When Arleta Ramirez’s daughter was born in July, there was no question what the girl’s diet would be. Breastmilk is endorsed by the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which cites “unequivocal evidence” it protects newborns from disease. Ramirez was also a breastfeeding veteran — she’d breastfed her son for two years.
However, Ramirez’s plan — and her daughter’s food supply — soon ran into an unforeseen obstacle: a custody dispute.
Ramirez said she and her daughter’s father split shortly after the birth, and the father moved out of their Northern Virginia home. On Nov. 28, a Prince William County judge ordered that the father be permitted to visit the baby four days per week ahead of overnight visits slated to begin in February.
There was an additional condition. “Mother is to make every effort to place the child on a feeding schedule and use a bottle,” the order read.
Ramirez wasn’t sure what to do. Authorities agreed that “breast is best,” but her baby fed as much as once per hour, and the father complained that feeding times interfered with his visits. Ramirez tried to pump but, at least at first, could produce little milk that way — and the girl initially rejected bottles, a problem that may complicate overnight stays.
Still, this was a court order Ramirez couldn’t ignore. Even as she gathered evidence that she was in the right for another court hearing set for April — a letter from the baby’s pediatrician explaining that she is exclusively breastfed, the names of legal experts on breastfeeding — she couldn’t understand why the court was hurting her daughter. Even her own lawyer has advised her to stop breastfeeding to comply with the court order, she said.
“Why are they forcing me to stop breastfeeding?” she said. “Isn’t that her right? Isn’t that in her best interest?”
In an email, Mike Ridgway, the child’s father, said he had given Ramirez “space to both nurse and to pump milk for me to bottle-feed our daughter while she is in my care.”
“Past the age of 6 months I will continue to support breastfeeding and bottle-feeding our daughter breast milk as much as possible, while also supplementing with formula only when absolutely necessary,” he wrote.
Tara Steinnerd, Ridgway’s attorney, said Ramirez is using breastfeeding to try to salvage a relationship that is over.
Steinnerd said she represents men and women in custody cases but has only represented men when breastfeeding time is litigated. Some mothers may have legitimate claims about breastfeeding that courts can weigh when making decisions about visitation, according to Steinnerd — but, in the cases she has worked on, mothers have been unreasonable, refusing to recognize a father’s need for visitation or refusing to pump.
“They come up with a myriad of excuses,” she said. “It’s about using breastfeeding as a weapon against visitation.”
Ramirez had stumbled into a dilemma — breastfeeding vs. visitation — that advocates say is common. But because most custody disputes are handled in state courts and don’t surface consistently in public records, there’s little paper trail to show how common it is.
Stephanie Bodak Nicholson, president of La Leche League’s USA Council, said that over the past 30 years, she has fielded at least one call per year about breastfeeding amid custody disputes. And she is only one of the breastfeeding support network’s 1,500 “leaders,” each of whom works in a specific geographic area.
The organization maintains an information page about breastfeeding and custody but can’t necessarily help affected parents, Nicholson said. La Leche is set up to offer emotional support and practical tips, not legal advice.
“It’s definitely something we get calls on,” she said. “It’s frequent enough that we keep it on our radar.”
Meghan Boone, an associate professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law who studies pregnancy and parenting rights, said breastfeeding is just one factor some state courts consider when setting visitation schedules. The idea that only women can care for young children — once known in courtrooms as the “tender years” doctrine — has been discredited because it may be considered sex discrimination by men seeking custody.
“You’re not supposed to use the tender years doctrine anymore,” Boone said. “If we’re talking about the need for child to be with mom and not dad, that sounds like tender years.”
Some attorneys have embraced this reasoning. In Virginia Beach, for example, attorneys at a practice calling itself “The Firm for Men” represent men exclusively in custody battles. In its arguments and on its website, the firm takes aim at what it calls breastfeeding “ploys” for women seeking custody.
“Many divorcing Moms throw up all sorts of reasons why they alone must have sole physical custody, or limit a father’s parenting time to an absolute minimum, for a nursing child,” the firm’s site says. It adds: “Thousands of children have thrived and grown exclusively on formula, while the supposed benefits (smarter children, healthier babies, more serene mothers) do not always hold up to scientific scrutiny.”
The unsettled state of the law means courts may not be the best tool to resolve custody issues involving breastfeeding.
In 2017, a Maryland court ordered that Amber Brown allow her partner to give their breastfed infant formula to accommodate visitation. In an interview in January, Brown said she was able to avoid this by coming to an agreement that allowed her to continue breastfeeding — and she would advise others in similar situations to do the same.
“I would say, like, keep the courts out,” she said. “Try to come to a mutual agreement for the sake of the child.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.