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W.Va. Senate bill backs breast-feeding in public places

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Samantha Stewart never questioned whether she would breast-feed her children once she became a mother.

The 35-year-old Elkview mother of four is pregnant with twins and plans to nurse them as she did her other children.

"God created our bodies perfectly," Stewart said. "They were designed to feed our children with complete nutrition."

The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee will consider a bill next week that would allow new mothers such as Stewart to breast-feed in public. Stores, restaurants even daycares could not ask them to stop.

Another bill introduced this week would excuse a nursing mother from jury duty.

West Virginia is one of about four states that do not protect a woman's right to breast-feed in public. Nebraska passed a similar public-nursing law last year and Michigan considered a law to excuse nursing mothers from jury duty.

Choosing to breast-feed is a big commitment for mothers who will need to take care of their babies whether they are at work, the mall or at home. Many women don't want the hassle or to feel uncomfortable feeding their children in public, so they turn to baby formula instead.

Stewart doesn't let a shopping trip stop her from feeding her children. The legislation under consideration in the state Senate would encourage more women to make that commitment to breast-feed, she said.

"Everybody has the right to eat that should be no different for an infant," Stewart said. "A woman has the right to breast-feed her child, no matter where she's at."

Stewart said she would not be able to serve on a jury unless the court would let her twins come into the courtroom with her. Babies need to eat every 20 minutes to 3 hours, she said, and a nursing mother needs to be nearby or able to pump her milk periodically.

That time commitment often spurs mothers to stop nursing, especially when they return to work because some employers offer nowhere for women to pump, said Dawn Kinser, a registered nurse and certified lactation consultant at Cabell Huntington Hospital.

Also, Kinser said, if a woman has a busy job and can't pump often enough, her milk will dry up.

Women no longer can be arrested for breast-feeding in public, but the practice is still unpopular with many people. Strangers will glare at women who nurse in public and family members who bottle-fed their own babies might criticize a woman's choice to nurse, Kinser said.

About 40 percent of mothers leave Cabell Huntington Hospital nursing their baby but, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only a quarter of West Virginia mothers breast-feed their 6-month-old babies. Only three states report fewer women who nurse.

Women need to know it's OK to nurse, Kinser said.

"Hopefully, it will help," Kinser said of the bills. "It will bring much-needed attention and hopefully increase that rate, eventually."

Supporters of breast-feeding say it's less expensive and healthier for the mother, as well as for the baby, than bottle-feeding with formula. Breast-feeding reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancer and can reduce the risk of postpartum depression in the mother. The practice also shrinks the uterus back to its normal size and allows the mother to return to her pre-pregnancy weight faster, Kinser said.

For the baby, breast milk can lower the rate of respiratory infections, asthma, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Kinser said.

"It's there. It's free. It's always the right temperature. You don't have to prepare anything. You don't have to wash dishes," Kinser said.

The women say they are fighting for a social revolution. For decades, bottles have been pushed as the only way to feed a baby. Also, considering breasts as sexual objects is a social norm. Therefore, women who feed in public are considered by many to be exposing themselves.

Because so few mothers adopt the practice here, West Virginians aren't accustomed to seeing it, certainly not in public places, said Christine Compton, who breast fed her two children and is co-founder and manager of the West Virginia Breast-Feeding Alliance.

The group has pushed for a right-to-nurse law since 2006. Compton said mothers continue to report that they are asked to stop feeding their babies at places such as daycares and community centers. Compton said she considers that a form of discrimination.

"It is just not as common as it may be in a bigger city," Compton said. "Our breast-feeding rates are the fourth lowest in the nation and [there is] no protection on the books.

"The correlation is there. If we had this protection and more moms felt comfortable, then more moms would breast feed. As more moms breast-feed, the next generation sees that and they become more comfortable with that. And that's how you change the social norm."


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