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Women dont need to fear breast-feeding in public
New products and the law are on their side
0524breastfeeding2
Mothers and toddlers gather for a playgroup at the home of Rebecca Hall in Lawrenceville. Groups for moms such as Gwinnett Area Mommies are a good resource for new mothers who are looking for breast-feeding support, says Rebecca Hall, left, with her daughter Erin. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
Support groups: A list of area support groups including those for nursing mothers and just moms in general.

Rebecca Hall and her sister-in-law were waiting for breakfast at IHOP one morning when they realized the third person in their party wasn't willing to wait any longer.

Hall's son, Ethan, who was less than 1 year old at the time, was hungry. And since you can't toss a pancake to a baby who's barely crawling, Hall had to cross a line, moving one segment of her life from private to public.

Her only recourse to soothe the screaming baby? Nurse him, right then and there.

"Our waiter was a male and my sister-in-law was with me and she said, ‘No, you're not exposing yourself,'" said Hall, who today is the proud mama of two kids, Ethan, 3, and Erin, 13 months. "But at that point, he was screaming and there was nothing else to feed him. I had to do it."

Hall moved from breast-feeding in the privacy of her home or the homes of family members to breast-feeding in public, finding a comfort zone when the most intimate of times with your baby has to be shared with the world.

It's a line many women meet with after having a baby, but many never cross it. Rather than nurse in public, some choose to stay close to home or rearrange their life to accommodate several feedings a day.

But for Hall, who nursed her son until he was 14 months - and is still nursing her daughter - she said there came a point where she just had to get out of the house and get over the fear of breast-feeding in public. And with products on the market like baby slings, specially made clothing and bibs called Hooter Hiders, it's easier than ever to take your nursing baby public.

"The first thing we tell people is, it's against the law for anybody to harass you in any place you're authorized to be," said Margaret Hulsey, obstetrics educator and program coordinator at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. "I don't think the law's been abused. I think most people use common sense."

A Georgia statute enacted in 1999 allows a mother to breast-feed in any location "where she is otherwise authorized to be, provided she acts in a discreet and modest way." The statute was amended in 2002 to add that breast-feeding should be encouraged "in the interests of maternal and child health."

Chrysta Andrews, breast-feeding coordinator for District 2 Public Health and the Women, Infants and Children program, said breast-feeding in public is one of the biggest barriers she faces when talking with moms about the choice to nurse.

"Some moms don't care, and there are some moms who have an apprehension of breast-feeding in public, and we talk about how to discreetly nurse," she said. "We talk about limited exposure of the skin, plus to remind them there is a law in Georgia that protects moms from those situations.

"They have the right to breast-feed anytime, any place of their choice, and it is acceptable."

There is a state statute, also enacted in 1999, that allows employers to provide "daily unpaid break time for a mother to express breast milk for her infant child."

According to the statute, employers "are also required to make a reasonable effort to provide a private location, other than a toilet stall, in close proximity to the workplace for this activity. The employer is not required to provide break time if to do so would unduly disrupt the workplace operations."

Pump it up

Not all moms can afford to stay home after giving birth, many must return to work within three months - which means mothers might not yet be ready to give up breast-feeding, either.

Enter the breast pump.

The contraption is fine at home, but unless you have your own office at work, figuring the when and where of pumping your own breast milk to keep your baby on a natural diet can get difficult.

Megan Lower, who gave birth to Kaylee on Tuesday at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said she's going to try to breast-feed as long as she can once she returns to work, which will require pumping.

"At least four months, if not a little longer," she said of how long she plans to nurse Kaylee. "I'm going to try to pump at work, if possible. If it's not working out, I'll have to switch. But as long as she's getting some of the good nutrients now, starting her off, I'll be out for eight weeks, so at least two months."

Hall said she did return to work for a time after her son was born, and while she was able to pump in her office, her job required her to work at multiple offices throughout the week.

"At one clinic I had to pump in a closet," said Hall, a registered dietician.

Hulsey said in the last 10 years, products such as breast pumps have advanced to the point that prices have come way down and efficiency and style have gone way up.

