In Decent Exposure

May 29, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

What's a mother to do? One of the earliest choices she makes is how to feed her child, but society doesn't always make the best choice an easy one.

New York State has recently enacted a law protecting a woman's ability to breast-feed in public -- and imposing stiff penalties on people who try to interfere. Breast may be best, but the American public still tends to confuse the fundamentally decent act of nurturing a baby with the crime of indecent exposure.

Even a few facts about breast feeding versus the bottle can make the decision a no-brainer -- not just for mothers, but for policy makers, employers, health insurers and anyone else concerned about public health and welfare.

Breast-fed babies get fewer ear infections and are less likely to have allergies or diarrhea. Studies even show that nursing raises a baby's IQ. Recent research in Israel has found that breast milk contains a potent ''cocktail'' of hormones that may hold life-long benefits for a child's health and development. Scientists are also exploring the possibility that breast-feeding may lower a mother's risk of certain types of cancer.

If that's not persuasive, consider the pocketbook. In addition to saving on expensive infant formula, parents can now ponder another incentive. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health studied 10,000 babies and announced last month that those who were breast- fed for more than a year tended to have straighter teeth than bottle-fed babies.

But translating a wise choice into real life is not always easy. Breast feeding in public is not in itself a crime, but since the process can easily bare a breast to public view, it could conceivably be prosecuted under indecent-exposure laws in various states. Those cases are rare, of course, but public disapproval is not. From museums and malls to mass-transit buses, stores, sidewalks and restaurants, nursing mothers whose babies get hungry are accustomed to stares and sometimes even being asked to stop or leave.

The New York law was prompted in part by an incident in an Albany mall when a woman breast-feeding her child in the food court was asked to cover up or leave. When the incident was publicized, an aroused reader wrote to a local newspaper, fretting that nursing in public put society on a slippery slope toward fornication in the streets.

Such worries would be amusing if they didn't have such dire effects. Cities like Baltimore face deep and abiding problems posed by the number of unmarried teen-age girls who give birth. Compared to middle- and upper-income mothers, these young women are far less likely to breast-feed. Yet, according to Judy Vogelhut, nurse coordinator of the Johns Hopkins Breastfeeding Center, they are precisely the mothers and children who most need the benefits gained by breast-feeding.

In addition to the health benefits, breast-feeding promotes bonding between mother and child -- something that does not always go smoothly when a young girl gives birth. Equally important is the natural contraceptive effect breast-feeding can have. It's not foolproof, but it's certainly better than nothing.

Yet these young mothers are more vulnerable than most women to disapproving attitudes toward breast-feeding. They often live in crowded conditions, making it difficult to nurse in private. Frowns from the baby's father or taunts from other members of the household can easily discourage them. They also depend on public transportation, where snide comments can have a devastating effect.

Ms. Vogelhut notes that when young mothers are told about the benefits of breast-feeding, they almost always want to do what's best for their baby. But it would help if society made it easier for them. Already, cost containment efforts have resulted in policies that send women home within hours after giving birth -- just when a new mother can run into problems with breast-feeding.

Governments and employers are beginning to recognize the value of incentives for breast-feeding. This year, the government of Quebec began offering subsidies of $37.50 a month to low-income women who breast-feed their babies.

In this country, the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, has begun offering incentives by allowing nursing women to stay on the program longer. About three-quarters of middle- and upper-income women nurse their babies, compared with fewer than 25 percent of women enrolled in the WIC program.

A society increasingly burdened with soaring health care costs and with the social effects of children having children is not one that can afford to indulge a misplaced prudishness that confuses breast-feeding with indecency.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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