Breastfeeding Mom Has a Message for the Doctor Who Shamed & Humiliated Her

Mom breastfeeding her child
Jennifer Howard

Despite the recent law making public breastfeeding legal in all 50 states, some people are having a hard time understanding it. Shaming happens everywhere, even places you'd least expect it, which Jennifer Howard learned the hard way. During an appointment with a new primary care physician on June 14, the Oregon mom of three says he asked her to cover-up because she was nursing during a routine medical exam. "He made a huge deal out of it," she says. "I ended up feeling humiliated about the whole thing. I just feel really gross." 

  • According to Jennifer, she had never seen this doctor before -- and never wants to again.

    Speaking with CafeMom, she tells us that she had only recently given birth to her third daughter, Evelyn, and that she needed to switch back from her obstetrician to a primary care physician. 

    As a patient at the Salem Clinic, Jennifer tells us that she had "no choice" in which doctor she chose, but considering that she had had a good experience with her OB, a male doctor, in the past, she was willing to give Dr. Dennis Barnett a shot. 

    "He seemed uncomfortable from the second he walked in the door. I don’t know if he -- just because I had a baby with me. That’s just the vibe I got," she says. Because Jennifer was a new patient, her doctor had to do an intake exam with her and the two sat in the medical exam room alone while he questioned her on her health history. 

    Jennifer says that everything "had seemed normal," until her 3-month-old baby started to cry. "I picked her up to breastfeed her, and you know, I’m fully clothed. I’m not in a gown or anything like that," she says. "And I picked her up to breastfeed her and he stopped me before I even got started."

    She says that that Dr. Barnett then asked her if she had a cover. "At first I was confused, because we went from talking about medical stuff to him asking me for a cover. I said, ‘do you mean a cover to breastfeed?’ and he said, ‘yes, a cover.’" I questioned it because I was a little confused and shocked and everything," she explains. "And I said, ‘well no doctor has ever asked me to cover before. I’m a little confused.’"

    But his answer was even more perplexing. "And he said, ‘well, you know it’s a rule we have. To prevent something inappropriate from happening.'"

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  • Jennifer says she was shocked at the request, "I’m fully clothed, I’m feeding my baby, what is the deal?"

    "Nothing in my life has prepared me for this moment," Jennifer says. But the mom, who breastfed all three of her kids, says she knows that Oregon state law permits mothers to breastfeed in any public space but her doctor's reaction made her doubt her own instincts. "I just thought, ‘well maybe in a doctor’s office this isn’t the law?’ I don’t know. What am I going to do? I need to feed my baby," she says. 

    Despite the fact that Jennifer says none of her children have ever liked to be covered when they nurse, she complied with her doctor's request. Jennifer proceeded to dig through her diaper bag and eventually found a swaddle that could work as a cover. "I get it out of my diaper bag, and I’m like ‘I don’t even know what to do?’ He comes over and he takes it out of my hand, and he holds it up and like shields --- starts looking away -- and like shields me. I was like, I guess this is when I’m supposed to get my baby latched? And then when I did, he covered her, he laid it over her," she says. 

    Jennifer tells us that the experience "humiliated" her. "I just felt really gross," she says. "Like it was just something that I was doing that was wrong, that was shameful. It needed to be hidden and that I should be worried about him, rather than my baby."

    "It never even occurred to me to be concerned about what he saw," she adds. "Until he said that it was a rule to prevent lawsuits from him doing something inappropriate. This is somebody I’ve never met before, somebody in a position of power. And I just felt -- it brought up a lot of stuff for me -- it was very upsetting."

  • After the upsetting incident, Jennifer says she asked the doctor to examine her C-section scar.

    "I was having problem with it -- I was having pain, three months later-- with it," she says. "He immediately stepped out of the room and got a nurse to come in and witness him while he looked at my C-section scar."

    But Jennifer wonders why her doctor hadn't thought to get a nurse in the room while she was breastfeeding. "Generally, when you have a male doctor giving you say, a pelvic exam, they almost always bring in a nurse. And I understand that, but [when I was breastfeeding] I’m not having a pelvic exam," she says. "Why he couldn’t have stepped out of the room and gotten a nurse if he was so uncomfortable with me breastfeeding. Instead of, telling me that it was a rule that I had to cover up? It was clear that he knew that he had another option there. He just chose not to do so."

    Jennifer says that not only did she end up feeding her baby under the cover of her swaddle blanket but she also employed the "two-shirt" method to keep herself covered. "I always try to be very discreet. I don’t want anybody to see me, I don’t want that attention, but I need to not have a blanket over both of us. And that’s just ridiculous, I can’t do it like that," she says.

    After the examine, she left feeling that things had been "awkward" and uncomfortable. 

