When one Columbus mother fed her daughter inside a local grocery store, she never expected to be shamed for something she calls a natural act.

“Do you have to do that here?” Jenny Nunes recalls a customer saying to her at the Columbus Kroger Marketplace, where she was breastfeeding her 4-month-old daughter.

Shortly after the encounter, someone anonymously submitted an Onion for The Republic’s May 20 Around Town column, which read, “Onions to women who feel the need to breastfeed in a coffee shop.”

Nunes is certain she’s the woman called on the carpet. And while the incident continues to play over and over in her head, Nunes isn’t letting it get the best of her.

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“I said, ‘She’s hungry too,’” Nunes said. “And as I was leaving, I told him, ‘I hope you enjoy your breakfast. My daughter did.’”

Every Tuesday, Nunes joins other moms for Mothering Essentials in downtown Columbus. It’s the Healthy Communities Breastfeeding Coalition’s weekly Nurse n’ Chat session, from 9:30 to 11 a.m., when mothers and their babies gather for breastfeeding help and support from certified lactation consultants and other breastfeeding moms.

Nearly 15 mothers attended the June 6 meeting where Nunes broke the news that she had been shamed for breastfeeding in public.

All the mothers in the room were bewildered, including Healthy Communities Breastfeeding Coalition coordinator Amanda Virostko, who is breastfeeding her 15-month-old. After years of breastfeeding her two children, Virostko said she had never been questioned for nursing her children in public.

“I have only had people say positive things to me while breastfeeding in public,” Virostko said. “Moms are out there doing the best they can for their babies. This is a great, teachable moment. Moms can breastfeed anywhere they are allowed to be. And moms, please know that this is not the norm. Most moms happily breastfeed without any negative comments.”

{&subleft}Breastfeeding gains

In 2013, more than 75 percent of Hoosier children were breastfed — and more than 80 percent nationwide, according to the Center for Disease Control’s 2014-2015 National Immunization Survey. While the rate fluctuated between 2004 and 2013, recent data from the CDC Breastfeeding Report Card shows breastfeeding rates are on an upward trend. The report card measures the most recent state-by-state data on the percentage of children who were breastfed.Dr. Amanda Dornfeld, a Columbus family practitioner, credits the recent growth to the establishment of breastfeeding support groups such as the Healthy Communities Breastfeeding Coalition.

“In 1970, the breastfeeding rate was at 20 percent,” Dornfeld said. “What we realized was we had been made to believe that scientific formula was better nutrition and better for our babies than mothers’ milk. We realized that wasn’t true, and we had a lot of work to do to change that public perception.”

Dornfeld said she understands that some mothers have health conditions that prevent them from being able to breastfeed, and other mothers choose not to breastfeed due to work, family support and comfort level among other reasons.

“About 5 percent of women suffer from issues that can affect a woman’s ability to breastfeed including insufficient glandular tissue, Sheehan’s syndrome, insulin resistance and polycystic ovary syndrome,” Dornfeld said. “Some can be identified prior to delivery and some cannot. A woman deserves evidence-based information on feeding choices so she can make an informed decision.”

Mother-to-mother support continues to spur the growth in breastfeeding, Dornfeld said.

“Moms should not be forced to quit nursing because of having to return to work, being shamed or called out in a newspaper,” lactation consultant Tracey Blake said. “A mom going about her day and needing to feed her hungry baby is not weird, offensive or rude. I am glad this person who was offended seeing a baby eat from their mother decided to share their thoughts so we can educate them.”

Lacey Guernsey, a Columbus mother of three, has never been verbally shamed for breastfeeding in public, but said she has received uncomfortable looks. She said breastfeeding is already difficult enough without outsiders offering their opinion through uneducated remarks.

“Encouraging a mother could really help her on her journey through breastfeeding,” said Guernsey, who is currently breastfeeding her third child. “Mothers should not feel like feeding their child is inappropriate or sexualized. Neither of those things have anything to do with breastfeeding.”

Similarly, Heather Miller of Hope also has never been questioned for breastfeeding her 10-month-old daughter in public. She attributes this to the overall politeness of Hoosiers.

“I think it would be a different environment if it was New York or something like that where people speak their mind a little more,” she said. “I feed at meetings, I feed when I’m out in public, when I’m on the street. I do use the two-shirt method so I’m not completely hanging out, but I don’t worry about nobody being around.”

State law in Indiana allows women to breastfeed their children anywhere the law allows them to be, including coffee shops, grocery stores and parks, among other places.

