The Right To Breastfeed

Posted December 15th, 2011 by Rebekah in News, Politics

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.

Rebekah is the author of the blog Mom-in-a-Million, the column So Here’s The Thing at the Washington Times Communities and a contributor to The Broad Side.



5 Responses to “The Right To Breastfeed”

  1. Jason

    There are many problems with this woman’s crusade. But the biggest and most obvious are the premise that she had a right to breastfeed in that corridor. In fact, as you noted, the breastfeeding law states that a mother may breastfeed her child in any location where they have a right to be.

    BUT, and this is what the guard was enforcing, D.C. public regulations prohibit loitering in or obstructing corridors. The particulars are here, in these 1989 regulations:

    In particular:
    1415.1No person shall engage in conduct which creates a disturbance including the following:
    (b)Loud and unusual noise;
    (c)Obstruction of the use of entrances, foyers, lobbies, corridors, elevators, stairways, or parking lots;
    (d)Any conduct which disrupts the performance of official duties by District government employees, and
    (e)Any conduct which prevents the general public from obtaining the services normally provided by the District Government employees.”

    So, if you look at this from the guard’s perspective, they saw a woman loitering. They didn’t even know that she was breastfeeding until she stood up and made a fuss about it. She CLAIMS they accused her of indecent exposure, but the guards deny that. Given the way this woman’s carrying on, I’m more inclined to believe the guard’s denial.

    The bottom line here is this is NOT an incident about a mom being “shamed” for breastfeeding in public. And efforts to make it one really undercut publicity for real cases. She should be ashamed of her conduct at the building and in the media since.

  2. Amber McCann

    As a former breastfeeding mother (most importantly) and as an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant), I really appreciate the attention that this blog and other outlets has brought to this issue. I’m a firm believer in a mother’s right to meet the needs of her child in the way she sees fit. It is vital that the public, our children and those in our direct communities see breastfeeding as a normal part of mothering and childhood.

  3. Cath @ Constance Reader

    I followed a thread on this subject at a popular area parenting site and was really amazed at what a hot button issue this is. One of the suggestions I read there said that you should print out the breastfeeding laws for your area and carry them with you in your diaper bag. That way if anybody stops you, you can whip them out and the discussion ends there.

    Although I do like your solution, too…

  4. Elaine

    Kudos to DC! And kudos to the mom for finding out what her rights were. I breastfed my two children in the DC area for several years, and throughout that time – the only time I was told to cover up was at Georgetown hospital – where I was seeing a specialist for an infant nutrition issue. I knew my rights, and so did the loud woman next to me (thankfully) who loudly let everyone in the area know that it was no big deal for me to be breastfeeding there. The irony that I was sitting under a sign encouraging moms to nurse was not lost on me. I’m still mad about it.