The Breastfeeding Mom’s Bill of Rights

by Katherine Kam

The Breastfeeding Mom’s Bill of Rights

A restaurant manager strides over to a mom discreetly nursing her infant at a table and sniffs, “Please go to the rest room to do that.” The head of sales hassles a female subordinate about taking breaks to pump milk in the ladies room. Aunt Gladys expresses shock and disapproval that 14-month-old Sam still nurses.

Think these scenarios are rare? Not according to breastfeeding moms all over the country, who tell us they face similar hurdles practically every day. Many of them simply back off in embarrassment and anger, unsure of how to respond. But not anymore. Babytalk is here to tell you that as a breastfeeding mom you have the legal and moral rights to speak up for yourself. Here’s the skinny on when and where you can breastfeed and what you can say to anyone who tries to stop you.

The right to breastfeed wherever you are

If you have a right to be somewhere with your baby, you have a right to breastfeed there.

It’s the law. Kerry Madden-Lunsford, a Los Angeles writer, was nursing 3-month-old Norah under a turtleneck and sweater in the children’s section of a bookstore when a clerk told her, “You can’t do that in here.” Then a store manager suggested the rest room. “What was I supposed to do?” Madden-Lunsford says. “Leave my two older children alone? Or gather everyone and head to the toilet to nurse?” She chose to leave the store. “I just kept thinking how unfair it was. You just go through such humiliation.”

What Madden-Lunsford didn’t know at the time was this: “As a rule, if you have a right to be somewhere with your baby, you have a right to breastfeed,” says Elizabeth Baldwin, a Florida attorney and La Leche League leader who is a national expert on breastfeeding and the law. According to Baldwin, the rule holds true whether or not your state has a law that protects a woman’s right to breastfeed in public. (Almost half of states, including California, have passed such laws; to learn if yours has, check La Leche League Summary of Breastfeeding Legislation

Baldwin says there are a few places, such as courtrooms, where babies aren’t allowed, so obviously, women don’t have a right to breastfeed there. But in the vast majority of public places  — such as stores, restaurants, parks, and malls  — women are legally allowed to breastfeed. While many moms prefer to nurse in a quiet corner, a turned-around chair, or under a blanket, they need not go to great efforts to hide what they’re doing.

If someone asks you to leave a public place where you and your baby have a right to be, Baldwin says that you can take action on the spot, perhaps by asking, “Is it okay to give my baby a bottle?” If the answer is yes, the next logical question is, “Then it should be okay to breastfeed, right?” (One mom was more blunt. When asked to take her nursing child into the rest room, she zinged back: “Would you go to the bathroom to eat your lunch?”)

If you feel bold, consider reminding the establishment that the law is on your side. Say, “I have a legal right to breastfeed my baby in public. We’ll be done in 15 minutes.” If the staff still won’t budge, you may want to leave and send them a letter later. Battling it out on the spot may not be worth the upset to you and your child.

Madden-Lunsford, who thinks that those who oppose breastfeeding are usually not malicious, just uninformed, took her battle a step further. She went so far as to file a lawsuit against the bookstore, which was later settled. In an encouraging turn of events, the company educated its employees about breastfeeding and even posted notices in store windows saying that breastfeeding moms were welcome.

Katherine Kam is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay area.

The right to choose how long you breastfeed

You have a right to breastfeed your child for as long as you see fit.

Beth Reiter went back to work full-time at a Cincinnati philanthropic foundation when her daughter, Elsa, was 6 weeks old. She expressed breast milk during the workday, but even after Elsa lost interest in bottles, the little girl still wanted to breastfeed on nights and weekends. Elsa is now 2 1/2, and she continues to enjoy nursing. It’s one of the first things mother and daughter do together when Reiter steps through the door. “Because I work full-time, this is when we reconnect,” Reiter says. The two usually nurse snuggled on the couch in front of the TV set, and then Elsa nurses again at bedtime for comfort. On weekends, they breastfeed as often as Elsa wishes, although, like most toddlers, she now drinks cow’s milk and eats table food.

