CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Samantha Stewart never questioned whether she would breast-feed her children once she became a mother.
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The 35-year-old Elkview mother of four is pregnant with twins and plans to nurse them as she did her other children.
"God created our bodies perfectly. They were designed to feed our children with complete nutrition," Stewart said.
The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee will consider a bill next week that would allow new mothers such as Stewart to breast-feed in public. Stores, restaurants or museums could not ask them to stop. Another bill introduced this week would excuse a nursing mother from jury duty.
West Virginia is one of about four states that do not protect a woman's right to breast-feed in public. Nebraska passed a similar public nursing law last year and Michigan considered a law to excuse nursing mothers from jury duty.
Choosing to breast-feed is a big commitment for mothers who will need to take care of their babies whether they are at the work, the mall or at home. Many women don't want the hassle or feel uncomfortable feeding their children in public and turn to baby formula instead.
Stewart doesn't let a shopping trip stop her from feeding her children. And legislation under consideration in the state Senate would encourage more women to make that commitment to breast-feed, she said.
"Everybody has the right to eat that should be no different for an infant. A woman has the right to breast-feed her child no matter where she's at," Stewart said.
Stewart said she would not be able to serve on a jury unless the court would let her twins come into the courtroom with her. Babies need to eat every 20 minutes to 3 hours and a nursing mother needs to be nearby or able to pump her milk periodically.
That time commitment often spurs mothers to stop nursing especially when they return to work as some employers offer nowhere for women to pump, said Dawn Kinser, a registered nurse and certified lactation consultant at Cabell Huntington Hospital.
And if a woman has a busy job and can't pump often enough, her milk will dry up, Kinser said.
Although women can no longer be arrested for breast-feeding in public, the practice is still unpopular. Strangers will glare at women who nurse in public and family members who bottle-fed their own babies may criticize a woman's choice to nurse, Kinser said.
About 40 percent of mothers leave Cabell Huntington Hospital nursing their baby. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only a quarter of West Virginia mothers are still breast-feeding their 6-month-old baby. Only three states report fewer women who nurse.
Women need something to say it's OK, Kinser said.
"Hopefully it will help. It will bring much-needed attention and hopefully increase that rate eventually," Kinser said of the bills.
Supporters of breast-feeding say it's both cheaper and healthier for both the baby and mother than bottle-feeding with formula.
Breast-feeding reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancers and can reduce the risk of postpartum depression in the mother. The practice also shrinks her uterus back to its normal size and allows her to return to her pre-pregnancy weight faster, Kinser said.
For the baby, breast milk can lower the rate of respiratory infections, asthma, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and sudden infant death syndrome, Kinser said.
"It's there. It's free. It's always the right temperature. You don't have to prepare anything. You don't have to wash dishes," Kinser said.
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