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The Breastfeeding Mom's Bill of Rights

The right to raise breastfeeding concerns in court

You have a right to raise breastfeeding concerns in legal or civic matters, such as child custody cases or jury duty.

Like many new moms, Jody Garcia* saw breastfeeding as the best choice for her baby, Camilla. Just one problem: From birth, Camilla was at the center of a custody battle between her parents. Of Camilla's father, Garcia says, "He wanted to take her away and sever the breastfeeding. He wanted to put her on formula."

Parents who split up during this crucial time often clash over legitimate needs: A mom's desire to establish frequent breastfeeding pits her against a dad who wants long stretches of time to bond with the baby. In some cases, courts have ordered mothers to pump milk for long visitations, or to wean if it appears that breastfeeding prevents the father from having a bond. But, as Garcia discovered, flexible and practical planning can help dueling parents find solutions that everyone can live with.

A West Coast resident, Garcia did not happen to dwell in Maine, Michigan, or Utah, which are among the few states where courts are required to consider breastfeeding in making custody and visitation decisions. But even when states have no such laws, moms can still raise breastfeeding concerns. "Note, however, that the courts will only consider breastfeeding, and will not pick breastfeeding over a bond with the father," attorney Baldwin says. "The best way for mothers to protect the breastfeeding relationship in these situations is to demonstrate how breastfeeding can continue and the father can have a bond with his child at the same time."

While a mediator worked to settle the thorny case, Garcia held fast to the importance of breastfeeding but clearly signaled her willingness to compromise. She threw open the doors to Camilla's father. "I made him an offer: You can see her anytime you want, but I hope we can still breastfeed," she says.

And in the end, their agreement worked to everyone's advantage. Even though each parent shared equal legal and physical custody, Camilla lived mainly with her mother, who was able to bring her to work at her employer's house. In the beginning, Camilla's father visited the baby in Garcia's home for as long as 12 hours at a stretch. "I was welcoming," Garcia says. "If he was hungry, I made him a sandwich  -- anything to get him to do visitation in my home." Garcia even went out for short periods to give Camilla private time with her father and came back whenever the baby needed to nurse. As Camilla got older, Garcia expressed milk and stayed out longer. The approach protected the breastfeeding relationship well beyond the fractious period after Camilla's birth.

Fortunately, not all legal or civic matters are as complicated. For example, moms can raise the breastfeeding issue if they are called for jury duty. California, Idaho, Iowa, and Oregon have laws that exempt breastfeeding women from jury duty, while other states exempt parents who are at home caring for a child.

In states without this type of legislation, nursing moms may want to look into a general hardship exemption, according to Baldwin. For example, a woman can explain to the court that being unable to breastfeed or express milk could lead to leaking milk, breast infections, and abscesses. "This may be more convincing than focusing on how much the baby will miss you," she says.

Breastfeeding rights have made life easier for today's nursing moms and their little ones, but we've still got a ways to go. For example, while some states have passed laws that give women the right to a place for pumping breast milk at work, nursing women still have to face unsympathetic bosses and coworkers every day.

But the more women who are out there speaking up for their rights, the more the prejudices will get chipped away. Georgia state representative Sally Harrell is one such trailblazer. When her son, Joseph, was 10 days old, the state House of Representatives went back into session. "I decided that because he was so young, I would take him with me."

Not everyone was welcoming; in fact, several other representatives told the house speaker that they objected. "It's very male-driven," Harrell says. "I had to talk them into letting me bring the baby at all." According to her, no other women in the legislature had ever tried to breastfeed on the job. "In the beginning, I'd borrow someone's office, but when I got good enough, I nursed him on the floor because I realized that I was missing votes."

"The first time I did it, it was really scary," she adds. Even though she felt like everyone was watching, she kept nursing. Then she turned to a female colleague behind her and whispered, "We're making history."

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