Family Matters

Target Nurse-In: Did It Change Perceptions of Public Breast-Feeding?

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Boobs and babes took center stage Wednesday morning as nursing mothers held “nurse-ins” at Target stores across the country to assert their right to breast-feed their children in public.

The more than 250 peaceful protests created plenty of media attention but little drama on the ground, where Target employees and fellow shoppers largely ignored the clusters of women feeding their babies.

The protesters, so to speak, were an unlikely bunch: smiling, middle-class mommies toting their equally smiley babies. They gathered near the front of Target stores, where some remained while others dispersed to the in-store Starbucks or the clearance racks or the baby-gear department. In an ironic twist, some moms nursed their babies near the formula aisle.

Wednesday’s nurse-in, one of the most comprehensive in recent memory, evolved from the experience of one Houston-area mother, Michelle Hickman, who says she was asked repeatedly on the evening of Nov. 29 to relocate to a fitting room after she’d plopped down on the floor in the women’s clothing department to discreetly nurse her 5-month-old son. According to various emails from company executives to mothers and others who complained, Target is supportive of mothers who breast-feed in its stores:

“We want everyone to feel comfortable shopping at Target. Guests who choose to breastfeed in public areas of the store are welcome to do so without being made to feel uncomfortable. Additionally, we support the use of fitting rooms for women who wish to breastfeed their babies, even if others are waiting to use the fitting rooms.”

But when Hickman contacted corporate headquarters to share her experience, she 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.”

Those were fighting words to this nursing mother, who told a group of mom-friends that included Kelly Roth. Roth set up a Facebook group to help organize the nurse-in; it’s attracted more than 6,700 members, many of whom turned out Wednesday. About 20 moms, including nurse-in veteran Sara Shepherd, showed up with their babies and a handful of supportive dads in Chesapeake, Va. Earlier this year, Shepherd participated in a nurse-in at the Hirshhorn Museum, part of the Smithsonian complex in Washington, D.C., after a mom was told to sit on a toilet to breast-feed rather than nurse her baby near an escalator. But on Wednesday, the nursing moms raised nary an eyebrow, which Shepherd says is just as it should be. “It was nothing special, just a bunch of moms nursing their babies. Whoopdedoo,” says Shepherd. “It’s a step in the right direction that we’re going toward normalizing nursing.”

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

Some stores, like the one in Watertown, Mass., attracted but one lonely — albeit determined — mama. Eight mothers showed up in Pueblo, Colo. More than 50 gathered in Sanford, Fla. And in Webster, Texas, Roth joined Hickman and 50 others at the store where it all started. Roth said employees looked uneasy but didn’t approach the group. A retired couple did, though, giving the moms a jubilant thumbs-up. Meanwhile, a group of older women addressed the employees, saying, “We’re on your side.”

Despite a few dirty looks (and a few dirty comments, including one on Facebook that urged women who feel the urge to bare their breasts to pose for Playboy), the atmosphere was practically festive. One attendee, Meghan Nolan, commented on Facebook: “Is it sad that I am glad Michelle was harassed? I had a really good time today! AND we had the news crew come out! Talk about a success!”

MORE: Fewer Hospitals Hand Out Free Formula to New Moms

Now, organizers are hoping to parlay the media attention into political action. Already, 45 states — including Texas — have laws protecting the right of women who breast-feed in public. Hickman hopes the Target nurse-in will provide the impetus to push for nationwide legislation; she is working with Best for Babes, a nonprofit that strives to eliminate barriers to breast-feeding, to lobby for that outcome. “Even though I never got a formal apology from Target, we’ve gotten the word out, and that will hopefully stop the bullying,” says Hickman. “We’ve really raised the bar on public awareness.”

Yet just this week, there was evidence that society still has a way to go. On Tuesday, NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne sparked maternal outrage after he tweeted his aversion to seeing a woman breast-feed her child in a grocery store: “Just walking though supermarket. See a mom breast feeding little kid. Took second look because obviously I was seeing things. I wasn’t!” He subsequently apologized, but his comments reflect how uncomfortable some people remain about seeing women breast-feed in public.

At the very least, notes Roth, a conversation has been generated. “It’s going to take a couple of generations before it’s a non-issue,” she says. “Our ultimate goal is for people to not notice that anything is happening, just like with breathing or speaking or a baby taking a bottle.”