursing in public; 30 percent weren’t. The rest were undecided.

“Our society can’t accept that the human body isn’t always a sexual thing,” says Wheelan. Adds Sher Maloney, a California mother of two who started the Web site to support nursing in public: “A cultural taboo is actually affecting decisions about children’s health.”

When nursing moms feel shame or embarrassment, she says, they’ll be less likely to breast-feed in public. That’s the kind of feeling that sent Cynthia Thompson fleeing to a restaurant restroom stall the first time she had to nurse in public.

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“I was really tense about it,” says the Pennsylvania mother of a 4-month-old. “I was just scared how other people would react.”

Going too far?
While lactivists — the name breast-feeding activists have come up with for themselves — defend their right to nurse publicly, others say the pro-nursing argument can sometimes go too far, making mothers who can’t or don’t want to nurse feel guilty. Breast-feeding should be sold on its benefits, they say.

They argue that mothers won’t respond to negative messages like the television ad in one federal government-funded campaign that showed a pregnant woman riding a mechanical bull. “You wouldn’t take risks before your baby’s born. Why start after?” the announcer asked. The conclusion: failure to breast-feed puts babies in danger.

Alicia Feldman, an Iowa mother, breast-fed all three of her children — including her twins. But she believes women need to be supportive of each other, regardless of how they feed their children.

"I have friends who have been successful at breast-feeding, and some who haven't," she says. "You don't judge each other. Sometimes your body won't keep up."

Breasts on a plane
Some confrontations make headlines — like the one that occurred on a Freedom Airlines flight in October.

Emily Gillette, a 27-year-old mom, said she was asked to leave a Vermont flight after she refused to cover up while breast-feeding her 22-month-old. News of that event spurred public “nurse-ins” at airports around the country, and Gillette filed a complaint with the Vermont Human Rights Commission.

But nursing mothers say confrontations are going on behind the headlines, too. And they’re fighting back.

Wheelan recalls the June day in 2006 at a Providence, R.I., shopping mall when she sat down to nurse her 4-month-old son: “I was in the food court. I wear nursing tanks. I try to be discreet. I don’t need people to see my business. I had a security guard come up to me and say, ‘People are uncomfortable with you. I’m going to have to ask you to go into the bathroom.’”

She stood her ground and suggested the guard call the state police to find out that the law protects her. In fact, a Rhode Island state law passed in 1998 excludes breast-feeding mothers from the state’s disorderly conduct laws, which cover indecent exposure.

Wheelan says she ordinarily doesn’t look for confrontation. “But when people choose to interject themselves, they make it an issue,” she says. “It’s part of what spurred me to get in on a nurse-in.”

A month later, she was back at the same mall, participating in a nationwide nursing protest at Victoria’s Secret. The lingerie retailer was targeted by lactivists after two women — one in Wisconsin and one in Massachusetts — said they were denied the right to nurse openly in the stores. The company issued an apology, and said its policy is to allow women to nurse in Victoria’s Secret stores.

During the Providence nurse-in, Whelan says, “I sat right in the window ... next to a mannequin wearing a thong and a push-up bra.”

'It's offensive'
Not everyone who objects to public breast-feeding wants a confrontation.

Caroline Norris of Federal Way, Wash., believes nursing should be a personal thing between mother and baby.

"Nursing mothers need to go somewhere in private to nurse their babies and not sit and flaunt their breasts in public," she says. "It's offensive. I don't think women should be exposed out there in public."

Still, when she sees a baby nursing, she usually doesn't say anything. Instead, she just turns and walks away.

Others don't go so quietly. On the ABC talk show, "The View," Barbara Walters told how uncomfortable she felt sitting near a woman on an airplane flight who was breast-feeding her child. Within minutes, lactivist were online organizing nurse-ins around the country.

Even some new mothers have heated objections. When "Baby Talk" magazine, which bears the slogan "Straight talk for new moms," published a photo of a breast-feeding baby on the cover of its August 2006 issue , a flood of readers objected. In a poll of their readers, a quarter called the photo inappropriate.

An message board asking readers to weigh in on the incident drew thousands of posts on both sides of the issue. "When did we become a society that lets women think our own body parts are gross?," asked one reader.

Lewd in Las Vegas?
A confrontation last year in Las Vegas made Holt feel that way.

While on vacation, Holt was nursing her 22-month-old son at a hotel restaurant when the assistant manager started unfolding a napkin and motioning for her to cover up. When Holt said she was fine, thank you, two more restaurant employees got in on the conversation. They told her if she didn’t cover, she would have to leave. They began “explaining to me that I could not be naked in public, that there were nudity and lewdness laws in Las Vegas — could have fooled me!”

Being called lewd in Las Vegas — a city that practically invented the G-string — really rankled her. Holt wrote a letter of complaint to the hotel, which refunded the money she spent on her hotel stay, and promised to include information on Nevada breast-feeding laws in employee-training materials.

Nevada law says a mother may breast-feed her child in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be, regardless of whether “the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breast-feeding.”

Why are we so uncomfortable?
Peters says part of our problem with nursing in public is that modern society has “lost that art of breast-feeding. We don’t know what normal physiology is.”

She heard a story from a Nigerian nurse-midwife, a new immigrant to the United States, that gave her pause. “She was astounded because she had a patient here who had never seen a woman breast-feed,” Peters says. “In Nigeria, everybody sees it. Young girls help young mothers as they’re going through childhood. They see what normal is. We don’t here.”

Part of that may be due to the popularity of infant formula, particularly in past generations. It was first developed in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that it was embraced as the modern, hygienic way to feed babies. Because early infant formula was so expensive, it gained popularity first among the upper classes.

“Now the resurgence of breast-feeding is following the same pattern,” Peters says. Many studies say that low-income, less educated women have lower breast-feeding rates than wealthier women.

Falling short of the goal
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be exclusively breast-fed (with no added water, juice or other foods) for the first six months of life. It supports breast-feeding for the first year and beyond as long as mother and child are willing. But in 2005, only 21 states achieved the national Healthy People goal for 75 percent of mothers to begin breast-feeding at birth, according to CDC data.

The goal is for at least half of all mothers to still be breast-feeding at 6 months, and 25 percent at the 1-year mark. But only five states — California, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — achieved all three benchmarks in 2005.

While most who criticize moms nursing in public say they object to overexposure, some unique arguments have been raised over the years.

Six years ago, Waldherr took her kids to family swim night at the public pool in Fife, Wash. She wanted to keep an eye on her toddler in the water, so she sat by the side of the pool to nurse her infant. A lifeguard said she had to move away from the water so that she wouldn’t leak “bodily fluids” into the pool. And the lifeguard cited leaky breasts as the reason for banning her from the pool for the remainder of the night.

Waldherr, shaking with anger, grabbed her kids and her husband and left. Lifeguards and city officials later apologized. But Waldherr sued the city. She reached an out-of-court settlement. Her case was reported by newspapers and television.

“If that’s going to be my legacy, I hope it’s positive,” Waldherr, who’s now expecting her third child, says. “I have a really hard time figuring out what the big whoop about it is. People have been doing it for a jillion years.”

Debbie Cafazzo is a writer based in Tacoma, Wash.

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