Family Matters

The Nurse-In: Why Breast-Feeding Mothers Are Mad at Target

If shopping at Target is part of your Wednesday morning plans, here’s hoping you’re not squeamish about public breast-feeding.

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If shopping at Target is part of your Wednesday morning plans, here’s hoping you’re not squeamish about public breast-feeding. Nursing mothers intend to turn out en masse from Maine to Oregon to breast-feed their babies while wandering through after-Christmas markdowns or sipping a latte in the in-house Starbucks — it’s a maternal twist on civil disobedience: the nurse-in.

In recent years, the nurse-in — a.k.a., the breast-feeding flash mob — has become a protest vehicle for nursing mothers, a means of banding together in solidarity over perceived mistreatment. In the most recent protest of significant size, moms gathered in Whole Foods stores last summer to express their unhappiness that a shopper had been told to cover up while nursing. (Whole Foods apologized, even offering snacks to the miffed crowds.)

But Wednesday’s planned demonstrations appear to be the most comprehensive to date, with more than 100 nurse-ins scheduled at 10 a.m. local time in at leat 35 states. Michelle Hickman, the Houston-area mom at the epicenter of the protest, will be re-visiting the Webster, Texas, store where she says she was hassled last month for breast-feeding her 5-month-old son, Noah, on the floor near the blue jeans display in the women’s department.

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Hickman had a basket full of Christmas gifts when Noah awoke, hungry. The quickest way to quiet a baby who needs to eat is to feed him, so Hickman found a “remote area of the store,” according to a Facebook reconstruction of events, covered up with a blanket and began nursing. Several employees asked her to relocate to a fitting room; one intimated that she could be cited for indecent exposure. No customers complained or apparently even saw Hickman nursing.

The next morning, Hickman called Target’s corporate headquarters and says she was told by guest relations “just because it’s a woman’s legal right to nurse a baby in public doesn’t mean she should walk around the store flaunting it.” Outraged, Hickman vented to a group of fellow moms, one of whom suggested staging a nurse-in. “Word spread,” says Hickman, a mother of four, “kind of like a marathon race with a baton. I complained, then someone else complained, then someone else complained.”

More than 4,200 people have joined the Target Nurse-In page on Facebook. In California, Lacy Naud plans to empathize with Hickman by showing up at a Target in Bonita, outside San Diego, with her 10-month-old daughter, Milla. “How humiliating,” says Naud, who says she’s never had a bad experience nursing Milla in public. “If I can help so someone else doesn’t have to go through what she went through, all the better.”

In New York, Donna Bruschi expects at least 30 people — including a contingent from the county’s breast-feeding coalition — to show up at the Kingston Target, where they’ll hand out informational pamphlets about nursing in public and breast-feeding at work. “Babies have to eat,” says Bruschi, a lactation consultant. “This is not about modesty. This is about a basic human need, to be fed.”

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There’s no getting around America’s complicated relationship with breast-feeding. Every public-health organization trumpets the importance of feeding babies breast milk, but many hospitals send new moms home with a congratulatory diaper bag stuffed with formula samples. The U.S. Surgeon General kicked off 2011 by issuing her first Call to Action on the importance of breast-feeding, yet policy doesn’t always jibe with practice. And squeamishness over breast-feeding in public remains so common that a Pittsburgh artist has designed a “mobile milk truck” capped by a fiberglass breast to come to the aid of women who’ve been embarrassed or harassed. Forty-five states have laws protecting a mother’s right to breast-feed where and when she needs to, but but just because a state has legislation doesn’t necessarily mean that all employees — the Target staffers told Hickman they’d been instructed to redirect nursing mothers to private fitting rooms — are aware of its existence.

An email Hickman received Dec. 16 from Target executives stated that “guests who choose to breastfeed in public areas of the store are welcome to do so without being made to feel uncomfortable.”

But since Hickman went public with her story, other moms have shared similar experiences at Target stores, says Bettina Forbes, co-founder of Best for Babes, a nonprofit that works to eliminate barriers to breast-feeding. “I’m disappointed with Target that they haven’t apologized formally,” says Forbes. “It’s lip service if moms are being harassed.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.