Milk of human kindness

In response to the recently publicized, local Denny’s incident, some have expressed the opinion that this situation is not newsworthy. Certainly there are more pressing and dire social problems, but to suggest that we merely ignore this contention over the right to breastfeed in public is to dismiss the concerns of women and children as marginal and insignificant. Are we only allowed to take center stage when it’s time to decide who gets rescued from the sinking boat first?

To tell a nursing mother that she needs to cover up with a blanket, relocate to a restroom (who likes to eat in there?) or her car, or remain at home implies that breastfeeding is indecent or even obscene. Forget the insult to the mother for a minute: What’s even more disturbing is the message reflected to our children that this vital source of their physical and emotional nourishment is something shameful. While public opinion remains mired in contradiction—you are doing the best for your child, but what you are doing is disgusting and ought to be hidden – breastfeeding-success rates remain dismal.

There’s plenty of evidence to show that improved breastfeeding rates have the potential to make a significant impact upon broader social issues, particularly public health and the environment. More nursing means less resources spent in the manufacture and distribution of formula. While I doubt my milk would be eligible for the USDA Organic label, I can’t think of anything I feed my child that’s more local.

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for a minimum of two years, with health benefits ranging from less obesity and diabetes among children to lower cancer rates for mothers. Most mothers initially breastfeed, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 40 percent in North Carolina were still nursing at six months. Failure to breastfeed can be heartbreaking, especially in the instances in which rare medical issues prevent a woman from producing enough milk. But more often, efforts are sabotaged by problems that reveal a lack of social understanding and support: prolonged separation of mother and baby and unnecessary supplementation after birth; erroneous advice from medical professionals with scant (if any) formal education about breastfeeding; insufficient maternity leave; unavailable space or time provided by employers for [breast-milk] pumping, to name a few. Negative attitudes about nursing in public add insult to injury.

Asheville is certainly a breastfeeding-friendly town. Mission Hospital maintains mother-baby friendly policies and programs to facilitate a good start for a successful nursing relationship. Breastfeeding classes are available through Mission or the new Women’s Wellness and Education Center. We have an active La Leche League and the WNC Breastfeeding Center to serve as resources for moms in need of information and advice.  We also have nursing moms aplenty, and there’s nothing like a supportive mama friend who’s “been there/done that” to help you through any rough patches.

If you happen to see one of us nursing [somewhere] around town, it’s generally a safe assumption that we’re simply doing our best to respond to our child’s needs. If you feel uncomfortable, please direct your attention elsewhere. If you feel supportive, warm smiles are always appreciated.

— Kristin Marsh, breastfeeding mother

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