The breastfeeding woman and her child are not blinking, for they are made of cardboard, but a local nonprofit hopes their mere presence will make life easier for real, blinking mothers and babies to nurse publicly in Northwest Montana without reservation.
The life-sized cutouts are property of the Flathead Valley Breastfeeding Coalition, a nonprofit founded in 2011 that lists among its most critical missions normalizing public nursing and breastfeeding in general. The group hosted its ninth annual Kids Fair on Aug. 1 in the North Valley Hospital parking lot in Whitefish, and the event was littered with things like “boobie cupcakes” and “Yay Boobies!” T-shirts, all not-so-subtly intended to make a woman breastfeeding her child as ordinary as a family picnicking in the park.
For years, the coalition contends, some mothers have been reticent to feed their babies in public, and some public places and businesses have been slow to offer accommodations. That has contributed to a sharp decline in the number of women who breastfeed in the weeks and months after a baby is born. It’s a trend that coalition members like Sandra Beale, a nurse, educator and internationally board certified lactation consultant, are volunteering their time to help change.
“One of the biggest challenges for women to continue breastfeeding is the lifestyle; being out in public, going back to work and, kind of, the public shaming and not having adequate support,” she said. “There have been horror stories.”
Alas, the cardboard cutouts did not make it to this year’s kids fair (they were shelved in fear of high winds), but they will make their next appearance at Kalispell’s Bias Brewing on Sept. 16 for a fundraiser titled, predictably, Beer for Boobies. They have taken up residence previously at Wild Coffee in Whitefish and the Flathead County Health Department, among other places, and their existence is part of a wider effort sponsored by the Montana State Breastfeeding Coalition.
Some progress toward normalization, the coalition’s members say, has already been made. One such effort is the Mother-Friendly Worksite designation that businesses can apply for, earning a sticker on their window if they qualify. Certified Mother-Friendly offices and shops “support customers and clients (who) breastfeed in your establishment.”
Part of the reason the coalition so passionately pushes for the acceptance of nursing is because its members believe fiercely in the importance of breastfeeding for mothers and their children, a conviction backed up by the broader medical community. The World Health Organization says babies who breastfeed “achieve optimal growth, development and health,” and the WHO has launched a global campaign to increase the number of exclusively breastfed babies during the first six months of life to 50 percent by 2025, a 9 percent increase over the current worldwide rate. The Flathead Valley coalition, for its part, distributes a handout with 20 bulleted breastfeeding benefits, including nutritional, medical, emotional and financial ones.
“The list is pretty endless and continues throughout your entire life,” Kimberly DeVries, a nurse and certified lactation counselor who works with the coalition, said. “It’s why I feel like it’s so huge for public health, because when you breastfeed your baby you’re going to see long-term benefits throughout adulthood.”
In addition to promoting the health benefits of breast milk, the coalition also offers resources for those mothers and babies who are struggling to feed. They support groups called Baby Bistro three times a week, all led by women specializing in lactation and free to attend, and the coalition’s members say they want to be a part of a nursing mother’s support system. Coalition members include nurses, doulas, lactation specialists, speech and occupational therapists, and the group lists both Kalispell Regional Medical Center and North Valley Hospital, along with The Nurturing Center, Flathead City-County Health Department and Montana WIC (Women, Infants and Children), as some of its partners.
“Everybody here is part of the community,” Beale said. “(We’re) here to network and spread those resources so that families know all these places they can go for help.”
Weekly Baby Bistros are held Mondays from noon to 2 p.m. at the North Valley Hospital Professional Office Building, Thursdays from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at the Kalispell Regional Medical Center Mother-Baby Clinic, and Fridays from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at Nature Baby Outfitter in Kalispell.