Nursing mothers continue to work to gain acceptance in public places

EVERETT — Here’s what Brandy Robinson has dealt with as a breast-feeding mother:

A few months ago, Robinson, her husband, Zak, and their daughters, toddler Mae and infant Chloe, were eating supper at an Alderwood mall restaurant.

Mae got restless and ran out, followed by her daddy. Brandy stayed seated, finishing her meal while breast-feeding Chloe.

While discreet, Brandy, 33, said she doesn’t use a blanket to hide what she’s doing.

A young waitress wiping up tables shot the nursing mom a look of disgust, set her cleaning supplies down abruptly and walked over to a man working at the counter.

Brandy heard every word, and she’s pretty sure the waitress purposely spoke to be heard.

“That’s so gross,” the woman said.

“Yeah,” the young man said. “She shouldn’t be allowed to do that in public.”

This sort of scene doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it can be very uncomfortable and even a little scary, Robinson said.

“It was awkward, but I just tried to relax. I kept nursing and eating my meal, and waited for my husband to come back,” she said. “I contacted the company later and got a brief e-mail apology. I only hope they did some sensitivity training with their employees.”

Today marks the end of World Breastfeeding Week, just two weeks after a new state law took effect protecting the rights of nursing mothers in public places such as restaurants, movie theaters and shopping malls.

The new law builds on legislation established in 2001 that exempted breast-feeding from public indecency laws. Until now, though, nothing prevented business owners from asking women to leave or cover up while breast-feeding.

Walking through Forest Park in Everett on a recent weekday, Robinson, of Snohomish, had baby Chloe in a carrier strapped to her chest. She straddled Mae, 2, on her left hip.

Friends ask Robinson why she doesn’t use a stroller.

“My kids like to be close,” she said. “And I don’t want to spend the money on a stroller.”

Being close is part of the attachment parenting philosophy that the Robinson family practices. They believe that being readily available and close helps their children to form secure attachments, fostering social-emotional development and well being.

That closeness includes breast-feeding. Mae still likes to snuggle with her mother and nurse occasionally throughout the day.

“Sometimes I feel conspicuous, but I won’t change while my kids are so young,” Robinson said. “Mae is not a little adult. I am not forcing her to grow up.”

While Mae climbed on the play equipment at the park, Robinson nursed 9-month-old Chloe.

A stay-at-home mom and La Leche League member, Robinson said breast-feeding actually makes mothering a little easier.

“If most mothers today breast-feed at all, it’s for only about three months,” Robinson said. “That’s better than nothing, but babies like to stop when they are ready. What’s also important to me is that breast-feeding is so much easier. Babies need to eat frequently, and I don’t wash and tote bottles. There’s so little grief.”

When breast-feeding is possible, it’s the best way to go, doctors say.

“Every child should be breast-fed,” said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

Breast-feeding “is the healthiest food nature has devised for a child,” he said, allowing a child to get all the nutrition he or she needs without having to supplement an infant’s diet.

Children who are breast-fed have a lower risk of having problems with obesity, he said.

Breast-feeding has benefits for moms, too. It helps maintain a low weight as the body works to produce milk. Studies also have shown that long-term breast-feeding also reduces the chances of suffering from breast cancer, Robinson said.

“So the new law protects the health of babies and moms,” she said. “What can be wrong with that?”

Robinson praises her friends and fellow breast-feeding moms for getting her through stressful times during these early years of motherhood.

“Like-minded supportive moms are just an e-mail away,” she said. “It’s a lot different than when my mom was young.”

One of her friends, Mollie Rodriguez, of Snohomish, is an expectant mother and has a 2-year-old who was born while she was in college.

Her classmates gave her a lot of trouble for her views on attachment parenting and extended breast-feeding, telling her she was creating a damaging environment for her child, she said.

“It was very unpleasant,” Rodriguez said. “Needless to say, I broke off all communication with my classmates after graduation.”

When she found out that Gov. Chris Gregoire was signing the new breast-feeding protection law, Rodriguez hopped in her car and drove to Olympia to show her support and thank the lawmakers for their work.

“It’s just so hard for breast-feeding moms out in public. With this law, the government is encouraging more mothers to breast-feed,” Rodriguez said. “The discussion is really coming out in the open.”

Emily Fontes with the Pregnancy Resource Center in Everett agrees.

“This is a step toward having nursing be really and truly socially acceptable,” Fontes said. “I work with teen moms who have a lot of peer pressure to use a bottle. We encourage breast-feeding because it’s the normal way of feeding infants.”

The state Human Rights Commission plans to print wallet-sized cards with information about the new law that nursing mothers can carry with them and show to those who object and want to interfere.

“I would use a card if I needed it and I would intervene if I saw a mom being asked to leave because she was nursing,” Robinson said. “Why should babies wait to eat because of other people’s discomfort with the womanly form?”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427, Sharon Salyer contributed to this report.

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