Nursing Children in Public Our Basic Right, Say Canadian Mothers

by Gopalan on Aug 8 2008 8:00 PM

Canadian women are beginning to put up a big fight to assert their right to breastfeed their children in public. They strongly resent suggestions to cover themselves while doing so.

Dozens of nursing mothers crowded into a downtown Vancouver H&M clothing store over the lunch hour on Thursday to protest the way the chain treated a breastfeeding mother last weekend.

Manuela Valle said three store employees told her last week that H&M policy did not allow her to nurse her eight-week-old baby in the store because it might offend other customers, and ushered her to a backroom.

Breastfeeding advocates reacted by organizing a protest — dubbed a "nurse-in" — at the store.

Just after noon the trendy clothing store in a downtown mall was filled with a sea of nursing moms, strollers, toddlers, dads and others who turned out to make a political point.

"It is normal. It is not obscene. It is every baby's need to have food and be nourished and nurtured," said Veronika Polanska as she rallied the moms to publicly feed their babies.

Most of the women didn't know each other or Manuela Valle, but said they heard about the protest through the internet or media and wanted to make a statement.

I don't want to live a world or city where that's acceptable to shun women for breastfeeding," said nursing mum Sonia Tilly-Strobel.

H&M spokeswoman Laura Shankland flew in from Toronto for what could have been a public relations disaster to openly welcome the nursing moms.

"We apologize. And it seems to be a miscommunication and a misunderstanding. Our policy is to allow breastfeeding nursing mothers to breastfeed or express milk freely in our stores," said Shankland.

H&M says it has clarified its breastfeeding policy with all staff in all stores.

In another incident, a Vancouver teacher, Erin Tarbuck, complained she was asked by a flight attendant to cover herself while on a WestJet flight.

She told CBC News she was nursing her 11-month-old son as the plane was preparing for takeoff, when a flight attendant asked her to cover up.

Takeoff and descent can cause painful pressure in the tiny Eustachian tubes of children's ears, so it's common for mothers to nurse their babies, Tarbuck said, as swallowing helps ease the pain.

"[She] came up and said quietly, 'You know, some men find the sight of a bare breast quite offensive. Can I offer you a blanket to cover up with?" Tarbuck said.

Tarbuck also maintained that she was only nursing discreetly, and the only other people in her row were her husband and daughter.

She declined the offer of a blanket, but one was brought to her anyway.

"I was pretty shocked," said Tarbuck.

She later complained to WestJet's head office and received a written response.

"The rep defended what the flight attendant had done. She said we have to make our customers feel comfortable," said Tarbuck.
While the WestJet response was polite, she said, it was ultimately unapologetic, and the representative could not guarantee attendants would not ask Tarbuck to cover up if she breastfeeds on a flight again.

The high school teacher wants WestJet to develop a policy on breastfeeding, and said she plans to file a complaint with the federal Human Rights Tribunal if she doesn't hear back from the airline soon.

"I would like them to recognize it is a human right, and to have a policy that protects, respects and honours the human rights of all their passengers, adults and children alike. Adults eat on planes. Babies should be able to as well," said Tarbuck.

WestJet's vice-president of culture and communication, Richard Bartrem, said Thursday the airline stands behind its employee.

"This flight attendant in particular in this particular case was acting in advance of any complaint that might have come from a guest, so this was simply her decision at the time to ask our guest if she would mind covering up," Bartrem said. "She was never actually asked to stop breastfeeding."

Eleven years ago, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled women should not be restricted from nursing children in public.

Breastfeeding advocates say making women cover up while breastfeeding wrongly promotes the notion that it is illegal, immoral or in some way shameful. Some mothers also find it difficult to breastfeed while keeping their children covered or say their children won't nurse under a blanket.