More than 30 mothers challenged societal norms last weekend at an Oklahoma park when they synchronically pulled out one of their breasts and publicly fed their infants for one minute. The event counted among several gatherings taking place around the world as a part of “The Big Latch On,” an annual effort to promote public breastfeeding.
The Big Latch On launched in 2005 in New Zealand in observance of World Breastfeeding Week, which falls on the first week of August. It has since grown in worldwide popularity, reaching the United States in 2011 when members of La Leche League of U.S. helped organize mass latch ons in several American cities and towns.
“Get with it. Let’s realize that this is going to be normal,” Carrie Fulgencio, head organizer of Monday’s event, said in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I should not have to take my baby into [a restroom or any other] unsanitary place to feed them, and neither should any other mom. You don’t go eat your lunch there, so why should I take my child?”
Experts say breast milk serves as a unique source of nutrients that infants need to grow and strengthen their immune system. Children that breastfeed in their early years often stave off a host of ailments – including juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and cancer – before the age of 15. Breastfeeding also lowers mothers’ risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer and assists in the loss of weight gained during pregnancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that breastfeeding an infant within its first year of life ensures fewer doctors’ visits and lower healthcare costs throughout the youngster’s life. Mothers have increasingly become aware of breastfeeding’s health benefits. Data compiled by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention shows that breastfeeding among new mothers has increased by more than 60 percent within a 10-year span.
While there’s little question about breastfeeding’s benefits, debates about the manner in which mothers conduct the natural bonding activity have taken place in state legislatures, public gathering places, and online forums for years. In 2003, Jacqueline Mercado and her husband lost custody of their two young children after a clerk at the local Eckerd reported the mother to Child Protective Services in Richardson, Texas upon his discovery of photos that showed Mercado breastfeeding her then one-year-old son. The local district attorney charged the couple with “sexual performance of a child” before dropping charges six months later.
In 2006, Vermont mother Emily Gilette filed a complaint against Freedom Airlines and Delta Air Lines after she said airline officials removed her from a Freedom Airlines flight for not covering herself while breastfeeding her child. In 2010, Jessica Swimeley rallied the support of breastfeeding advocates after she said that administrators at the Ronald McDonald House, a center for sick children based in Houston, threatened to remove her from the premises for breastfeeding her 17-month-old son, then recovering from brain surgery, during an elevator ride.
In June, a Hawaii homeless shelter allegedly threatened to remove a woman from the premises after she refused to cover up while breastfeeding. Earlier this month, a Utah middle school came under fire after its principal wrote a letter to breastfeeding mother Andrea Scannell asking her to “discretely feed the baby, whether with a small blanket or in a more private area while the lunch program is taking place,” citing complaints from parents and other patrons. The incident prompted Scannell to post the letter on social media and stage a nurse-in at the school with the help of Breastfeeding Mama Talk, a breast feeding advocacy organization.
“This kind of shaming, this kind of bullying, it prevents other breastfeeding women from going out in public, from feeding their baby,” said Scannell, according to the Huffington Post. “Not to mention that women can legally breastfeed in public in all 50 states, Utah included.”
Scannell’s right. Today, laws protecting public breastfeeding exist in every state. According to the National Council for State Legislatures, 46 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands have laws that allow women to breastfeed publicly. Twenty-nine states – including Arizona, Florida, and Utah – exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws. The Affordable Care Act also includes provisions that require employers to allow a reasonable break time for an employee to nurse her child for up to one year after its birth.