Odds Stacked Against Breast-Feeding Moms

MTYaroshevich, right, with daughter Emma in 2006, said it is difficult to find public places to feed or change children.
Teresa Yaroshevich was breast-feeding her baby in a city cafe when the manager politely asked her to move to another dining room upstairs. It was around noon and the establishment was expecting its daily rush of workers from nearby offices.

"She was nice," Yaroshevich said. "She just was not sure the clerks would want to have lunch in the company of a women breast-feeding."

For the capital of a country so concerned about what has been labeled a demographic crisis, Moscow is desperately short of baby-friendly public facilities and infrastructure.

Attitudes toward children in public add to the problems, and those concerning breast-feeding are no exception.

The lack of places for mothers to nurse children, the misgivings on the part of restaurant managers and surprised and disapproving looks from others make it difficult for women away from the home to provide infants with what they need.

"When you are out with your baby in Moscow, you have no idea where to feed or change it," Yaroshevich said. "I don't think I should leave it with nannies all the time."

Unfortunately, with the city birthrate on the rise — the city's Health Department reported 101,344 babies born in Moscow in 2007, compared with 67,000 in 2001 — there hasn't been a significant increase in public facilities to address parenting needs from what was available in Soviet times.

City officials, meanwhile, shift the blame elsewhere.

"It is the administrations of the shopping centers, cafes, and so on who decide whether there is a need for infant-care facilities," said a spokeswoman for Moscow Consumer Market and Services Department.

Attitudes toward breast-feeding in public definitely make it difficult for mothers with small children to get around, often leading mothers to stop breast-feeding earlier, said Natalia Konyayeva, head of the Young Mothers League, a nongovernmental organization.

"We regularly receive calls from distressed mothers who have been told that they can't breast-feed in restaurants or shops, or even in clinics," Konyayeva said. "It leaves them embarrassed and angry."

Health specialists stress a number of positives associated with breast-feeding, saying breast milk helps infants' immune systems develop more quickly and thoroughly, resulting in lower infection rates and greater resistance to a wide variety of illnesses. They say breast-feeding also reduces the incidence and severity of colic and constipation in infants.

Ultimately, something will have to give. The days when it was unfashionable to take babies out in public — when leaving them at home with a grandmother was the norm for young couples — are fading fast. The steady influx of people from outside the capital means that more and more people have no grandmother to provide the service.

Sheer lack of an alternative may ultimately have an effect on general attitudes and official handling of the issue of breast-feeding in public.

Britain, for example, introduced anti-discrimination legislation mandating that mothers be allowed to breast-feed babies wherever they like. Under the law, restaurants, stores and other public establishments preventing women from breast-feeding would face fines of up to ?2,500, or $5,000.

An incident last year in London, in which an exhibit attendant at the National Gallery told a woman to either stop feeding her 11-month-old daughter or to take her to the museum's mother-and-baby room, focused attention on the issue in Britain.

Similar incidents in the United States at shopping malls, restaurants and other public places over the last two decades have prompted many states to prohibit bans on public breast-feeding.

There are also countries, including Italy, Israel and many in Africa where legislation has never become an issue because there is no cultural bias against the practice.

It would appear to be an issue in Moscow.

A highly random and even more unscientific survey of employee attitudes at Independent Media, which publishes The Moscow Times, provided insight into how Muscovites feel about the issue. Of the respondents, who were divided almost evenly between men and women, about 80 percent said they did not think that breast-feeding should be done in public unless in an emergency, and then only discreetly.

This is the same traditional Russian approach that led to the creation of special "mother and child" rooms in Soviet times that are still found in airports, railway stations and some metro stations.

Outside of the transport milieu, however, things are tougher.

Finding herself in the city center with a screaming baby and no plans to travel by plane or train, Charlotte Baring said she had no other option than to feed her infant son on the nearest park bench.

"I was terrified I would get shouted at by a babushka for subjecting my baby to the germs of a public place," said Baring, an interior designer from Britain. "Nobody actually said anything to me, but I definitely got a few stares and funny looks."

She said she was not sure whether the reactions were negative or just the result of surprise.

Some Russians who might not otherwise mind say they find breast-feeding irritating because of what they described as a sort of "conspicuous maternity" in fashion among moneyed Muscovites today, psychologist Andrew Dugin said.

"I saw a woman who was popping out her breast every time her son, already grown and about 2 years old, began to whimper. I think it's kind of calculated to bother people," Lilia Lagutova, who said she would never breast-feed her 1-year-old daughter in public.

Lagutova said the lack of suitable nursing and changing places in public meant that she spent most of her time with her daughter at home.

Teresa Yaroshevich says she's not interested in trying to change people's attitudes or trying to stir people up by breast-feeding. She just thinks there is a lack of places to take a hungry infant to be fed.

"I can nurse just about anywhere, but Moscow is simply too dirty," Yaroshevich said. With the exception of IKEA and Ogo-Gorod, there are no good places for mothers with infants."

Native Muscovites can be pretty inventive when it comes to finding the right places to feed a child, with fitting rooms in clothing stores being a popular option.

"Expensive stores are better — there are not so many customers attacking the fitting rooms there," said Alina Farkash, who says she became an expert on the subject in the process of trying to find places to feed her son. She said saleswomen are usually pretty tolerant, especially if the mother shows some interest in the clothing for sale.

The workplace represents a more difficult challenge. Already undesirable hires for many businesses because they have children, mothers who want to breast-feed have to face the simple fact that designating a special spot in the workplace where women can take children is the last thing on employers' minds.

Elena Leo, a designer with Independent Media, said she only became aware of the issue when a female colleague rebuked her for spraying pesticide on plants in the employees' washroom, thus "spraying poison around" in the room where she breast-fed her child. When Leo asked her why she had to feed the baby in such an unsuitable place, the co-worker said there was no other option.

And while Russians tend to be less conservative with regard to body exposure than people in other societies, even most Russian women would be taken aback to find a woman at the opposite desk breast-feeding.

Whether or not those attitudes will — or even should — change does not seem the question so much as how to provide women with more places to breast-feed when away from home. Leo thinks some kind of push might be needed.

"It is up to a company, of course, to decide whether there should be a special room for the needs of breast-feeding mothers," Leo said. "But if there was a law, then they would do something about it."