Can Laws Boost Breastfeeding Rates? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Can Laws Boost Breastfeeding Rates?

The law can be an important tool in increasing low breastfeeding rates. Mississippi has some protections already in place for breastfeeding mothers.

For example, Mississippi has a law that requires child-care facilities to provide a place that's "not the toilet" for mothers to pump, and another that makes it illegal for an employer to prevent a worker from expressing breast milk during a break, according to Elizabeth Gedmark, who leads the southern office of A Better Balance, which provides legal counsel to help Americans balance work with caring for their families.

Yet some of the legislative action on breastfeeding in Mississippi is mostly symbolic, like a resolution in support of breastfeeding Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves signed in August.

The language, drafted by Harvard Law School/Mississippi State University Delta fellow Desta Reff, doesn't give women any new legal rights. Instead, it extends "the support of the Mississippi Senate for the needs and rights of breastfeeding mothers consistent with the law."

"We're just putting it out there so people can see they have the support and all of that," says State Sen. Kenneth Wayne Jones of Canton, who introduced 
the resolution.

In Mississippi, several state laws do tackle practical logistics of breastfeeding, though with mixed success. A 2006 state law protects women's right to breastfeed in any location, but has no enforcement provision. "So if someone tells you (to) cover up, you have no recourse," says Reff.

Reff recently helped draft a bill, which was introduced last week and would give the health department the ability to fine businesses or individuals who restrict breastfeeding. Rep. Chuck Espy, a Democrat who introduced the legislation, also put forward a bill that would require maternal health care facilities to display a "Mississippi Breastfeeding Mothers' Bill of Rights."

Mississippi's breast-pumping law, although granting women the right to pump breast milk during breaks at work, also has no enforcement provision. Nor does the state require employers to provide a private space to pump or even to provide breaks at all. The Affordable Care Act, the national health care reform law, does require employers to provide mothers with breaks and a place to pump until their babies turn one. But, that law doesn't apply to businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

"The problem is that Mississippi doesn't have anything to pick up that slack," Reff says. And even people who have a right to pump under the law may not know about it—or may assume that an employer's refusal to let them pump is legal when it's not, she says.

"People violate that (law) all the time, and no one's going to come to you and say, 'here are your rights as a breastfeeding mom,'" Leff says.

A Better Balance, however, is trying to educate the women of Mississippi about their legal rights around breastfeeding. The organization recently created a website that tracks state protections for new mothers, including Mississippi's.

The challenge now, Gedmark says, is making sure women know about these rights.

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