Reiter no longer nurses Elsa in public, but when people find out that she is still breastfeeding, some are, in Reiter’s words, “incredulous.” “Most can’t believe I’m still doing it. I respond that it’s something that’s very important to us and that she’ll let me know when she’s ready [to wean].”

Extended breastfeeding, or “natural weaning,” in which a woman breastfeeds her child into toddlerhood and beyond, often allowing the child to decide when to stop, is common in other parts of the world. But Americans tend to view it as odd at best, perverse at worst. They may be surprised to find out that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding not only for a full 12 months but “for as long as mutually desired.”

That can often mean up to age 3 or 4, says Lawrence Gartner, M.D., chair of the Executive Committee of the AAP’s Provisional Section on Breastfeeding. Extended breastfeeding offers psychological and physical benefits, Dr. Garner says. “There’s a bond between the mother and child, a psychological reassurance. There are also physical benefits: antibodies against infection and stimulation of the immune system.”

If those facts (and “How I raise my child is none of your business”) don’t silence the critics, one mom suggests having a retort ready. When inquiring minds ask about when she plans to stop nursing her preschooler, she says, “College. I’m convinced she can’t take the boob to the dorm room.”

In the end, none of the fuss matters to your child, as exemplified by Beth Reiter’s daughter. When her mother asks her why she continues to nurse, all Elsa says is: “Tastes good.”

The right to pump breastmilk at work

You have a right to be bold in asking your employer for accommodations to pump breast milk at work.

Nursing moms who go back to work may feel that it’s easier to juggle a dozen baby bottles with one hand tied behind their back than it is to manage the logistics of expressing milk on the job. While breastfeeding workers may dream of regular breaks and a clean, private room in which to pump milk, the reality is that many women end up pumping in the dreaded bathroom stall. To make matters worse, bosses and coworkers are often unsupportive. In the end, some women simply decide the hassle isn’t worth it. They give up and wean before they’re ready.

Unfortunately, American employers aren’t uniformly required to provide mothers with a place to pump breast milk in the workplace. A growing number of states (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota, and Tennessee) do mandate that employers enable women to breastfeed. And most require that employers provide a break time and a space that isn’t a bathroom stall for workers to express milk. But others have yet to catch up with this positive trend.

Women can still do a lot to ensure success, and it pays to be bold in requesting a work atmosphere that’s conducive to breastfeeding. Experts say that it’s wise to talk openly with an approachable supervisor or the human resources department about your plans to express milk at work, especially if you have less job autonomy or trouble finding a private place to pump. Good, clear communication is vitally important, according to lactation consultant Carol Ann Friedman, R.N., director of Mothers At Work, a service of LifeCare, a Connecticut-based company that helps corporations set up workplace breastfeeding programs. “You can’t be shy about asking for what you want.” Without being demanding or combative, push for a room with a lockable door or a sign to put on the door (“Pumping in Progress,” for example), a comfortable place to sit, and an electrical outlet for the pump.

“Companies have many options to assist mothers who want to pump at work,” Friedman adds. “Providing a room with a breast pump gives an overall feeling of support and acceptance.” Taking a cooperative approach is important. But if you are met with resistance, remind your employer that the company should treat breastfeeding workers fairly and in the same manner as other employees, even if the law doesn’t mandate that it provide pumping accommodations. Says Baldwin, “If one employee is allowed to go on break to smoke a cigarette, you should have a right to pump milk on your break. Breastfeeding women are not to be discriminated against.”

Amber Judd is one mom who is making it work. When Judd, a correctional officer at a California prison, was returning from maternity leave, she called to ask for workplace arrangements to pump breast milk for her 3-month-old son, Camren. The personnel director, a woman, quizzed Judd about whether the breast pump posed any danger to staff or inmates: Could it be taken apart easily? Could any parts be used as weapons? After Judd convinced her that the pump was safe, she got the go-ahead. She was transferred to a new post at an inmate medical clinic, where she could pump privately in an exam room. Everyone was very supportive, she says. Her confident, no-nonsense approach helped. “I was very matter-of-fact: Officer Judd pumps.”

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.”