Tennessee currently is the only one of the 50 states that has established an age limit for breastfeeding in public. The law, passed in 2006, makes it illegal to breast feed a child over 12 months old in public. It was bad law then and it is bad law now. It should be repealed. Legislation to do so cleared both state Senate and House committees last week and likely will reach the floor of each legislative body within a fortnight. It should be approved promptly.
Lawmakers have far more important things to consider than deciding how long a mother can breast feed a child in public. That’s an intensely personal decision best left to mother, family and medical and health care professionals. The Senate bill, introduced by Mike Faulk, a Republican from East Tennessee, and the companion House legislation, have garnered strong support in legislative halls and a strong and positive response from the public. That’s entirely understandable.
Placing any sort restriction on breastfeeding in public wrongly suggests that there is something wrong with the practice, or that it somehow violates standards of decency. That is a disservice to the public. Neither is true. There is universal agreement that breastfeeding is good for almost all children, and that it is good for mothers who can do so comfortably and without medical complications. There is, in fact, nothing more natural or healthful than mother’s milk for an infant.
Moreover, there have been few concerns about mothers breastfeeding their child in public. Most do so discreetly, using clothing or a blanket to shield the nursing child from public view. Any suspicions that repeal of the age limit for nursing in public will contribute to widespread indecency are more in the minds of the legislators who passed the 2006 law, than in the public’s mind.
The benefits of nursing are myriad. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least a year and suggests there are significant benefits up to age 2. Children who are nursed have stronger immune systems and usually have fewer illnesses than those who are not. Moms who nurse have lower rates of breast cancer.
Repeal of the current limit should encourage more mothers to nurse and to do so for longer periods of time. If that proved to be the case, it could reduce demands for medical services — a boon for families, insurers and publicly-funded programs like Medicaid. The possible savings are, of course, secondary to health benefits, but nevertheless welcome.
Not all mothers are able to nurse and many choose not to do so. These who want to nurse, however, should be able to do so without state interference. Arguments that less government is better government are often fallacious. When it comes to breastfeeding, though, there’s no reason for government to get involved at all. That’s a mother’s choice.