Breastfeeding moms protest at Target stores, but US public is real mark

Lingering discomfort over public breastfeeding is responsible, in part, for curtailing moms' enthusiasm and driving down breastfeeding rates, research shows. Nurse-ins Wednesday at Target stores drew attention to the cause.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Breastfeeding in public became an issue of debate when a Target employee asked a breastfeeding customer to do it elsewhere. To protest the sexual emphasis of breasts over the practical significance as a means to nourish babies, hundreds of moms gathered in some 250 Target stores across the US to breastfeed, Wednesday.

For hundreds of moms who gathered in some 250 Target stores across the US on Wednesday, their decision to collectively breastfeed their babies in public was an act of solidarity, a reaffirmation of a natural right.

One of the largest such nurse-ins ever, the protests produced a few dirty glares, protesters reported. But overall, the largely convivial nurse-ins raised few eyebrows, as many women used blankets to cover their bare breasts and their nursing babies' heads.

Forty-five states protect mothers' rights to breastfeed in public, but the practice still stirs enough discomfort to dramatically curb breastfeeding rates, research shows.

In the United States, only 14 percent of moms are exclusively breastfeeding by the time their babies are six months old (though that's up from 10 percent in 2008), according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Breastfeeding Report Card 2011. Part of the reason, sociologists say, is that the nature of breastfeeding – lower fat content in mother's milk equals more frequent feedings – means that women who feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public are less likely to sustain the practice over time.

With health officials increasingly emphasizing the importance of breastfeeding to children's well-being, resistance to it in public is becoming a public health concern, say many breastfeeding proponents.

That clash of attitudes sparked Wednesday's protest, a Facebook campaign started after a Target employee repeatedly asked a Houston mom, Michelle Hickman, to retire to a dressing room instead of breastfeeding in an aisle.

Target's official policy is to allow breastfeeding in public areas of the store. But the message from corporate headquarters to Hickman's complaint about the Nov. 29 incident apparently had a different nuance. “Just because it’s a woman’s legal right to nurse a baby in public doesn’t mean she should walk around the store flaunting it,” Ms. Hickman says she was told.

Attitudes about public breastfeeding vary widely across the globe. In America, breasts have at least as much sexual significance as they do practical significance as a means to nourish babies.

Moreover, US attitudes toward breastfeeding vary by region: In Western, Midwestern, and New England states, 70 to 80 percent of babies have been breastfed at some time in their lives, while the rate is lower for babies in most Southern states. The highest rate is in Oregon, where 91 percent of babies have been breastfed. The lowest is Louisiana, where 48 percent of babies have ever received mother's milk.

“We are all affected by our culture's sexual emphasis on breasts and our consequent discomfort with breastfeeding in public,” Ohio University Prof. Jacqueline Wolf wrote in a 2008 editorial in the International Breastfeeding Journal. “While people from other cultures often find this controversy inexplicable, the reasons for the controversy are obvious to Americans – even those of us who fully support breastfeeding in public. We understand that many equate public breastfeeding with lewd behavior.”

On Tuesday, a day before the protest, NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne summed up that unease in a Twitter post. “Just walking through supermarket. See a mom breast feeding a little kid. Took second look because obviously I was seeing things. I wasn't!” he tweeted. He later apologized for his reaction.

It's not just men who are squeamish about public breastfeeding. After the magazine BabyTalk featured a cover of a mom breastfeeding in 2006, one mom wrote to the magazine to say, “Gross, I am sick of seeing a baby attached to a boob.” A subsequent survey found that one-quarter of the publication's readers found the cover distasteful. "There's a huge Puritanical streak in Americans," BabyTalk editor Susan Kane concluded at the time.

Wednesday's nurse-in protesters said they hope to steer their campaign toward changing not just attitudes, but laws. They plan to lobby Congress for a federal law to enshrine public breastfeeding as a right. Currently, US law protects only the right of women to breastfeed publicly in federal buildings.

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