Christa Kelleher: Public breast-feeding: Nursing vice president could dry up opposition

Christa Kelleher

Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has entered the national political scene with a bang.

Yet beyond the media  frenzy are important issues facing mothers that rarely make headlines or rise to the top of the agenda – even in a “progressive” state like Massachusetts.

The Legislature recently missed an important opportunity to finalize a bill to provide a fundamental protection to babies and nursing moms in public spaces. For a state that prides itself on world-class medical care and pioneering public health initiatives, Massachusetts lags far behind when it comes to breast-feeding support.

As one of three states that do not uphold the right to publicly breast-feed, Massachusetts doesn’t ensure workplace accommodations for nursing mothers. And it hasn’t established licensing requirements for lactation professionals who often provide much-needed support to moms. Such inaction impacts the health of mothers and babies – and brings unwelcome health care costs.

Breast-feeding is clearly beneficial for babies and women. It offers protection against many childhood conditions including ear infections, bacterial meningitis, diarrhea, lymphoma, respiratory tract infections, chronic digestive diseases, diabetes and obesity. It provides benefits to women by lowering the risk of uterine cancer, Type 2 diabetes, breast cancer and osteoporosis. With health care expenses crippling governmental budgets, childhood obesity rates surging and a renewed emphasis on disease prevention, this is no time to hold back on support that many mothers and children need and all deserve.

Leading medical authorities recommend exclusive breast-feeding for six months with continued breast-feeding for at least one to two years. Yet only 14 percent of Massachusetts infants born in 2005 were breast-feeding exclusively at six months, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And only 22 percent were nursing at a year. Even with 78 percent of Massachusetts moms initially breast-feeding, most do not reach the six-month mark.

These numbers aren’t surprising given that many women who want to breast-feed face myriad challenges. Breast-feeding is, in some ways, a simple matter. With rare exception, mothers are physiologically prepared to provide immediate nourishment to babies after birth. Yet medical and insurer practices, Cesarean birth rates, formula marketing, maternal employment, work policies, state and federal laws, family/partner support, and social norms all influence breast-feeding outcomes.

Still, the most insidious and formidable challenge facing moms may be the limited societal understanding and acceptance of breast-feeding. This lack of familiarity can lead to an uncomfortable and even hostile environment for nursing moms. Surely, the last thing a tired mom needs is to feel uncomfortable nursing her child in public.

The breast-feeding stigma may continue to erode with an overall resurgence in breast-feeding and perhaps a nursing vice president. Affording women the protection to nurse in public may be a baby step but is one that is both important and long overdue.

Christa Kelleher is research director for the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.