The Washington Post

D.C. guard: No breastfeeding in public

A decal reading "Breastfeeding Welcomed Here" is displayed on the door to a store on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

While we sat in the brightly lit waiting room, my son started to get whiny and squirmy.

He was ready to eat, so I stepped into the corridor to breastfeed him. There were no chairs and no signs directing to a room for breastfeeding. So I sat on the floor next to my stroller and started nursing.

In a stern voice, a guard who was monitoring the metal detectors at the building's entrance, told me I could not sit on the floor. I acknowledged her but continued to nurse. I planned to get up once he was finished eating. But the guard was adamant. I removed my son, buttoned my shirt, and slowly stood up.

But I knew he wasn’t finished eating. So I leaned against the wall and started to nurse again. This time, a second guard approached and said I was not allowed to nurse my son in the hallway because it was, “public.” She told me I was guilty of "indecent exposure,” because I was exposing my breast.

I was shocked, upset and angry that by providing food for my son, I was being treated like a criminal.

"What?,” I asked, incredulous. “I can't breastfeed my son because this is a public corridor? Are your serious?"

"Well, this is a government building,” the second guard said, “and you can't breastfeed in a public corridor of a government building!"

As an attorney, I knew that I had rights. I called my law firm to ask for pro bono assistance and an associate who could immediately research the whether there was a law regarding breastfeeding in public. I wanted to get the name of all of the guards involved, and finally got a name and number of a supervisor before I was called into the room for the hearing on the parking ticket.

I’ve since learned that the guards were completely wrong and had no right to stop me from nursing my infant son. In 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) signed into law the "Child's Right to Nurse Human Rights Amendment Act of 2007" (Bill B17-0133) that was approved unanimously by the D.C. Council.

The law amended the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 and ensured a woman's right to breastfeed in any location where she has the right to be with her child, public or private. Clearly, a public corridor in a government building fits within the statute's language as a place a child has a right to be. The Federal government has enacted a similar law.  

Aside from the embarrassment and trauma, I’m saddened that the three people involved--the two officers and me--are all are black women. It is appalling and heartbreaking that these officers, who are of childbearing age, are so ill-informed about the benefits of breastfeeding when our local infant outcomes are so very dismal. Infant mortality is the highest in the black community throughout the United States.

This is especially true in the District, where a black infant has a three times higher chance of dying in the first year compared to its white counterpart. The vast majority of these infant deaths occur east of the Anacostia River. Further, according to a 2006 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, breastfeeding rates are significantly lower among non-Hispanic black infants. Mexican American and non-Hispanic white children are significantly more likely to have been breastfed compared with non-Hispanic black children.

Major organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the World Health Organization have recommended exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months generally for all infants. Breastfeeding is a way to combat low birth weight, SIDS, obesity, juvenile diabetes and to improve the immune systems of physically compromised infants.

The District and the federal government explicitly protect a woman's right to breastfeed. These officers are required to support this law--not break it. If memory serves me, it was less than eight months ago that the District was called to task for not providing a safe, clean, quiet place in the Municipal Building for its police officers to breastfeed.

I filed a complaint Dec. 2 with the D.C. Office of Human Rights. I hope this matter will be resolved in a manner that not only will right the wrong that was done to me personally, but will ultimately ensure that nursing mothers have the ability to exercise the basic fundamental and natural right to nurse their children whether in their homes or in the public corridor of a government building.

Simone Manigo-Truell dos Santos is a local lawyer.

Read more on The Root DC

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