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Public Breastfeeding Ban Smacks Of The Dark Ages

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by Mary Jessica Hammes
May 19, 2011

On May 16, Forest Park, Georgia passed a citywide “public indecency” ordinance that bans public breastfeeding of children over the age of 2. The purpose, city manager John Parker told local news station WSBTV, is “to control nudity throughout the entire city.”

Breastfeeding is nudity?

Shocking news to anyone who has actually seen a woman breastfeed—even if a woman completely removed her shirt, the child’s head would still cover up far more than most bikini tops.

Georgia mothers are organizing a public “nurse-in” on May 23, 10 a.m.–noon, at Forest Park’s City Hall to protest the ordinance. (Check back with us next week to find out what happened.)

Why is this city ordinance a problem?

For one thing, it violates Georgia’s state law giving mothers the right to breastfeed their children—no limitation of age given—anywhere they are otherwise authorized to be.

But there is a host of other reasons why this ordinance is a terrible, pointless, and completely ignorant idea:

  • The ordinance goes against the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation to make the age of 2 a breastfeeding goal, not finish line. WHO’s language is specific—“age of 2 and beyond.” (Emphasis ours.) For breastfeeding to be accepted as the normal way to feed a baby, it has to be visible.
  • There are nutritional and immunological benefits that are associated specifically with “extended breastfeeding.” That said, it’s safe to say that toddlers are getting most of their nutrition from the meals they eat and are still breastfeeding largely for comfort reasons—and what’s wrong with that? The fact is, regardless of whether we choose to use them, mothers were born with nature’s pacifier long before humans figured out how to make one out of rubber.
  • The ordinance, born out of concern for “public indecency,” fosters the notion of shaming breasts and sexualizing breastfeeding. The topic of non-sexual nudity is pretty fraught, but there is a persistent notion in our nation that a woman’s breasts are sexual objects. I recently heard a young woman (not a mother) express her distaste for extended breastfeeding: “After a certain point, I’d just be like, ‘These are mine,’ okay?” she said, indicating her breasts. During the conversation, her point was clear: the breastfeeding mother was somehow losing a part of herself, surrendering her sexuality to a leechish-child. However, here is a truth that is impossible to fully understand unless one is, in fact, a mother: breasts don’t magically stop belonging to the woman attached to them just because they are serving a biological function. I have never met a breastfeeding woman who has had trouble with this concept. Breasts can and do make food! A law like this reinforces the idea that human breasts are, at an arbitrary point in a child’s life, solely sexual and, somehow, offensive.

What on earth prompted this ordinance, anyway? A rash of complaints about breastfeeding toddlers? Given our country’s breastfeeding statistics and the fact that only 17.9 percent of women in Georgia are still breastfeeding at 12 months, it is highly unlikely that Forest Park is flooded with moms making it a habit to breastfeed their 2-and-olds at all, let alone in public. Those moms who do breastfeed their children into toddlerhood—as I, a former breastfeeding mother from Athens, Ga., did—know that breastfeeding at this age is most likely occurring at home, usually during those prime times for bonding and comfort: in the morning and/or at bedtime. But that doesn’t mean it has to happen at home.

Public breastfeeding is not reviled everywhere in Georgia. Just two hours away from Forest Park, Athens takes a fairly progressive stance on public breastfeeding—thanks, in part, to a laidback atmosphere emanating from the local arts community, but no doubt encouraged by a thriving community of midwives, doulas, and childbirth educators like Alexa Clay. Inspired by the Forest Park ordinance, she had a candid chat her two young sons; here is an excerpt:

Alexa: Abram, what do you think breasts are for?

Abram (age 3, still nursing): Nursing, nurses, and nurse machines.

Alexa: What would you think about if you saw me walking down the street with no shirt on?

Abram: Nursing.

Alexa: How old do you think kids should be when they stop?

Abram: Oh…4.

Alexa: When’s your favorite time to nurse?

Abram: This day.

Alexa: What time of this day? At morning? At night?

Abram: Both.

Alexa: Elie, when do you think kids should stop nursing?

Elie (age 7, who weaned at age 4): Three, no, 4, no, 6. Yeah, 6.

Alexa: Elie, what would you think if you saw me or another woman walking down the street with no shirt on?

Elie: That would be a little weird, but if I saw a woman with her shirt pulled up the way you pull up your shirt to nurse [he demonstrates nursing, exposing a bit of skin but no nipple], then I wouldn’t think anything about it.

Parker didn’t respond to my request for an interview. If he had, I would have asked him, among other things, what he thinks breasts are for. Why does he feel such a breastfeeding-specific ordinance is necessary? I would have asked whether it was true that he responded to one parent’s complaints with dismissive laughter and the statement, “We don’t want children that can walk around to be breastfeeding in public”—and, if so, to identify this “we” (as if the threat of mass breastfeeding terrorizes every Georgian).