Today, she said, you can find a breast pump for about $200, compared with $400 just a few years ago, and there's even one model that clips to your belt.

She cited the mother in the TLC TV show "18 Kids and Counting," who has been breast-feeding for 20 years and, at this point, is over any stigma attached to nursing in public.

"She wears the Breast Friend pillow that wraps around (your waist) and she puts on her Hooter Hiders (a type of bib that covers your chest), and she goes everywhere," Hulsey said. "She's been nursing for 20 years. They went to a film festival, and she's just walking around feeding and talking. It's not like she hid in her house for 20 years."

Andrews added that part of her education with soon-to-be moms in the WIC program includes ways to button your shirt or hold the baby to keep a woman's chest concealed. She got the same kind of concerns from her husband, too, when she was breast-feeding.

"My spouse was very concerned, (saying) are you going to expose yourself in front of other men?" she said. "I teach them if you're at Walmart, I can go in a dressing room. Basically, define with the client what they need and go from there."

Going public

But despite wanting to keep up with breast-feeding once she returns to work, Lower resisted the idea of breast-feeding in public.

"I'm not very comfortable with that at all," she said. "I would probably go in the car or something instead of out (at a restaurant). I just don't feel comfortable. I still think it's kind of a personal thing, and I don't think you should flaunt it."

But Hall said one outlet she found helpful when she was nursing her son - but still wanted to interact with people outside her home - was to join a new mother's group.

There are several in the Hall County area, including Gwinnett Area Mommies. Hall is an administrator of the online-based group that sets up playdates and outings among the mothers in multiple counties, including Jackson, Barrow and Hall.

"That was the first time, besides nursing in front of my husband, that I nursed in front of other people," she said. "And it helped that everybody else was doing it. And just looking at the more experienced moms and seeing how they had their shirts tucked in a way you're not showing your nipple."

Gwinnett Area Mommies also has an online support group for advice when moms can't get together. This is useful for basic breast-feeding tips or even simple medical advice among women who have been there before.

There are also breast-feeding groups that meet at hospitals such as Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Typically, mothers weigh their babies at the start and before leaving to see how much they ate.

"In that circle of moms I got a little more comfortable," Hall said of the breast-feeding support group she attended at a local hospital. "And what are you going to do? Some days you just have this screaming child and you have to nurse him because you don't have this bottle to just whip out and feed him."

Changed attitude

Hulsey said many moms today come out of the hospital eager to breast-feed. And while some may take longer to feel comfortable doing it in public, she said the main stigma lies within certain cultures.

"Most of the time we don't have a problem with educated women thinking there's a stigma to it. Mature people who have been to college all want to breast-feed. They want to breast-feed, they don't care who sees," she said. "It's starting to be a stigma the other way in that people who are either new to the country or people who don't know the benefits, don't know why they should breast-feed, think it's something to be embarrassed about."

The benefits far outweigh any perceived embarrassment about nursing in public, Andrews added. For example, among mothers in the WIC program, if all of them were breast-feeding it would save the government millions of dollars each month not just in baby formula costs but also in trips to the doctor and grocery store.

Even water, a precious commodity during the recent drought, can affect a baby who is not breast-feeding.

"Oh my goodness, where do you start?" Andrews said when asked about the benefits of breast-feeding. "There's so many. If you look at it from all aspects - we know it helps their digestive system, their cognitive system. With moms, it helps in the prevention of breast cancer, uterine cancer, weight loss after delivery. The bonding aspect after delivery. And that's just the mama and baby."

Feeding babies with formula also has an environmental impact that breast-feeding doesn't have, she said, between cans going into landfills or the energy it takes to produce it.

"If all moms and babies breast-fed, our world would be in a much better situation," she said.

Hall agreed it can be a little unsettling for a new mom at first, thinking about exposing your chest in public. But at the same time, you're also doing something that's good for your baby.

"I actually had qualms about nursing. I learned about it in school, and it's great and obviously it's very important for me to nurse. But it felt a little weird; I was scared to do it," she said. "It's obviously a very private place to begin with, and you don't want to expose it. But I got more comfortable the more I did it."

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