Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images
This year has had its fair share of slip-ups with retail stores and their handling of breastfeeding mothers. In March, an IKEA employee called a breastfeeding mom "disgusting" and told her to "take it to the bathroom" before she'd be assisted. Earlier this month Wal-Mart came under fire after employees insulted a nursing mom saying what she was doing was "disgusting" and implied nursing without a cover was illegal. And just this week, Sears joined the list of retailers who can't seem to train their employees right when it comes to respecting moms who nurse in public.
Say cheese! You’re being photographed.
Over the past six weeks, photos of moms nursing in public have been posted to a Twitter account. The account — which has since been deleted — was listed as belonging to a teenaged Sears security guard. The photos appeared to be still-frame screen grabs from surveillance footage, and all of them were zoomed in on nursing moms. The captions were less than friendly, and there is no way these moms were aware that their intimate moments would be broadcast in such a way.
Breasts for sex = good. Breasts for food = bad.
Kimberly Seals Allers, author and nationally recognized breastfeeding advocate and project director of The First Food Friendly Community Initiative, a new project designed to make local communities more breastfeeding supportive, had this initial reaction when hearing of the Sears scandal: "This is not about breastfeeding — it's about breasts — which is unfortunate for millions of mothers and babies. In this country, the breast is oversexualized — used to sell chicken wings and beer as par for the course — but breastfeeding is scandalized. People see breastfeeding as a provocative issue, such that in the case of Sears, an employee saw an opportunity to draw attention to himself at the expense of leveraging something that's critical to infant health. It's a huge invasion of privacy to use security photos in that manner — imagine if he had posted pictures from a fitting room! When women are engaged in an intimate act between mother and child, it is not for the man to insinuate himself into the scene for kicks."
This affects more than just the moms mocked
When you demean, harass, ridicule or mock a nursing mom, you are doing far more than just damaging that one relationship. You are causing nursing moms, and potential nursing moms, to question themselves and their choices. Maternal- and nursing-wear company Bravado Designs recently conducted a survey of over 1,000 new and expectant mothers regarding breastfeeding in public. The results are staggering: only 17 percent said they were "extremely comfortable" nursing in public. One-third said they were "somewhat to extremely uncomfortable" nursing in public, and nearly 20 percent had never breastfed in public at all.
Breastfeeding can be very hard work. While natural, it doesn't always come naturally. Many women struggle with latch issues, supply issues and overall difficulties keeping up with the demands of a hungry infant depending on them for all, most or some of their caloric and comfort needs.
Been there, done that
Aside from the physical obstacles, it can be emotionally draining to have a child attached to you (literally) all the time. For some moms — moms who are fearful of nursing in public — having to hide themselves away just to be able to feed their babe is smothering. It can make you feel isolated and can lead to depression. I know firsthand. I nursed both of my children exclusively for the first eight months of each of their lives. For eight solid months I was their sole source of nutrition — and one of my children categorically refused to take a bottle.
As a breastfeeding mother, becoming comfortable with nursing in public can be incredibly freeing. Suddenly the world is opened back up to you. You can leave without timing feedings. You can venture out for more than 90 minutes, or two hours, or however long your child is giving you at that stage. You are able to leave the confines of your home or car and enjoy life with adults again.
Apologies won't fix what's done
This is why what has happened with IKEA, Wal-Mart and most recently Sears is so damaging. Breastfed babies eat all time; breastmilk is highly bio-available, so it is easily digested and quickly leaves an empty tummy. To expect breastfeeding moms to hide at home, in cars or bathrooms, or to always cover up isn’t right, isn't legal (in most states) and has the potential to be extremely damaging to future moms and nurslings. Sears has generically apologized and claims to have fired the offending employee, but the damage has already been done.
Kimberly sums it up nicely: "These stories are very detrimental because they perpetuate the idea that breastfeeding in public is unwelcome. Given the realities of today's mom, that means many stop breastfeeding because of that fear. As long as breastfeeding looks like something you have to do under cover and in corners and closets, women won't sign up for it and our infant health will continue to suffer. Mothers will continue to miss out on the health benefits of increased breastfeeding. It's a lose-lose for mothers and babies."