    "I hadn’t even tried breastfeeding my daughter yet, when he brought this up. For those of you saying that I was flopping out my breasts and he was shocked by it, that’s just -- that’s just not how it happened," she says.

  • Jennifer was so upset when she left that she called the clinic's Patient Relations line and their response surprised her.

    "I just wanted to find out what the breastfeeding policy was," she says. "The lady I talked to said that they don't have a breastfeeding policy at all," which upset Jennifer given that her doctor explicitly told her that being covered while breastfeeding was clinic policy.

    The operator at Patient Relations asked Jennifer what had happened during her exam and by Jennifer's account, the woman had been, "all gung ho for it, ‘you know I’m pregnancy myself, I’m going to be dealing with this pretty soon, I need to know these rules and these laws.'" 

    "She asked me if I wanted to file a complaint -- she encouraged me, herself. It was verbal," Jennifer says. The operator had promised her that though the concern would take a couple of days to grow through the necessary channels until she would receive a response. She told Jennifer that there might be a memo, a conversation, or at least some education on the staff's part to rectify the situation. 

    "I just wanted, maybe an apology? Maybe some education on their part on Oregon law? That would have been fine. I called back not too long after that and I thought I should make a request to switch doctors," she says. 

    Jennifer waited to hear back from the clinic after sending in her complaint. But after several weeks of waiting and then a round of phone tag, she says she finally received a letter from Salem Clinics. 

    According to Jennifer, letter stated that, "they reviewed my concern. My request to switch doctors is denied. If I would like to seek care elsewhere, they’d be happy to send my charts. And that was it -- from the board of directors. No mention of my complaint. That was all they said," she explained. 

    Upset, Jennifer called the clinic to discuss the letter she had been sent. But she says that after a half-dozen calls went unanswered, she decided to give up on speaking to a representative from the doctor's office. 

  • Which is when Jennifer took to the internet to speak out against the doctor who had shamed her and her baby.

    Ultimately, Jennifer explains, she chose to post her story on Facebook because of the clinic's lack of response. She says that she never intended for her story to get this big, "All I wanted was an apology and to switch doctors."

    She also says that she's sharing her story because her doctor made her feel dirty, when she knows that she was doing something that most doctors agree is perfectly normal and healthy for new mothers. "Every single news organization in the world -- they all say that that’s the best thing. And when you have a baby the hospital tells you to breastfeed. All these health organizations tell you to breastfeed and yet when I try to in a doctor’s office, I’m the one that I needs to cover up? I mean, my goodness." she says. 

    But Jennifer argues that her doctor is the one who is wrong, "He’s making it seem like I’m doing something inappropriate. I’m assuming he meant that by me potentially exposing part of my breast to a doctor...that he sees my breasts as sexual and a threat. And he needs cover himself because I might accuse him of something inappropriate," she says. "He’s a doctor ... My goodness, if he has not seen way worse than a woman’s breasts -- and if he has a problem seeing my breasts, then I mean I’m sorry I’m a woman and I have breasts." 
  • "Many women who have babies, breastfeed. And if that’s a problem for him, then maybe he’s in the wrong profession," she says. 

    Since her story went viral, the Oregon mom says that she's heard from many other moms who've experienced shaming from outsiders when they nurse. "It’s really validating to me that, that I’m not crazy. That this was something that was wrong," she says.

    And Jennifer explains why her doctor's action struck her so personally:

    "When you’re a breastfeeding mother, obviously at some point you’re going to need to leave the house. And you know that people take issue with breastfeeding in public -- you know that it’s a hot button issue. You’re constantly on edge and on the lookout for somebody who is going to come over to you and harass you. 

    It’s hard enough to do the right thing for your children and to learn to breastfeed, and to parent, without the threat of someone coming up and harassing you for it. I’ve lived my breastfeeding relationship on edge every time I leave the house."

    She's disappointed because she'd believed that her doctor's office would be the one place where she could be free from "shame" and "being judged."

    But now, "It’s not even safe to breastfeed in your doctor’s office. That’s really thrown me for a loop because now I’m even more on edge. I can’t even feel comfortable breastfeeding in public now -- it’s affected me and my relationship with my daughter," she says. "I don’t think that I should have to cover up and the law says I don’t. My safe place has been taking away from me -- it’s unfortunate."

    CafeMom reached out to Salem Clinic but as of this reporting, hasn't received a comment.  

    Jennifer also says that while she understands that her doctor made a mistake, she's flabbergasted that the clinic wouldn't acknowledge her complaint or even allow her to switch doctors. Which would have been the "minimum" effort they could have taken to rectify the problem.

    "I’m a reasonable person and I just want proper care," she says.

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