Carrying infants in slings and car seats, about 30 mothers gathered at a Silver Spring Starbucks Coffee shop yesterday to nurse lattes -- and their babies.
Along with the babies' fathers, grandmothers and friends -- about 100 in all -- they came to lobby the global corporation to declare that mothers can breast-feed publicly in the chain's coffeehouses.
The event was organized by Lorig Charkoudian, a conflict resolution trainer from Silver Spring who was inspired after a store employee asked her to cover up or go into the ladies' room while nursing her 15-month-old daughter, Aline, last month.
"I don't put blankets over my daughter's head because it's uncomfortable for her. If I did, she'd scream and bother everybody," Charkoudian said. "And I think it's disgusting to ask anyone to eat in the bathroom."
In Maryland, the mothers have the law on their side: An act passed in 2003 prohibits restricting mothers from breast-feeding their children in public. A spokeswoman for Starbucks wrote in an e-mail that the company follows local laws and plans to reemphasize Maryland's ordinance to employees.
"We will instruct our Maryland store partners to inform any concerned customer that by Maryland law, mothers have the right to breast-feed in public and to suggest to the customer that they either avert their eyes or move to a different location within the store," spokeswoman Audrey Lincoff wrote.
But Charkoudian, who got a similar message when she wrote to the company, said that is not enough. She is pushing the company to adopt a nationwide policy.
To support the effort, she's launched a Web site, nurseatstarbucks.com. There, mothers can download a letter to send to Starbucks chief executive Orin C. Smith on behalf of their babies. "Sometimes [my mother] goes to Starbucks. When she does, I don't want to have to starve," the letter reads in part.
Focusing on the company is a smart move because so many young mothers frequent the stores, said Elizabeth Zifcak, 33, of Kensington, who attended yesterday's "nurse-in" with her two children. Like many at the event, Zifcak said she heard about the protest from a parents' e-mail group.
"If you look at the clientele during business hours, you'll find a lot of young mothers with children who come to congregate and talk," she said. "If they want to continue to attract this clientele, they need to change their policies."
State laws on the issue vary. Some states have none, some mention it only in exempting nursing mothers from jury duty, others say where breast-feeding must be allowed.
In Virginia, mothers can nurse in all public buildings, and breast-feeding is specifically exempted from the commonwealth's indecent exposure law. Private establishments, however, are not required to allow it.
Lincoff wrote that Starbucks does not have a national policy and that she would not speculate about whether that might change.
At the Starbucks on Cherry Hill Road yesterday, older children sprawled on the sidewalk playing with dolls and building blocks, while the moms held up signs advertising their cause -- "Lactate with a Latte" read one -- and swapped stories. One woman recalled being asked to move to a fitting room while nursing at a nearby Target store, prompting a chorus of dismayed comments from the others.
"Let's go there next!" said Dawn Davenport-Coven, a District mother who said she feels so strongly about teaching her daughters the importance of breast-feeding that she said she not-so-accidentally "loses" baby bottles that come with dolls she gives her 3-year-old.
Other customers who drifted into the Starbucks took the group's fliers on the benefits of breast-feeding. Only a few offered the nursing mothers sidelong glances as they made their way to the counter.
At the coffee bar inside, Kalen Johnson, 19, who described himself as a regular at the store, said Charkoudian's demonstration was an "overreaction" to the employee's reasonable request.
"In a place where I'm eating or drinking, that's the last thing I want to see," he said.
But the mothers maintain that breast-feeding is only natural.
"When women breast-feed, you see less breast than you do in the average Coors Light ad," Charkoudian said. "The breast is doing what it's designed to do."