While Kroger does not have a breastfeeding policy, it does accommodate the needs of mothers per individual request. The store offers a quiet room on the second floor of its newer buildings for associates. If a mother were to ask the store manager for accommodations, the manager could decide whether to allow the woman to use the room.

Target, another retailer that operates in Columbus, has recently published a breastfeeding policy in its employee handbook.

“Fitting rooms are available for women who wish to breastfeed their babies privately, even if others are waiting to use the fitting rooms,” said Erika Winkels, a Target spokesperson. “Guests who choose to breastfeed in public areas of the store are welcome to do so without being made to feel uncomfortable.”

Select Target stores across the country, including two in Minnesota, have also incorporated nursing nooks in their stores for moms to comfortably feed their baby in public. The stations include two chairs, a small table, free breast pads and breastfeeding covers.

Winkels said there are no current plans to expand these spaces to more stores, but the trial spaces are a way to evaluate guest feedback to determine a broader roll-out to additional stores.

Nunes said she is a strong advocate for a comfortable area such as Target’s nursing nooks. She said squeezing into a fitting room, restroom stall or car is uncomfortable for both the mother and the baby. Many babies also prefer not to be covered by a breastfeeding cover when eating because it gets warm and offers limited space for movement, she said.

“I like that it’s out in public,” Nunes said. “It normalizes it.”

{&subleft}Mothers respond

In response to the initial May 20 comment on breastfeeding in The Republic, about 20 other people also weighed in, submitting “Onions to people who have over-sexualized breasts to the point that they are unable to see them for their primary purpose of feeding a baby” and “Orchids to moms who continue nursing regardless of inconsiderate comments.”Several members of the Healthy Communities Breastfeeding Coalition said they submitted responses to The Republic’s Around Town column, backing women who choose to breastfeed their children in public places.

Dornfeld, who is also an Action Team Member in the coalition, encourages mothers to seek education through a class or support group before choosing between breastfeeding and using formula to nourish their children.

“We know moms who are involved in support groups are more likely to be successful with meeting their breastfeeding goals,” Dornfeld said. “Whatever those goals may be, a mom who is in a support group with other moms who breastfeed are more likely to meet their goals.”

Immediately after the incident at Kroger, Nunes texted fellow mothers from the group to ask whether the man’s response to her breastfeeding in the store was normal.

Dornfeld said negative reactions to breastfeeding in public are increasing as people confuse it with sexuality, making them uncomfortable.

“Babies aren’t on a schedule,” Dornfeld said. “Babies need to eat at all different times, just like you or I might eat and be hungry for a snack an hour later. If a baby gets hungry, it has to be fed.”

But Nunes said one unfortunate interaction is not stopping her from feeding her baby, a task she is proud of.

Nunes said she was taken aback the next day when she was breastfeeding inside the Columbus Sam’s Club and a cashier complimented her for not being ashamed to nurse in public.

“I never thought I would be one of these people who would just nurse wherever and not be embarrassed,” Nunes said, “but it’s so different when you have a child and all you care about is making sure that she’s happy and that her needs are met.”

Nurse n' Chat

WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. every Tuesday

WHERE: Mothering Essentials, 424 Washington St., on second level

WHO: Open to anyone, free of charge

WHY: Nursing mothers can visit with other nursing mothers and have questions answered by a certified lactation consultant

CONTACT: Amanda Virostko, 812-376-5097, with questions and concerns

Benefits of breastfeeding

For babies:

  • Reduced the risks for a variety of childhood illnesses and infections
  • Reduces the risk of obesity
  • Reduces the risk of certain types of cancer and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

For mothers:

  • Decreased postpartum bleeding
  • Earlier return to pre-pregnancy weight
  • Increased child spacing
  • Reduced risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis and hip fractures

Source: indianaperinatal.org

Department of Health on breastfeeding

The Indiana State Department of Health endorses breastfeeding.

On the department’s website, it says:

“Breastfeeding provides babies with the healthiest start in life. Families will enjoy the benefits of optimal maternal and child health and development when breastfeeding is culturally accepted. Indiana aims to continue increasing breastfeeding rates into the next decade and beyond.”

Read more at in.gov/isdh/25939.htm

Breastfeeding resources

Indiana WIC: in.gov/isdh/19691.htm

Indiana State Breastfeeding Coalition: indianabreastfeeding.org

Indiana Perinatal Network: indianaperinatal.org

Indy Breastfeeding Moms: indybreastfeedingmoms.org

La Leche League of Indiana: lllofindiana.org

Indiana Mother’s Milk Bank: themilkbank.org

Source: Indiana State Department of Health