Military Bases Struggle With Breast-Feeding Policies

Petty Officer 2nd Class Amanda Langendoefer breast-feeds her baby on the streets of San Diego. Courtesy of Vanessa A. Simmons
Petty Officer 2nd Class Amanda Langendoefer breast-feeds her baby on the streets of San Diego. Courtesy of Vanessa A. Simmons

SEOUL, South Korea -- For the second time in three months, a military command has quickly rescinded a breast-feeding policy that was seen as too restrictive by nursing mothers.

This week, U.S. Army Hawaii pulled back its breast-feeding policy just days after it was issued, after mothers bristled at a requirement to nurse "discreetly" and cover themselves. The one-page policy letter, signed by Maj. Gen. Charles Flynn, cited federal law that allows women to breast-feed on federal property but directed them to make "every attempt to cover the exposed breast."

"Nursing mothers will not be subject to harassment, ridicule or intimidation," it said. "Any individual who becomes disruptive, non-compliant or otherwise engages in similar uncooperative behavior will be asked to leave the facility or area."

Related story: Your Tricare Free Breast Pump Questions Answered

The command pulled the new policy Wednesday and replaced it with a version that omits the requirement for women to nurse discreetly and attempt to cover their breasts. It also mandates that all nursing moms be given time and adequate facilities to pump breast milk or nurse, and says mothers are allowed to breast-feed in public locations without being harassed.

Dennis Drake, a spokesman for U.S. Army Hawaii, said the latest policy also replaces a July 2014 U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii policy with similar language requiring that women "discreetly" breast-feed and will help avoid confusion and ambiguity.

The Hawaii mea culpa comes a couple of months after the commander of Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho rescinded his policy that required non-military mothers to wear a cover or go to a designated room to breast-feed their babies.

Within a matter of days of enacting the new rule, the base was inundated with commander's action-line queries and complaints on its Facebook page. Members of a popular Facebook page for breast-feeding military moms largely condemned it as discriminatory, illegal and insensitive.

While some mothers saw the policy as a positive because it guaranteed them a private place to nurse, others said it made breast-feeding more complicated. Some infants refuse to nurse under a cover, and a mother with another small child in tow might not be able to move easily into a designated nursing area.

When he rescinded the policy a week later, the base commander issued an apology and voiced support for public breast-feeding.

"I better understand the concerns regarding breast-feeding in public and am sorry individuals were offended," Col. David Iverson said in an April 23 statement. "The policy was not intended to ostracize anyone, and I regret it had that effect."

Many questioned whether such policies are even legal, considering that federal law states that "a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a federal building or on federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location."

But Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse, a Mountain Home AFB spokesman, said the federal law "does not address one way or another the manner in which one may breast-feed."

"The [original] policy was crafted with the intention of protecting the rights of mothers who choose to breast-feed their children while also respecting other base personnel and families in public locations," he said.

No consistent policy

Medical experts tout the health and emotional benefits of breast-feeding for both mother and infant, but should doing it in public trump the rights of others who find a bared breast offensive or sexual in nature?

"People care about it a lot, because breast-feeding is everywhere. It's in the media no matter whether you're in the military or not," said Robyn Roche-Paull, a Navy veteran, nurse, lactation consultant and author of "Breast-feeding in Combat Boots." "Everybody knows it's the best thing to do, and breast-feeding in public has really taken off.

"For women to be told that they can't do so, it gets a lot of them up in arms because it's feeding a baby," she said. "A baby needs to eat, that's what it comes down to."

Military policies on breast-feeding vary by branch of service. The Air Force, Navy and Marines have policies protecting servicemembers' right to breast-feed, either mandating or strongly encouraging commands to provide clean spaces -- not restrooms -- for pumping, and delaying deployments in the months after childbirth. The Army does not, though it does defer deployments postpartum.

Spokesperson Tatjana Christian said that while the Army does not have a formal breastfeeding policy, it encourages mothers to take advantage of breastfeeding resources, including lactation support rooms and nursing mothers' programs.

Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who is sponsoring a measure that would require the Army to develop its own breast-feeding policy, said the Mountain Home incident highlighted the need for an Army policy as well as for diligent congressional oversight of issues facing female troops.

"I think we take this as seriously as we do because of all the other issues we've learned about in Congress that [military] women confront," she said, from sexual assault to a lack of body armor designed specifically for women.

Tsongas said she hears from some female service members who feel supported by their command and others who don't.

"These mothers were doing their best, but there was no set protocol in place," she said. "There was a lack of an appropriate place, a lack of understanding of how much time it could take. I know I've had a number of my staff members become mothers, and it really is something you have to have the time to do properly and the support to take the time out to do it."

Military makes strides

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding an infant for the first six months, and a combination of breast-feeding and the introduction of solid foods until at least 12 months. It says breast-fed babies are healthier, and breast-feeding reduces the risks of sudden infant death syndrome and developing asthma or obesity later in life.

Tricare, the military's health insurance, recently announced that it will begin covering breast-feeding supplies such as pumps, which vary widely in price, from about $35 for manual pumps to $250 or more for electric versions, as well as breastfeeding counseling.

Last year, 120,085 infants were born to Tricare-eligible beneficiaries.

Roche-Paull, who also oversees the Breast-feeding in Combat Boots Facebook page, said the military has become more supportive of breast-feeding since the early 1990s when she entered the service. Then, she said, there were no regulations in place protecting sevicemembers' right to breast-feed. At a time when women were taking on more roles within the military, many were reluctant to push the issue.

"There was no place to pump, there was no time to pump, there was nothing, plain and simple," she said. If you insisted on breast-feeding, "you were putting women back with all of the strides they were making, so why would you want to do that?"

Roche-Paull said "there's nothing to see" when a woman is breastfeeding because the baby's head covers most of the breast, and that breasts in a sexual context are widely on display and nobody has a problem with it.

"I'm sorry, I see more breasts hanging out in the magazine in the waiting area or on billboards on the way to base," she said.

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