June 24, 2002 -- If it is up to the American Medical Association, American women will no longer have to worry about being barred from shopping malls or parks or discount stores because they have a hungry baby who needs to be breastfed.
The AMA is urging states to pass laws that protect the right of a mother to breastfeed in public.
The AMA contends that being ousted from a public place because of breastfeeding can "cause emotional upset to the mother and could only discourage a mother from breastfeeding," and that is the last thing the AMA wants.
"This is literally a 'mom and apple pie' issue," says AMA trustee John Nelson, MD, a Salt Lake City obstetrician-gynecologist. Nelson, who says he is the "father of eight children, all of whom were breastfed," points out that study after study confirms the benefit of breastfeeding for both mother and child.
"Given the evidence, I think we have to do everything possible to encourage mothers to breastfeed. That includes allowing them to breastfeed -- discretely -- in public places," he says.
A group of physicians from Georgia brought the breastfeeding issue to the AMA's annual meeting here in an effort to focus some national attention on the problem. Joy A. Maxey, MD, an Atlanta pediatrician, tells WebMD that medical students in her state brought the issue to the state medical society.
Maxey says that although breastfeeding mothers are rarely fined or arrested -- the charge is usually public indecency -- "the mothers are often harassed or threatened with tickets. This harassment can easily lead to mothers just giving up on breastfeeding and turning instead to bottled formula." Formula, per se, isn't "bad" and Maxey says the AMA doesn't want to imply that mothers who don't breastfeed are bad mothers, but she says that she and other doctors want to make sure there are no obstacles for mothers who want to breastfeed.
AMA policy states that Oregon, Delaware, Florida, and California responded to reports of "mistreatment of breastfeeding mothers and have enacted laws specifically protecting breastfeeding mothers from public embarrassment and disgrace by granting them the right to breastfeed in public."
Other states, such as Connecticut and New Jersey, are taking on those who hassle breastfeeding mothers by levying fines against "those who attempt to disrupt mothers from breastfeeding in public."
But in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia -- where no laws protect breastfeeding mothers -- there have been incidents in which mothers were barred from stores or restaurants or in other ways hassled while breastfeeding.
Maxey says that supporting state laws is just one more piece in an overall effort by the AMA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the surgeon general to encourage breastfeeding for the first year of life -- although she admits that many mothers find it difficult to continue breastfeeding for more than six months.
Nelson says states that are interested in passing laws that protect mothers' rights to breastfeed in public can contact the AMA to receive copies of its model legislation.