A DC area woman recently filed a report with the D.C Office of Human Rights after an incident in which she was asked not to breastfeed in a corridor at the DMV. According to her recounting of events, she first attempted to nurse while sitting on the floor of the hallway and when told by a security guard she was allowed to sit there, tried to nurse standing up. After that, she was told she couldn’t nurse there at all on the grounds that it was indecent exposure.
At the time of the incident, neither the woman nor the security guard (nor, presumably, the poor hungry baby) knew that DC law allows a woman to breastfeed anywhere she may legally be. The woman was able to ascertain this by calling a law firm with which she was affiliated and asking someone to research the law. Hopefully, the security guards will receive a briefing on the law so they don’t make this mistake again.
And hopefully this incident will shine a light on the rights of breastfeeding mothers in DC.
DC has some passed some tremendously progressive protections for breastfeeding mothers in recent years. The law providing mothers the right to nurse wherever they’re allowed to be was passed in 2007. At the same time, DC instituted rules that require workplaces to provide nursing mother with time and private non-bathroom space to express milk and sanitary conditions in which to store it. This, arguably, makes DC one of the best places in the US to be a nursing mom. But these laws are only effective if everyone – nursing mothers, workplace supervisors, and personnel in public facilities – know about them.
It seems to me that the easiest way to educate everyone about the rights of breastfeeding mothers is to issue an information sheet about it to every new hire at every workplace in DC. That way, everyone will know their own rights and the rights of their breastfeeding coworkers, constituents, customers, and colleagues. This strategy won’t reach non-working people, obviously, but if security guards already know that the stay-at-home-mom chaperoning the class trip to the museum is allowed to nurse by the giant elephant in the foyer, then there’s no risk of an altercation, even if she didn’t already know the rules and was just hoping to feed her younger child quickly and without harassment.
The deeper question that arises when incidents like this happen is why is there still any sort of question about where women can breastfeed their babies? According to recent data, as many as 75% of mothers in the United States breastfeed for some period of time in a child’s first year. Breastfeeding is widely acknowledged as a normal part of raising an infant and breastfeeding advocacy continues to make gains in educating the public and policymakers about the rights and needs of breastfeeding mothers. And yet, we still see incidents of mothers being asked to hide breastfeeding. Facebook is famous for removing pictures of infants nursing because too much breast can be seen. And even on parent-friendly forums like DC Urban Moms, situations like this one are met with calls for the mother to make sure she’s covered adequately before attending to the needs of her newborn. (Granted DC Urban Moms is a forum where the statement “kittens are fluffy” could generate controversy, never mind what the thought of a flash of boob could incite.)
For all the gains breastfeeding has made, there is still significant ground to cover. Mothers who choose to breastfeed need to know their rights about breastfeeding and be able to calmly articulate those rights when necessary.
Oh, and for anyone who is offended by the sight of a woman breastfeeding? This former nursing mom suggests that you carry a light blanket with you and gently drape it over your head if a breastfeeding mother is nearby.