Breastfeeding Banned at Washington's Head Start

Christie Haskell

This is what happens when
kids are exposed to breastfeeding.

When mother Lee Hogan Knott volunteered at her son's Head Start class in Washington state and took her 13-month-old with her, she didn't anticipate any problems nursing her baby. She'd been told initially not to nurse where children eat (because you know, babies aren't kids and breastfeeding isn't eating). But then she was told she wasn't allowed to nurse unless she went into the bathroom or a conference room, because other adults (parents and staff) were uncomfortable.

But why does it have to be hidden? Is it better for the children not to see it? If it's just a baby eating, why then is bottle-feeding allowed anywhere? If we separate it, aren't we saying breastfeeding is bad?

The teacher who informed Knott of the sudden rule change told her that other people were uncomfortable, and it was good to prepare the children for public school where "breastfeeding won't be allowed." A blatantly untrue statement, of course, because women are protected by Washington's state law that says anywhere they are allowed to be with their child, they are allowed to breastfeed, including government buildings -- i.e., a public school.

According to Head Start's regulations, "Grantee and delegate agencies must provide information on the benefits of breast feeding to all pregnant and nursing mothers. For those who choose to breast feed in center-based programs, arrangements must be provided as necessary."

Head Start and Washington state put a lot of emphasis on nutrition, getting children off on the right start, and teaching them about making good nutrition choices. There's nothing better for a baby than breast milk, and children, if you simply explain to them that that's how babies eat, generally will not bat an eye. It's usually adults who have the problem and teach that problem TO kids. Kids learn to think it's gross or weird from their parents. Children of mothers who breastfeed generally aren't fazed when they see a mom breastfeeding her baby, even when it's a stranger's. My 6-year-old was playing with my 16-month-old the other day and showed her how to nurse her doll, to "make it stop crying." Oh no, for shame.

When Knott asked if they would make a bottle-feeding mother leave, the teacher said no. Of course she said no. Why aren't bottle-feeding and breastfeeding moms treated with the same respect? Knott went to the regional supervisor, who agreed that people being uncomfortable trumped state law and a chance at showing good nutrition habits, and she challenged him brilliantly. She said:

If you had someone who couldn't eat properly, a volunteering parent who was missing part of their jaw, and it was making other parents uncomfortable, would you make the disabled person leave?

As expected, the supervisor said they would suggest that the person who felt uncomfortable should leave.

So ... hypocritical much? What's the issue here, Head Start? You are a government, publicly funded program. You are supposed to teach the benefits of nutrition and support breastfeeding, and women by law are allowed to breastfeed in public schools with no cover, wherever they're allowed to be. Children seeing breastfeeding helps normalize it and can hopefully grow up into non-breastfeeding-phobic adults, which we apparently need much more of.

Sadly, this issue is still ongoing at the time of writing this. I'm ashamed to be a Washington resident at the moment, and am going to be writing some letters to government officials today. Mrs. Knott, you've got my full support.

Do you support the teacher or the law?


Image via sean dreilinger/Flickr

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