Dr. Jennifer Anderson of Brookings, S.D., is on a mission to open the minds of breastfeeding critics and create breastfeeding-friendly cities across the nation.
Anderson’s quest began with the premature birth of her son, Winter, in 2014 when she faced the challenge of successfully breastfeeding an infant in the neonatal intensive-care unit. Anderson succeeded, but the challenges didn’t stop there.
“There are many efforts aimed at improving breastfeeding initiation in the hospital, but for many women, the true challenge comes when maternity leave is over and mothers return to work and are active in their communities,” says Anderson, an assistant professor in South Dakota State University’s Department of Communication Studies & Theatre. “At that point, women sometimes don’t have the time, space, privacy and protections they need to pump breast milk during work hours. Also, many women don’t feel comfortable or welcomed to breastfeed in public spaces around town.”
Eradicating Barriers to Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding barriers exist in cities across the nation, but to bring about change, Anderson realized she had to start at home. Along with her colleague, Dr. Rebecca Kuehl, she applied for a Community Innovation Grant from the Bush Foundation to develop the framework for creating a breastfeeding-friendly city.
“We formed a team called Brookings Supports Breastfeeding that includes stakeholders from the Brookings Health System, South Dakota State University, the Brookings Area Chamber of Commerce and the Breastfeeding Education and Support Team, or BEST,” Anderson says. “Our team was fortunate to receive a Community Innovation Grant from the Bush Foundation for $73,721. The funding allowed us to use a community-based approach to developing unique, sustainable solutions for making Brookings a breastfeeding-friendly city.”
The team found that although many local businesses said they want to support breastfeeding moms, they admitted they didn’t know how. Team members gathered business representatives and breastfeeding mothers for focus groups to discuss challenges and opportunities. Then, they spoke to several community organizations about how to provide breastfeeding support at work and throughout the community.
“Next, we held a free, community-wide conversation event where interested stakeholders deliberated about the issue, considered approaches and generated potential action steps,” Anderson says. “The next step will be to hold a ‘Next Steps’ meeting where community members will take up the torch and really begin to implement those solutions.”
Creating Breastfeeding-Friendly Cities
What does a breastfeeding-friendly city look like, you might ask?
“First, a breastfeeding-friendly city means having comprehensive support for breastfeeding mothers from the time their baby is born, throughout their season of pumping (or expressing milk) at work, and across all their activities around town,” Anderson explains.
That means workplaces have formal, clearly communicated policies that provide breastfeeding employees with adequate time and space to pump breast milk. Likewise, public spaces such as businesses, parks, churches and event centers clearly designate that public breastfeeding is welcomed and/or that private nursing areas are available. Furthermore, mothers should feel free to breastfeed their babies without discrimination.
“In a breastfeeding-friendly city, I would expect to see many mothers nursing their children in public, and that those mothers would experience either neutral or positive reactions to it,” Anderson says.
While public breastfeeding is normal and accepted in some cities already, Anderson believes Brookings will be the first city to have a comprehensive, workplace-based support system the Brookings Supports Breastfeeding team is advocating.
“Clearly establishing support for public breastfeeding, such as with a sign or window decal, may seem like an unnecessary step for businesses that already support public breastfeeding. But many nursing mothers and community members simply do not know that it’s okay to breastfeed in any public space,” Anderson says. “The key is clear, open communication that responds to the community’s needs while also establishing unequivocal support for breastfeeding mothers at work and in the community.”
Brookings is already getting inquiries from other cities wanting to know how to make their communities breastfeeding-friendly. The Brookings Supports Breastfeeding team hopes Brookings will be a model to provide breastfeeding support nationwide.
“Breastfeeding my premature son was one of the greatest joys of my life,” Anderson says. “We want every woman to have the support she needs to embark on the breastfeeding journey and see it through until she and her baby are ready to stop. And we want to see entire communities to work together to support those efforts.”