I would have asked him that if the ability to walk negates a child’s right to breastfeed, then why not lower the age limit of the ordinance to 9 or 10 months, because heaven forbid early walkers be permitted to breastfeed in public.

Actually, Mr. Parker, please don’t lower the age limit. The city ordinance is idiotic enough as is.

Photo ©

Editor’s Note—May 23, 2011
More than 100 women gathered at Forest Park City Hall Monday morning, children in tow, to protest the ordinance.

City officials offered coolers full of bottled water and protestors were able to use bathrooms inside City Hall.

“It was all pretty cordial,” one mother reports. She notes that at least some news media were there looking for a sensational story, but didn’t find one.

“A photographer asked to take a picture of my friend with her sign and asked if she would wave it frantically,” says Natasha Cummings, who traveled from Athens with her 2-year-old son, Emmett, who is still breastfeeding. “There was also a reporter…who wanted to take a picture of a 5-year-old boy sitting in a stroller. The reporter was disappointed to find that the stroller belonged to the boy’s little sister. I think both the photographer and the reporter were looking for extreme clichés.”

What they found instead was just another day at the park—albeit with signs and images reminding us all that breastfeeding (yes, even in public) is every woman and child’s fundamental right. “The mood was calm,” says Cummings. “It could have been an outing at the park—moms with kids, snacks, sippy cups, toys, sitting on blankets.”

City Manager John Parker has reportedly said that the ordinance will be revisited at the next council meeting, which is scheduled for June 6.

Editor’s Note—June 7, 2011
After a “nurse in” at City Hall in Forest Park sparked widespread media attention, the Forest Park City Council voted to amend its ordinance banning public breastfeeding of children over the age of 2. In accordance with Georgia state law, the new ordinance allows breastfeeding in public at any age.

  • leigh

    Go MJ!! This whole thing makes me so mad. Thank you for putting what I am feeling into words. I am sure that you speak for all nursing moms, past and present.

  • Audra

    The fact that someone would take the time to write and legislate this law sickens me–to create this law which completely disregards what is best for children and mothers and our society. We are a culture that truly lacks in supporting the family, and here is just one more example! So saddening.

  • JeneeLyn

    Incredible. If I’m not mistaken, Georgia also has one of the highesd obesity rates in the nation. Why not make it illegal to give children under the age of 2 french fries or donuts? An equally ridiculous law, but probably more beneficial.

  • Carolyn

    The Below information is straight from the CDC website with a call to action and a picture of a woman in an outside area (looks like a park) breastfeeding an older infant/toddler.

    CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity (DNPAO) is committed to increasing breastfeeding rates throughout the United States and to promoting and supporting optimal breastfeeding practices toward the ultimate goal of improving the public’s health.
    BTW: the CDC headquarters (for those who don’t know) is in Atlanta.

  • StefanieM

    As a mother of 3 (2 boys and a girl), I was never able to successfully breastfeed any of my children and my daughter who’s the youngest is the only one I made a real effort with. I definitely believe in caring for and nurturing your child(ren), but some mothers take it to the extremes with public breastfeeding in plain view of everyone else around them. In my opinion as a woman and mother, I wish it could be banned in public PERIOD because it is particularly rude, distasteful, unappealing and unattractive for a mother to breastfeed her newborn/infant/child in a restaurant or public area without adequately covering herself or removing herself from the public eye of others so that noone would even know what she was doing. I don’t care how it is described or for what purpose it is intended….it is public nudity/exposure. Cover it up, find a private area, breastfeed at home or put it in a bottle.

  • Amy Spangler

    Stefanie, I’m truly sorry that your attempts to breastfeed were unsuccessful. Statistics show that you are not alone. Breastfeeding is widely promoted as the normal way to feed a baby. But there are so many barriers in place, few U.S. mothers are able to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months and even fewer are able to breastfeed for the recommended 1-2 years.

    Unfortunately, you and I live in a culture where breasts are still viewed primarily as sexual objects, rather than as a means of nourishing a baby. Until women are empowered to breastfeed their children freely, without fear of recrimination, our culture will not change. Currently there are laws, including one in Georgia, that protect a mother’s right to breastfeed wherever she has the right to be. Without these laws and the support of people like you, women and children will continue to be viewed as second class citizens—ones that are neither seen nor heard.

    For centuries artists have depicted the natural beauty of the human body, the female breast, the breastfeeding baby. As we transition to a culture in which breastfeeding is once again embraced as the normal way to feed a baby, the best way to feed a baby, the only way to feed a baby, may we be respectful of one another, but never forget what is in the best interest of our children.

  • wendi

    I totally agree, Stephanie. I’ve been breastfeeding for 10 mths. I find it disgusting and uncomfortable for women to nurse with nothing covering. It is natural, but you can do it in a tasteful way.

  • wendi