Breast-Feeding … in Uniform

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Breast-feeding while in uniform has suddenly become a hot topic since two Washington Air National Guard moms were photographed in uniform while nursing their babies.

The photos were posted by the group Mom2Mom to promote World Breast-feeding Week coming in August. The group, founded by a military wife on Fairchild Air Force Base, was started to promote breastfeeding among women on the base. Military authorities said the photograph violated military regulations because it used the military uniform to promote a non-military cause.

I am not a mom, so I do not know first- hand about breast-feeding, and have not thought about it much over my lifetime. But when I saw the photos, at first I was surprised — and then I was appalled. Then I thought, well, I’m an old fart, and perhaps my generation just doesn’t get it, and maybe I just need to be more open-minded. We all know that breastfeeding is best for children, and most women who breast-feed do so for six months to a year. But when and where to do it if you are not in the privacy of your home can be a problem.

Then I came across this blog, Breastfeeding in Combat Boots, written by my friend Robyn Roche-Paull. I met Robyn in September of last year at the Military Writer’s Society of America (MWSA) conference. Robyn is a young woman and U.S. Navy veteran who wrote a book called Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: A Survival Guide to Successful Breastfeeding While Serving in the Military.

Robyn was an aircraft mechanic in the Navy, and left the service honorably in 1997. She has three breast-fed children, one of whom she breastfed while serving on active duty. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and has helped many active-duty women learn how to breast-feed their babies over the past 12 years.

Her book is a nuts-and-bolts primer on breast-feeding in the military — an MWSA silver medal award, by the way — and also discusses the challenges of pumping at work, dealing with commands who don’t abide by the policies for pumping at work, and who even refuse to allow women to pump who are obviously lactating…a very sorry state of affairs.

Her blog asked how people felt about active-duty women in uniform breast-feeding their children in public, perhaps at the medical clinic or the base childcare center. As you can imagine, there were a variety of opinions.

And because of the lack of regulations regarding women in uniform breast-feeding their babies, local commands make up their policies ad hoc, so there are also a variety of responses by those in charge of child care centers and health clinics. These range from not allowing it at all to providing a private and relaxing room for moms to go to feed. But if a child is hungry, what’s a mom to do?

Some women resort to feeding in the bathroom stall (one woman commented, “how would you like to eat your meal in the bathroom?” This is obviously not an optimal solution). At one childcare center, where the mother wanted to feed her baby during her lunch hour, the manager required her to change her clothes before feeding. How ridiculous is that?

Robyn noted that since “most enlisted personnel do not get a long lunch break, this can mean the mom doesn’t even have time to actually breast-feed the baby once she gets there. Or she ends up forgoing the feeding (at the breast…better for milk production) and has to pump instead and hope she has enough to give the baby the next day. This is just one more reason why military moms quit and give formula.”

One of the problems with public breast-feeding is that Americans are obsessed with the sexual connotations of breasts, which are used not only for sexual pleasure, but to sell everything — from motorcycles to beer — to men. But even women who are squeamish about seeing women breast-feed in public are mollified if the breast is covered. A solution would be a breastfeeding uniform top that has concealed slits for breastfeeding (they make them in civilian clothes with zippers… can’t see a thing).

This is not a problem that is going to just “go away”. Forty-three percent of women in military are mothers, and 22% of the children born to them are under two years old. Most women in the military are in their prime childbearing years and will be having kids. Many potentially will be breastfeeding due to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation that children be breastfed exclusively for six months, and up to 12 months or as long as mutually desired.

The Department of Defense needs to come up with a policy that is consistent among the services for both pumping and breast-feeding. “It is not only a health and safety issue, but an economic issue,” Robyn notes. “Supporting breast-feeding by creating regulations regarding breast-feeding in uniform and also enforcing the current policies in place — with the exception of the Army which doesn’t have any — will lead to increased morale and increased retention among mothers currently serving, as well as decreased health care costs, due to less illnesses among breast-fed babies.”

The bottom line: federal law protects a woman’s right to breast-feed in public while on federal property. Military bases — and the women serving in the military — should be no exception.