Governor signs breastfeeding bill

In a victory for families in Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick today signed An Act to Promote Breastfeeding. The bill explicitly protects a mother’s right to nurse her baby in public.

“This is a major step forward for public health,” said Dr. Melissa Bartick, and internist and chair of the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition. “This law establishes that breastfeeding is the normal way to feed infants, and it will protect mothers from harassment for following medical advice.” All medical organizations recommend that babies receive only breast milk for the first 6 months of life. Infants who are not breastfed face higher rates of ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, asthma and obesity, and mothers who do not breastfeed face higher rates of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and diabetes.

Despite the well-documented health risks of not breastfeeding, multiple Massachusetts mothers have faced opposition to breastfeeding. In one highly publicized case, a mother visiting a Victoria’s Secret was told she couldn’t breastfeed there because it was “inappropriate.” Another mother was expelled from a party supply store for nursing her infant. Recently, a mother returning to Massachusetts on an Amtrak train was told she couldn’t breastfeed on board.

Once the new law takes effect, individuals who harass a nursing mother will face a $500 fine, giving mothers who have been embarrassed or humiliated a recourse. In other states with similar legislation, advocates have created a printed “license to breastfeed” for mothers to carry in case they encounter opposition. The Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition plans to distribute similar licenses with the details of the new law, and how to report violations, later this year.

“This law empowers mothers to follow medical recommendations and breastfeed their babies,” Bartick said. “Mothers who may be afraid to breastfeed for fear of being humiliated will know they have a legal recourse.”

The Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition actively supported the bill, organizing a lobby day at the state house in May 2007 and encouraging members to visit their legislators, write letters, and mail photographs of breastfed babies to the state house.

The new legislation comes after eight years of advocacy, with key leadership from Senator Susan Fargo, who first introduced a breastfeeding legislation several sessions ago. “For something that’s so healthy and so natural and supported by so many health groups, it just makes so much sense” to pass the protections for breastfeeding, Fargo was quoted in the Boston Globe on December 31.

“No longer will mothers be forced to feed their children in the restroom of a restaurant or mall. … Women who nurse should not be treated as second-class citizens,” Representative David P. Linsky, a Framingham Democrat who pushed for the bill in the House, said in a statement also quoted by the Globe.