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Nursing Mothers Take a Stand at Target

Local moms join a national “nurse-in” at Target in Waterford to protest harassment of a nursing mother at a Target store in Texas

If anyone was shocked at the sight of about a dozen mothers breastfeeding their babies at in-store café in Waterford Wednesday, no one said anything about it. That isn’t always the case, however.

The nationwide “nurse-in” to draw attention to the issue of public breast feeding was spurred by an incident at a Target in Houston last month, during which Target employees reportedly hassled a mother who was nursing her child in a quiet corner of the women’s clothing department, according to an article in The Day.

The woman, Michelle Hickman, told her story to the breastfeeding advocacy group Best for Babes Foundation, and the outcry led to a Facebook campaign to plan the nurse-in event. About 3,000 mothers were expected to join the protest at 240 Target stores across the country, including at least three in Connecticut.

“I wanted to make sure Connecticut was represented,” said Leah Fennell of Colchester, who used Facebook to organize Waterford's Target event. “I felt it was something that needed to be addressed. It’s hard enough to be a nursing mother without someone giving you a hard time for it.”

Nursing moms came from Norwich, Mystic, Madison, Westbrook, and Westerly, RI., to participate in the event, which they hoped would raise awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding and lead to greater acceptance of the practice by the general public.

“They should know it’s natural,” said Fennell. “This is the way we were intended to feed our children. There’s nothing sexual about it, there’s nothing indecent about it. It’s a lot more than feeding your children. It’s about comfort and bonding.”

Women's Rights to Nurse

In Connecticut, it’s legal to breastfeed in any public place. An incident involving a police officer who told a woman that breastfeeding her infant in her car was indecent exposure prompted the state to pass a law in 2001 protecting women’s rights to breastfeed their children in any public place and in the workplace. Even so, the practice is still frowned upon in some quarters.

Kimberly Peacock of Mystic, who was nursing her baby Macy at Target, said this was the second time she’d participated in a nurse-in. The first was five years ago at Applebees in Groton, after a nursing mom was hassled about breast-feeding by employees of the restaurant chain.

“I’ve been nursing for 17 years,” says Peacock, a mother of four. “I’m all for it but my brother is uptight about it. He tells me to go away when I’m feeding his nieces and nephews.”

For the most part, the women who participated in today’s nurse-in said they’ve found people to be supportive of their breastfeeding in public because many people understand that breast milk is healthier for babies than formula.

“I think it should be permitted. I’m very proactive when it comes to breastfeeding,” said Kimberly Chalecki of Plainfield, who happened to be shopping at Target with her baby, Jemma. “I think people can be discreet.”

Indeed, there was nothing blatant about the nurse-in. As the mothers used nursing shields or blankets, many shoppers didn’t even notice.

“It’s been a really positive experience,” said Rachel Tewksbury, one of the store managers at the Waterford Target. “This is a family-oriented store. Mothers are welcome to breastfeed wherever they feel comfortable.”

Not every Target store had the same reaction, however. Although the chain store’s official policy permits breastfeeding anywhere in the store, Fennell said a fellow organizer in another state had already posted on Facebook that Target employees had asked them to leave.

“I’ve always breastfed and I’ve never had a problem but it’s appalling that people have had problems,” says Leigh-Anne Sastre, a Norwich mother of four who works as a nurse at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London. “It’s the most natural thing to do. It needs to become more socially acceptable.”    

Chalecki said she thought if establishments had issues with it, they ought to create separate rooms for breastfeeding. The idea that women should take their baby into the bathroom to breastfeed, as some suggest, doesn’t sit well with nursing moms or their children.

As Sastre’s 8-year-old son, Alexander Bush, put it: “Babies don’t eat in the bathroom!”

L&M Hospital Promotes Breastfeeding

Kathleen Mason, lacation consultant at L&M, says the hospital is currently in the process of becoming a "baby-friendly hospital," a designation created by the World Health Organization that promotes and supports breast feeding as the normal feeding method for newborns and children.

"The Surgeon General of the United States developed a call to action to support breastfeeding throughout the United States. It's a public health issue," said Mason. "The American Academy of Pediatrics wants women to exclusively breastfeed the first six months of infants' life."

In the United States, 75 percent of mothers start out breastfeeding but only 13 percent are still breast feeding after six months.

"We have a great initiation rate but they don't go for a long duration," said Mason. "Our breast-feeding rate [at L&M] has gone from the lowest I've seen, which was 69 percent, to a 91 percent initiation rate. The highest exclusive breast-feeding rate we have gone to is 71 percent in the hospital setting. We continue to work on improving, because we know it's so important for the mother and the baby."

