Stateline Story

States Promote Nursing, Protect Moms

  • May 15, 2006
  • By Christine Vestal
Mississippi, the state with the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the country, has passed a broad new law allowing mothers to nurse at work and in public.

In addition, five other states-Arizona, Kentucky, Kansas, South Carolina and Alabama-passed laws this year protecting mothers from charges of indecent exposure when they nurse in public places. 

Kansas and South Carolina took the added step of putting the law and state phone numbers on a laminated card so women can inform others of their new rights.

The card is needed because even in states that specifically permit breastfeeding in public, many are unaware of the law, said Melissa R. Vance, an attorney with breastfeeding advocacy group La Leche League International (LLLI).

The flurry of legislative activity this year is likely due to well-publicized recent incidents in which women were prevented from breastfeeding in public places.

In South Carolina, a store clerk refused to allow a Charleston woman to nurse her infant in a Victoria's Secret dressing room. In protest, a group of women held a "nurse-in" at the store.

In another case, newscaster Barbara Walters commented on the air that sitting next to a nursing mother on an airplane made her uncomfortable. Some 200 mothers staged a nurse-in in front of ABC's Manhattan headquarters.

Media attention and increasing awareness of the health benefits of breastfeeding have spurred states to adopt laws to protect nursing mothers. Only Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Arkansas, West Virginia, North Dakota and Massachusetts have failed to do so.

Still, Mississippi's law stands out because it addresses nearly every issue promoted by breastfeeding advocates.

Under the new law, employers must allow mothers to nurse or pump during work breaks; daycare centers must provide nursing facilities, including refrigerators; nursing mothers are exempt from jury duty; and women who breastfeed in public are exempt from indecent exposure laws.

But Vance says Mississippi's law is not a perfect model because it fails to make breastfeeding a civil right, which would include penalties for violators and trump other laws that could prevent public nursing.

For example, nursing mothers in Texas are exempt from indecent exposure laws but some have been charged with trespassing.

Only Connecticut and Louisiana automatically impose fines for accosting a nursing mother. In New Jersey, a woman can ask the public health department to fine anyone who asks her to leave a public place because she is nursing.

Despite the prevalence of state laws exempting nursing mothers from indecency prohibitions, Vance says more needs to be done.

In some states, for example, indecency exceptions contain language requiring women to use "discretion" when breastfeeding in public. These laws are "worse than no law at all," she said, because they leave women open to "embarrassment and humiliation."

The biggest issue for nursing mothers is gaining the right to nurse or pump breast milk during work breaks, Vance said. While it is not uncommon for women in management positions to pump and store milk while at work, those in lower-level positions are usually not given the same oppportunity.

California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Tennessee, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rhode Island  require employers to allow mothers to pump or nurse during work breaks.

LLLI and other breastfeeding advocates also want states to consider the benefits of nursing to children in divorce cases. Hawaii, Maine, Utah and Michigan are the only states that take breastfeeding into consideration when determining custody and visitation in divorce proceedings.

In child protection cases, La Leche urges states to consider the psychological and health risks associated with separating nursing mothers and their infants. In many child abuse cases, she said, babies are separated from nursing mothers even when the mother has done no harm and is not a danger to the child.

New York requires jailed breastfeeding mothers to have access to their infants. Massachusetts requires hospitals to inform mothers of the percentage of women who breastfeed, and is considering a bill that would prevent hospitals from giving moms free samples of baby formula. Maryland exempts nursing supplies such as pumps and storage bottles from state sales tax. 

Repeated medical studies have shown that breastfed babies have stronger immune systems, higher IQs, fewer diseases and lower incidence of obesity. Studies also show that nursing mothers have fewer cases of breast and ovarian cancer and are at a lower risk of obesity. In addition, nursing one infant saves a family at least $1,500 per year, according to LLLI.

The per capita rate of breastfeeding in the United States is 70 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Rates in several Western states-Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington-exceed 80 percent. Rates in three states-Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia-are under 50 percent.