WASHINGTON - Breast-feeding policies at American University will not be created or changed after controversy erupted over an assistant anthropology professor nursing her sick child during class.
AU does not have a specific policy governing breast-feeding in class, but follows federal and D.C. guidelines "which neither prohibit nor allow breast-feeding in certain environments," the university says in a statement.
The college says it follows federal law by supporting "faculty and staff as they face challenges of work life balance" and providing "reasonable break times and a private area to express milk for a nursing child for up to one year from the child's birth."
In general, federal law follows a golden rule when it comes to nursing in public: Where a baby can be, a mother can breast-feed, says Patricia Shelly, founder and director of the Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington. But this can make some people uncomfortable, she says.
"Many people have not been exposed to breast-feeding," she says, adding that more women have fed their children formula instead of breast milk.
The recent controversy started when AU professor Adrienne Pine woke up to her crying baby girl, who had a fever. It was the first day of class, and 40 students plus a new teaching assistant would be waiting for her Sex, Gender and Culture course.
Pine wrote on the blog that a friend suggested over breakfast that she should bring her daughter to class because it would be a "teachable moment" for the students.
After weighing her options, the single mother decided to bring her daughter Lee to the lecture.
Lee was mostly well-behaved, but there were two interruptions, Pine wrote in the post. One student paused the lecture to point out Lee had a paper clip in her mouth. Later, the baby crawled too close to an electrical outlet.
The real drama started after Pine nursed Lee, who had started to cry, without stopping her lecture.
According to her post, Pine received an email the next day from Heather Mongilio, a reporter from AU's student newspaper, the Eagle. Mongilio heard about the incident from another student and wanted to know more about "what happened in class." Pine was incensed that she had become newsworthy.
"I had no intention of making a political statement or shocking students," she responded in an email to Mongilio. "I merely had a sick baby who I couldn't leave at daycare on the first day of class."
For some commenters on the Eagle's Web story about the incident and ensuing controversy, breast-feeding was not the only cause for condemnation.
"Bringing your baby to class is inappropriate by itself," wrote a commenter with the username John. "We don't pay 52k a year to watch our professors babysit while they teach."
Another commenter said Pine acted unprofessionally.
"This was an unnecessary distraction, and the university provides leave time for instances such as these," wrote user AUAlum. "Instead of issuing an apology for the distraction, the professor took it one step further and demonized student reporters seeking to gain a better understanding of the situation. This is conduct unbecoming of a university professor."
Pine has emailed members of the student paper's staff to apologize for the tone of her posting and for publishing their names and contact information online, the Eagle reports.
Since the incident, what started as an internal dialogue on a college campus has captured national media attention regarding breast-feeding in public.
In D.C., the Human Rights Act of 1977 was amended to give mothers "the right to breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, where she has the right to be with her child," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Maryland prohibits any restriction or limitation of this right. Virginia allows breast-feeding on any state-owned, leased or controlled land. Nursing mothers are also exempt from jury duty upon request.
Shelly coaches mothers on the delicate balancing act of nursing in public. She has a few simple tips to keep in mind when it's time to breast-feed.
"The use of a baby carrier or a sling can completely cover any breast-feeding that's going on," she says.
Other ideas include:
- Picking a corner booth in a restaurant to ensure more privacy if the
mother is concerned about exposing herself.
- Sitting in the window seat of an airplane to allow for more elbow room.
- Using a diaper bag to help prop up the mother's arm. This can double as a concealment tool, if desired.
Regardless of the time and place of nursing, Shelly says a crying baby is a bigger distraction than a baby nursing.
"We often celebrate the fact that a baby who is breast-feeding is not crying," Shelly says. "More attention is drawn to the crying baby than to a baby contently nursing at the breast."
Editor's Note: This story was changed to reflect that WTOP has not confirmed that the commenters on the Eagle Web story were students in Pine's class.
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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)