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VJACKSON, Miss. -- The last straw for Evelyn Araujo was when the principal of the school where she was a volunteer walked over as she was breast-feeding her 10-month-old and suggested that she go home to nurse her son and come back when she finished.

Araujo went into a small bathroom at the school and finished nursing. Before the December incident, the 41-year-old mother of three had been like many other nursing mothers who sat on the sidelines and were made to feel ashamed for doing what they consider a normal act of feeding their childrenSo when a group of health-care workers and advocates from the Mississippi Breastfeeding Coalition asked her in January to join their movement to lobby the Legislature to allow women to breast-feed at work and in public, she jumped at the opportunity. Araujo is one of thousands of women across the country who have led grass-roots efforts to change attitudes about breast-feeding in public and persuade state legislators to pass laws to protect their rights.

This year, Mississippi, which has the lowest rate of breast-feeding in the U.S., joined a growing number of states that have passed comprehensive laws protecting women who choose to breast-feed in public. As in many states, the Mississippi measure replaced an antiquated law that allowed women to be arrested for indecent exposure or disorderly conduct for nursing in public. Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, South Carolina and Arizona also passed laws this year.

"This was important to me because I had been told what I was doing was inappropriate," said Araujo, who has breast-fed all of her children. "If you are able to nurse, then it would be inappropriate not to do it. That means at Wal-Mart, at Kroger, in church and anywhere else."
While breast-feeding in public is widely accepted in many cultures, some Americans are uncomfortable or offended when a woman reveals even a portion of her breast to nurse a child. At least 34 states have strict laws securing a woman's right to breast-feed anywhere she is allowed to be. Still, nursing mothers are routinely asked to leave public places because of customer complaints.

As a result, nursing mothers have become proactive in recent years, not only lobbying lawmakers to change laws and provide penalties for those who do not comply but also staging huge "nurse-ins" at businesses that have rejected public nursing. Last summer, more than 200 nursing women protested in front of the ABC television headquarters in New York after Barbara Walters said on her television show, "The View," that she had felt uncomfortable sitting next to a nursing mother on an airplane.

According to Melissa *****, an attorney for the Schaumburg-based breast-feeding advocacy group La Leche League International, the next battle front will be securing breast-feeding rights in the workplace. She said breast-feeding also likely will become an issue in child custody cases, with women claiming it is not in the best interest of a nursing child to be removed from the mother's care.

"Fifty years ago, most moms stayed home and [were] not running kids back and forth to soccer games," ***** said. "We are an increasingly mobile society today, and women are much more visible so it is more likely to see them breast-feeding in public. There are also more women in the workplace, so it's out there. It's a generational thing, and attitudes eventually will start to turn."

The movement to protect public breast-feeding, which began in the mid-1980s in New York, has gathered steam as research has shown the value of breast milk to a baby's mental and physical health. The federal government recently embarked on a public awareness campaign promoting breast-feeding as a means of protecting infants from everything from colds to obesity.

Still, breast-feeding rates remain significantly low among blacks and Hispanics, and research shows most mothers abandon the practice after a few months. A study released last year by the National Immunization Program, the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that while about 70 percent of children in the U.S. are breast-fed to some degree shortly after birth, only 51 percent still were breast-fed to some extent at 3 months, 35 percent at 6 months and just 16 percent at one year.

In 1984, New York became the first state to exempt breast-feeding from its criminal statute, and in 1993 Florida passed the first law that protected the right to breast-feed in public.

In Illinois, nursing mothers not only have the right to breast-feed in public, they are exempted from jury duty and employers are required to give them break time to nurse or pump milk. Illinois is one of only a handful of states that require public information campaigns regarding the benefits of breast-feeding. Ten states allow nursing mothers to be excused from serving on a jury. Eight states have laws protecting their rights in the workplace.

Every state except Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Arkansas, West Virginia, Massachusetts and North Dakota have adopted laws of varying degrees protecting nursing mothers. Four states--Hawaii, Maine, Michigan and Utah--require courts to consider breast-feeding issues in child custody cases.

Advocates said Mississippi's law is one of the most comprehensive in the nation. In addition to requiring companies to provide breaks for women to nurse or pump milk, it exempts nursing mothers from jury duty and joins Louisiana as one of two states that require day-care centers to provide nursing facilities with amenities such as refrigerators, electrical outlets for breast pumps, running water and a place to sit. State Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the state board of health, which inspects child-care facilities, can shut them down if they do not comply with the law.

"The biggest problem we had was convincing our colleagues that this was a serious issue. You always hear jokes about different aspects of breast-feeding, and some were afraid to bring it to the floor of the Senate because they feared there would be embarrassing questions and that it would become a joke," said Frazier, who got involved after a group of nursing mothers came to his office and shared their experiences about breast-feeding in public.

"We were able to convince them that this is a big cost saving to the state because the babies are healthier and it will help the private sector because women who breast-feed won't have to take time off from work to take care of their babies," he said.

Stephanie Bryson, 37, said she is happy about the new law, especially with a newborn. She breast-fed her three boys but has always been careful about doing it in public.

"I am always very aware of the people around me," she said. "I'm not one who will pull up my shirt and say, `I'm nursing in public, damn it.' I wouldn't even wear exposing clothes, even if I had the body for it."

Still, Bryson said, women must understand that it is their natural right to breast-feed and that people who have a problem with it will now have to accept it.

"Our culture is not as comfortable with this as it was 100 years ago," she said. "So I am still going to carry a shawl or throw a blanket over my shoulder when I go out."


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