YMCA Canada Changes Breastfeeding Policy

When we think of support to breastfeed in public, we don’t often define what “in public” means. Are we talking about the public space – parks, beaches, a bench on a sidewalk? Or public facilities, like libraries, swimming pools and rec centers, or airports? Or do we mean places operated by private businesses but open to the public, like shopping malls, retails stores and restaurants? These are all places where breastfeeding discrimination occurs, even when it is protected by law. Surprisingly, breastfeeding discrimination occurs in places where families frequently gather: beaches, play spaces, public  pools, and even in places that specifically invite or require families to be present, like medical clinics, recreation centres, and day cares.

Best for Babes Foundation’s Nursing in Public (NIP) Hotline fields many calls from families facing harassment and discrimination in spaces that welcome families. Best for Babes director of activism Michelle Hickman coordinates the team of volunteers who run the hotline. She says incidents crop up frequently at YMCA facilities. In 2012, volunteers started tracking breastfeeding discrimination incidents in the USA and Canada going back to 2004. They tracked almost 40 incidents in YMCA childcare facilities, rec centres, and swimming pools in both countries. In many cases the incidents received widespread media attention and resulted in a change in policy at the local Y involved. However, the Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton (BACE) noticed that even with policy changes going back as far as 2002, complaints still arose. Families were still being told not to breastfeed or asked to cover or move at Edmonton’s local YMCAs.

Exploring further

YMCA Changes Breastfeeding Policy
YMCA Canada slogan “Building Healthy Communities”

BACE board president Jodine Chase also coordinates a Canadian team of volunteers who support Canadian callers to the Breastfeeding Harassment Hotline. Chase found that even after successful human rights complaints in Ontario reaffirmed the right to breastfeed at YMCAs, harassment and discrimination incidents were still being reported across the country. In Saskatchewan, Kim Smith faced discrimination for breastfeeding at a local YMCA in 2011. In 2012 it was Denise Newell who was told she couldn’t breastfeed at a YMCA in Nova Scotia. In 2013 one of BACE’s board members was chastised for breastfeeding at a YMCA .

On behalf of Best for Babes Foundation’s NIP Hotline/Canada, Chase reached out to the YMCA Canada with the list of incidents. She also requested that YMCA Canada offer support to its Member Associations in the form of a model policy.

And, they did!

YMCA Model policy

In 2014 a  “Guideline regarding breastfeeding in YMCA facilitieswas issued via newsletter from YMCA Canada to its member associations. The newsletter article article stated:

In recent months there have been numerous complaints and inquiries regarding breastfeeding in YMCA facilities. Often the complaints stem from a lack of awareness of YMCA staff and volunteers that could be addressed by creating policies, communicating policies and procedures, and providing training for staff and volunteers.

YMCA Canada recommends that Member Associations review their policies and procedures, as well as training, and incorporate information on this topic. For your reference, the following is a guideline recommendation for YMCAs, based upon our work in the area of good governance regarding policy development.

YMCA Canada’s guideline recommendation to its member association is:

In Canada, each province and territory has a Human Rights Code that protects women from discrimination on the basis of sex. Most of the Codes also specifically address the rights of women to breastfeed in public places. The Codes also state that it is not acceptable for women who are breastfeeding to be asked to cover up, move or be more discreet.

As welcoming and safe centres of community, with a focus on family and nurturing the potential of children, teens and young adults, YMCAs in Canada respect the rights of women to breastfeed in public places, including pools and adult-only locker rooms. YMCA staff and volunteers should be aware of these rights and understand that it is not acceptable to ask women who are breastfeeding to cover up or move to another area that is more discreet.

This policy had  immediate positive results. YMCAs across the country began reviewing and updating their policies. In Saskatchewan the YMCA that harassed Kim Smith put up welcoming breastfeeding signs. When Ellie Thorburn was told she couldn’t breastfeed her 7-month-old in a changing room at the YMCA of North Avalon in St. Johns, Newfoundland and Labrador, that YMCA’s CEO responded by changing the policy and affirming that women are welcome to breastfeed anytime, anywhere in Y facilities.

What’s next for the YMCA?

YMCA Changes Breastfeeding Policy
YMCA Regina sports the International Breastfeeding Symbol at its entrances

The YMCA in Canada is dedicated to building healthy communities, and its support of breastfeeding families is a positive step in that direction. Does more need to be done?

Absolutely! Breastfeeding policies work best when they are accompanied by staff training. They must also be publicly articulated. There must be an active effort to make breastfeeding families feel both welcome and safe to breastfeed. Most importantly, the entire community needs to get on board.

Breastfeeding Friendly Cities is a new initiative from the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute, backed by  Baby-Friendly USA and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action. The initiative recognizes cities that meet certain criteria. This includes making breastfeeding families feel welcome in the community’s public areas, educating people about the health benefits of breastfeeding, and offering services to breastfeeding mothers and their families. Some of the suggested criteria:

  • A citywide written policy that is routinely shared, meeting the challenge of providing a welcoming atmosphere for all families
  • “Breastfeeding Welcome Here” signs posted alongside the city’s welcome signs at its entrance
  • Baby-Friendly designated maternity care centre
  • At least 50% of businesses with occupancy permits have Breastfeeding Welcome signs posted at their doors;
  • Businesses support breastfeeding staff and are supported in turn by the city and Chambers of Commerce, and
  • Robust community resources such as peer support, skilled breastfeeding support from IBCLCs in the community, and attention to meeting the needs of marginalized families, are fully available.

Best for Babes supports this initiative and believes that the over 500 calls it has fielded since the NIP Hotline’s inception in 2012 would slow to a trickle if our cities became truly Breastfeeding Friendly.

YMCA Changes Breastfeeding Policy

Do you have a breastfeeding harassment story that turned into a success story for your community? We’d love to hear about it!

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