The Benefits of Breastfeeding

  • Breastfeeding reduces the risk of chronic childhood diseases, such as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, asthma, obesity, and childhood cancer.
  • Human milk is best for babies, because it contains unique nutrients, hormones, and key ingredients to aid growth and help children develop healthy immune systems. It’s also less likely to cause gas, diarrhea, constipation, and wheezing.
  • Babies who are breastfed have fewer illnesses and require fewer trips to the doctor than babies who are not. As a result, medical care costs are 20 percent lower for babies that are exclusively breastfed.
  • Nursing mothers use fewer sick days, because their children are healthier and the mothers are healthier themselves because breastfeeding lowers a woman’s risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis.
  • Breastfed babies have higher IQs. Danish and American researchers found that babies that are breastfed for seven to nine months have IQs that are 6 points higher than babies that are breastfed for a month or less.  
F Xavier December 29, 2011 at 02:27 PM
I think that this issue was blown way out of porportion. I understand that its a woman's right to breast feed her child (in some states not all), but be discrete about it, and be considerate of the other shoppers in the store. The woman who started the incident should have used one of the fitting rooms at the suggestion of the store employee. Its not like there were no other non-public options available to the woman to breast feed. Its just good manners not to do it in public and make other people uncomfortable. Along the same lines, as a diabetic, I dont think that Target's management nor its shoppers would like to see me shooting up in the middle of the store.
emerita December 29, 2011 at 02:39 PM
It is ok for woman's to breastfeed anywhere they are that's why breast are made for, and if you don't like it turn your head and look somewhere else.
Katha Pollitt December 29, 2011 at 03:01 PM
Why are people upset by the sight of breastfeeding? I don't understand this. We say we want women to breastfeed to give their babies the best possible start in life -- but then we make it difficult and embarrassing to do so.
F Xavier December 29, 2011 at 03:07 PM
Emerita - Although 45-states (including Connecticut) have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. Connecticut DOES NOT EXEMPT public breastfeeding from its public indecency laws. So before you make an uninformed comment like “turn your head and look somewhere else”, know your subject matter, and take an etiquette class.
emerita December 29, 2011 at 04:03 PM
I understand you but there are many discret ways for Moms to breatfeed in public and I don't mean mom's have to show the breat while breastfeeding with other people around and CT will acept that if the baby is hungry the baby needs to eat.
Jessica December 29, 2011 at 05:01 PM
@F Xavier: You need some therapy. Men go shirtless all the time. They have breasts. Breasts are not meant to be sexualized. What, does seeing a baby nurse turn you on?! Like I said, see a therapist about it. Also, it seems to me that blowing your nose, spitting and burping are even more offensive, but people do those things in public all through time and aren't told to leave establishments. Priorities, people... priorities.
Jodi December 29, 2011 at 06:37 PM
Hoping some of the more ill informed people out there consider some of the points made here: http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/story/2011-12-26/breastfeeding-mother-baby-bottle/52233802/1 Access to food is a basic human right. Breastfeeding in public is what normalizes it for future generations.
F Xavier December 29, 2011 at 07:04 PM
Jessica – Please get your facts straight. Ms. Hickman, the Texas woman who started this whole debaucle was not asked to leave the store. According to Ms. Hickman’s own account “several employees asked her to relocate to a more private location, such as a family fitting room”. Ms. Hickman did not heed the suggestions, in fact she felt such a sense of entitlement knowing her “right to breastfeed” that she needed to make a visual statement to everyone in the store. After reading the articles on the November incident, I do not feel that the store employees were out of line. Again, as a diabetic, you would never find me “shooting up insulin” in the middle of the store, just because I had the right to do so. Regarding your comment “men go shirtless all the time”, I disagree. Men don’t go shirtless in public stores. In fact most stores post signs “No Shirts No Shoes No Service”. I don’t know what comparisons you were trying to draw, as I never said the “woman was shirtless”. Furthermore, I cannot remember a time when I saw anyone shirtless in a public store. Regarding your other comments regarding my “need for therapy”, not only did I think they were uncalled for, but I usually find that when individuals resort to personal attacks, they have no real argument to make, and in the end tend to lose all credibility.
I breast feed December 29, 2011 at 11:18 PM
An infant's NEED to eat should always out weigh an adult's desire to "be comfortable" I have been in many Target stores and they are large enough for a person to walk away from a nursing woman if it makes them uncomfortable. The articles also stated that it was only employees who were uncomfortable, which is a company issue. If as a nation we could be truly educated about the importance of breast feeding for both physical and emotional health this would not even be a discussion. In regards to indecent exposure, the average low cut shirt reveals more breast skin then I have ever seen on a woman nursing in public.
Jayne Keedle December 30, 2011 at 04:19 AM
I'm glad to see that this is leading to such a lively debate. Passions run high on this particular issue and I appreciate the points that everyone is making, all of which I think have validity. Please, though, try not to make this personal. Try to focus on the points you want to make, not on the people who are making points with which you disagree. Thanks.

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