The Great Nurse-In: An Inside View

Why take breastfeeding – a vital, intimate exchange between a mother and baby – to the West Lawn of the United States Capitol Building? Over 600 mothers and their babies, as well as hundreds more partners, children, and other supporters, gathered in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, August 4, 2012, for just such a cause. The first-ever Great Nurse-In was a peaceful celebration of breastfeeding, designed by local mother Rachel Papantonakis to raise awareness of the need for pro-breastfeeding legislation to support mothers and babies.

A show of hands at the event demonstrated how many women experience mistreatment for breastfeeding in public. It’s way too common, and can easily happen to a discreet breastfeeder. I might not have believed it, until it happened to me. As I explained to the crowd during open-mic time, in my early years of mothering I viewed breastfeeding as a loving exchange between mother and child that should simply take place wherever the hungry baby needed to eat. Being a relatively shy and modest person who also did not want to feel trapped inside my home, I nursed baby discreetly wherever we needed. A total of three uneventful years of nursing in public unfolded and then I experienced breastfeeding harassment at a Pottery Barn store while nursing my second child – just a wee 7-week-old baby. That rude experience taught me that even when we breastfeeding mamas quietly go about our business of caring for our babes, others might try to stand in our way.

Open mic comments at the Great Nurse-In on the West Lawn of the Capitol Building. Photo copyright: Scott Norris.

The “please nurse in the restroom” experience lit a fire within me. I realized how lucky that it happened to me, someone who would not easily be dissuaded from breastfeeding wherever baby is hungry. Had it happened to another mother with less support to begin with, she might have stopped nursing in public after such an experience. Instead, my path led me to bring the matter to the attention of the Pottery Barn’s president and gain her sympathetic apology and noteworthy leadership in creating organizational change to protect breastfeeding mothers. In the process, I learned that too many mothers experience such roadblocks to nursing in public. Many requested copies of my letter to Pottery Barn’s management, so I made it available here.

My experience is not uncommon in this country. Not surprising given that the U.S. ranks last of 36 industrialized countries in a ranking of breastfeeding support in Save the Children’s May 2012 report on global motherhood. Given the not- breastfeeding-friendly-enough state of this country, it’s inevitable that a long string of individuals will continue to experience breastfeeding mistreatment and some will contact leaders of the offending entity – as well as staging nurse-ins at Denny’s, Target, Facebook, and other sites – to initiate positive change.

But we need to create change much faster through collective action. This is where you come in! You needn’t have experienced roadblocks of any sort to breastfeeding, currently be a breastfeeding mama, or even be a woman to arise and call on our leaders to protect and support breastfeeding across the nation

In my closing comments at the Great Nurse-In, I invited those who felt moved to action to visit the Best for Babes Take Action page to find avenues to participate in the breastfeeding-friendly movement, such as urging your member of Congress to authorize funding for breastfeeding education such as the WIC breastfeeding peer counselors. And, hopefully, many of you will do so too!

No doubt, the ripple effects of the Great Nurse-In and its companion Action Day on Capitol Hill will be felt in Washington, corporate America, and in the hearts of new mamas, especially those who are not sure if they really want to nurse in public because of the potential objections of others. Won’t you join in helping move some of those ripples into a serious tide of change? What a gift to the next generation!

This once shy and harassed breastfeeding mama turned breastfeeding advocate is grateful for the incredible support of my husband who insisted that we turn around on the heels of a 10-day-trip to take our three boys on the three-hour drive to attend the Great Nurse-In. If nothing else, he wanted our boys to grow up supporting this important cause, which benefits all babies, not just their mamas. It was an historic moment in breastfeeding promotion that we were proud to support.

While most babies breastfed throughout the very hot day as they needed (called breastfeeding- or nursing-on-demand), at 10:30 a.m., all the nursing mothers tried to nurse their babies as part of the Big Latch-On, a consecutive breastfeeding minute for thousands of mothers and children around the world. Ironically, it was reverse nursing-on-demand, a practice that doesn’t always fly if baby is asleep or already has a full tummy. Nonetheless, lots of babies enjoyed breastfeeding during the Big Latch-On, contributing significantly to the new record set of 8,862 children in 626 locations across 23 countries. Even my two-year-old nursling cooperated and nursed for the Big Latch-On event at the nurse-in! (Truth be told, a strategic lollipop instead of rise-and-shine-nursing in the morning left him inclined to nurse in public come mid-morning, a rarity for my toddler these days.)

One of many babies breastfeeding during the Big Latch-On, a global event supported at the Great Nurse-In on Capitol Hill. Photo copyright: Scott Norris.

The day was filled with inspiring stories, calls to action, and fun songs celebrating breastfeeding. You can read more perspectives about the event, including what motivated Rachel Papantonakis to launch it,  here.  You can see great coverage by the Huffington Post and a slide show of pictures, here. I was honored to meet amazing women who feel called to pave the way to a more breastfeeding-friendly world for other mamas. I am hoping to share some of their stories in upcoming posts at Breastfeeding Friendly, so stay tuned.

After each speaking to the crowd at the Great Nurse-In, Emily Mohajeri Norris, LeTesha Dixon, and Nirvana Jennette talk babies and breastfeeding. Photo copyright: Scott Norris.

Emily Mohajeri Norris is mama to three boys, blogs on breastfeeding at Breastfeeding Friendly, and creates fun, eco-friendly products with her husband to help kids grow noble at Tender Sapling.

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