Life-sized cutouts of breast-feeding women will soon dot Jackson County as part of an educational campaign explaining recent laws that protect women who choose to nurse their children in public.
"According to Oregon law, women have the right to breast-feed," said Tori Geter, health assistant for the county on the topic of breast-feeding education.
Geter has been visiting schools, pools and businesses in an effort to "normalize" breast-feeding follow-ing the 2011 Surgeon General's "call to action to support breast-feeding," she said.
"We're trying to set the stage. This is the normal way to feed a baby," Geter said, adding that the worldwide average age to wean a child is 41/2 years.
Funded by a $25,000 federal grant through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, Geter's job is to explain new laws that require businesses with 25 or more employees to provide working mothers a 30-minute break every four hours to pump their breast milk. The company also must provide a private space with a locking door in which to do so, she said.
"Not in a bathroom or a toilet stall," Geter said.
The space can be as small as a utility closet with a chair, desk and electrical outlet. Or, as at Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University, it can be a "designated lactation room," Geter said.
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries law requires these supports and protections for breast-feeding mothers until a child is 18 months old, she said.
A second federal law enacted under the United States Department of Labor requires an employer to provide a nursing mother reasonable break time to express milk for her nursing child for at least one year, and a safe, secure place to do so, she said.
"Regular pumping is really crucial for the first six months," said Geter, adding that mother's milk is the only recommended sustenance for a baby according to several recent health studies.
Several large employers in the county are already in compliance with the new laws or are headed in that direction, Geter said.
"Sears has always been breast-feeding friendly. So has Fred Meyer," she said. Prior to the new laws, she added, it was not unusual for policies to be put in place after a lactating mother pressed the issue with her employer.
"Oftentimes it just takes an employee to have courage to advocate for breast-feeding," Geter said, though in many cases the woman pressing for breast-feeding accommodations was a high-level employee who did not fear losing her job.
Amy's Kitchen management is working on developing a breast-feeding policy, and the new Lithia Motors headquarters will have a dedicated lactation room, Geter said.
Geter's educational campaign includes getting the word out about the health benefits of breast-feeding for mothers and children.
There are considerable health risks to both for not nursing. Children are at risk for increased rates of infectious diseases, sudden infant death syndrome, Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, obesity, asthma and even childhood cancers such as leukemia and lymphomas, she said.
Studies show mothers who nurse have lower blood pressure, less postpartum depression and better bone health. They also suffer less from both kinds of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and breast and ovarian cancer, Geter said.
"This is no longer about a lifestyle choice," Geter said.
Geter has been training lifeguards and staff members at four Jackson County swimming pools. The questions ran the gamut from simple queries about whether a woman must cover her breast when feeding to health concerns about risks to the public if a woman breast-fed in a pool. In answer to the latter, Geter said, the national environmental health organizations have determined there is no risk. As for hiding under blankets or wraps, that's not required, she said.
"If she's got her whole breast exposed, she can do that," Geter said. "If someone has a problem, they can simply look away."
Sue McKenna, recreation supervisor for Medford's Parks and Recreation Department, said she welcomed Geter's efforts, including her informational handouts. No doubt they will soon come in handy at Jackson Aquatic Center, she said.
"Two or three times each summer, someone is breast-feeding at the pool," McKenna said, adding the activity sometimes prompts people to complain to staff, or at least question them.
"It's always nice to have a good, strong handout to give to people," she said. "If they want to breast-feed in the water, it's perfectly fine with us."
Geter said the conversations she had with pool staff was entertaining. She was amused to hear one lifeguard ask whether breast-feeding violated "no food or drink" pool rules.
"A young lifeguard sees an exposed breast and he can get embarrassed," Geter said. "It's also common for other swimmers who may be offended to go ask the lifeguard to ask the mother to cover up or leave."
The Oregon Health Authority is creating a mission statement in support of breast-feeding protections. Oregon will be the first state to create such a document, Geter said.
"It's one thing to know you can breast-feed," Geter said. "But if you're out in public and get scorned, a lot of women will wean early."
Some mothers have filed lawsuits against facilities that violate their rights to breast-feed, she added.
"We are letting (employees and employers) know it's not advisable to ask mothers to move," Geter said. "Those bothered by it can just look away. There are no rules about discretion."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.