A Plan to Take the Stigma Out of Breastfeeding

With the help of a first-place award from a national public policy contest, a team of graduate students plans to increase breastfeeding rates in New York City.
by , | March 24, 2014 AT 3:30 PM
A Latch logo displays on the door of Dumpling Kingdom in New York City's Greenwich Village neighborhood.
A Latch logo displays on the door of Dumpling Kingdom in New York City's Greenwich Village neighborhood. Ran Qin

A New York City mother—let’s call her Jen—sits down at a coffee shop to rest her heels and breastfeed a tired and cranky infant. Before she can start, an employee tells her she can’t, that it makes other patrons uncomfortable. A slightly more tolerant café nearby tells her she’s free to do so— but only down the hall, in the bathroom.

A group of public policy students at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service describe the problem with this situation as two-fold: one legal, the other cultural. The simple fact is that Jen can legally breastfeed wherever she wants. Under state law, "a mother may breast feed her baby in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether or not the nipple of the mother’s breast is covered during or incidental to the breast feeding." But she may not know she has that right.

Even if she were aware of that fact, the statistics show she'd still be unlikely to assert her rights because of the stigma attached to public breastfeeding in the United States. That’s the problem a cohort of NYU students wants to address with the help of a $10,000 award for winning the 3rd annual Public Policy Challenge National Invitational, hosted by the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

The NYU team was competing againsts teams from nine other graduate schools of public policy or administration pitching plans over the weekend to tackle problems as varied as drought in California or malnutrition in northeast Georgia. The winning team receives $10,000; other finalists take home $5,000 each. A group of judges representing government and journalism graded the proposals on how well the students explained a problem and how well each plan would address it. Governing sponsors the event and provides some of those graders, including writers, editors and former Public Officials of the Year. (Both authors of this blog post served as judges.)

Last year’s winner targeted preventable re-hospitalization of psychiatric patients by creating a platform to remind people about their follow-up appointments through text messages, phone calls and email. That idea, from the University of Pennsylvania, is scheduled to go live this year. Another team from NYU Wagner won in 2012 with a plan to curb truancy through an app that provides attendance information in the city’s schools to educators, guardians, youth programs and other subscribers in hopes of increasing communication and pooling data to design interventions.  With the help of other grant support, the program, Kinvolved, is now up and running.

This year’s winner, Latch, is a campaign aimed at boosting the rate of breastfeeding in New York City through grassroots activism and digital media. Some 90 percent of New York City mothers breastfeed when they leave the hospital, but only 31 percent of them still do so after eight weeks, according to state health authorities. Yet breastfeeding comes with documented health benefits for both mother and child: lowered risk of ear infection and lower respiratory disease for babies and for mothers, in addition to reduced risks of postpartum depression and common types of cancer for mothers.

Latch’s approach relies on volunteers asking restaurants, coffee shops, public libraries, salons, laundromats, and other businesses to post the group’s decal, indicating to mothers not only that the place is tolerant but the level of privacy offered as well. The businesses or public institutions will be rated on three levels, depending on the availability of private space and electrical outlets for operating breast pumps. The group plans to start in three New York neighborhoods with high concentrations of children and spread awareness through social media and digital advertising, all in hopes of changing the stigma around public breastfeeding.    

“We really want to erode that stigma one establishment at a time,” said Ruchi Hazaray, a member of the Wagner School team. “Breast feeding has been a private issue for so long, and we want to make it a public issue, because it is for so many reasons.”

The Latch team already won an intra-school challenge of 10 teams before reaching Fels. It now has a twitter account (@latchnow) and logos in place in eight businesses. It’s that potential to make an immediate impact without the need for participation of government agencies or other nonprofits that won over Molly Viscardi, a judge for this year’s contest who was also a member of last year’s winning team.

"I was impressed by the feasibility of it. You saw how the prize money could actually translate into something happening,” she said. “I liked the idea of not just using technology, but also grassroots volunteers."