Controversy over public breast-feeding in Illinois has moms and health experts contemplating issue
Mothers marched in front of a DeKalb store this month after its owner discouraged a woman from breast-feeding her child there. (Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune)
But the sight of a mom breast-feeding her hungry baby in a public space — even discreetly — is still unacceptable to some and at times is cause for controversy.
"We still live in a society where breast-feeding is not the norm," said Nancy Mohrbacher, a Lincolnshire-based lactation consultant and a member of the board of directors of the Chicago Area Breastfeeding Coalition.
The acceptance of public breast-feeding in the Chicago area was tested recently when the owner of a DeKalb resale shop took issue with a young mother breast-feeding in his store. The mother claimed she was told to stop or to go someplace else. The store owner, who said he supports breast-feeding, said he only suggested the woman not breast-feed in his shop in the future.
The incident galvanized dozens of moms, who later protested outside the business in an event they called a "nurse-in."
The demonstration prompted comments from supporters on both side of the issue.
"It's just as improper for a woman to expose her breasts as it is improper for me to go out in the street and pull down my pants," said Ben Vanderroest, 31, who works at the resale shop and supports his boss' sentiments.
But to former Carol Stream resident Paulette Wagner, who lives in Texas, the DeKalb controversy brought back memories of her own humiliating experiences with breast-feeding her son in 1982.
"I can vividly remember another woman walking by me and snidely saying, 'Disgusting!' I was stunned and angry. To this day I wish I had told her off," said Wagner, 65, of the encounter she had in a museum in Corning, N.Y.
Breast-feeding in the United States largely fell out of popularity for several generations beginning in the 1920s, in favor of scheduled, formula bottle-feeding, said Mohrbacher, who has written four books on the topic.
By 1971, fewer than 25 percent of women had attempted to breast-feed their children even once, Mohrbacher said.
Public health campaigns — including first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative that says breast-feeding helps to prevent obesity — are pushing to change attitudes.
Other benefits for babies include lower risk of ear and respiratory infections and sudden infant death syndrome, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. For moms, breast-feeding can help decrease the risk of breast and ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes, CDC officials say.
Now, 3 out of 4 new mothers in the United States have at least attempted to breast-feed their infants, CDC officials say.
In 1995, legislation was approved in Illinois saying that breast-feeding could not be considered public indecency. A law passed in 1999 made breast-feeding legal on federal property. Now, all but two states have legislation of some kind that supports a mother's right to breast-feed.
Bottle-feeding, however, is still considered the norm, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's report, "Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding" released this year.
While nursing is recommended for at least a year, the percentage of mothers who breast-feed after an infant's first three months remains low, illustrating that mothers may not be getting the support they need to continue doing so, CDC findings suggest.
Breast-feeding experts are hopeful that the DeKalb shopkeeper's objection to the young mom's nursing may have helped to continue the dialogue toward making public breast-feeding more acceptable.
"As a culture we have to get used to the fact that this is just a mother feeding her child and get over it," Mohrbacher said.
That may be the case advocates are trying to make, but back at the DeKalb store, Vanderroest said that since the controversy, business there couldn't be better.
"Customers have been responding to us, thanking us for doing the right thing," he said.