Complaints at restaurant lead to lesson on breastfeeding law

2008-12-31T00:00:00Z Complaints at restaurant lead to lesson on breastfeeding lawVINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian missoulian.com
December 31, 2008 12:00 am  • 

Sonnie Atwood had fed herself.

On a lunch date Tuesday with her sister, Missoula singer Eden Atwood, and their children, Sonnie ordered the Fajita Fiesta Pollo Salad at the Red Robin restaurant in Missoula.

The salad was, she says, "fantastic," and their waitress friendly and efficient as she served Sonnie, Eden and their 5-year-old sons River and Ben.

When lunch was over, it was time for Sonnie to feed the fifth person at their table - her 20-day-old son, Canyon.

Atwood, 26, admits that she didn't use the baby's blanket to cover herself as she breastfed Canyon.

"My sister, who's lived here a lot longer than I have, told me, 'It's Missoula, you don't have to worry,' " Atwood says.

Besides, she adds, the table itself - and everything on it - seemed like it would block most people's view.

But the restaurant manager, a woman, soon came to the table and told Atwood to cover herself.

"She said several customers had complained that they were losing their appetites," Atwood says. "I was shocked - I didn't know what to say. I felt humiliated and ashamed."

And, after getting home and hopping on the Internet, a little indignant. Not only do mothers have the right to breastfeed their children in public places in the United States, Atwood discovered, Montana is one of nine states that specifically allow it "irrespective of whether or not the mother's breast is covered during or incidental to the breastfeeding."

"I'm sure it was a sight," Atwood says. "His head is so small compared to the size of my breast, and I can see why people might be squirming. I can understand."

What she doesn't understand is why anyone who felt uncomfortable at the sight of a mother breastfeeding her infant would continue to stare to the point of losing their appetite - nor why the restaurant manager would put the onus on the mother.

Karen Ball, general manager at the Missoula Red Robin, said Wednesday she was "very, very sorry" about the incident.

"We are definitely following up with our staff so that everyone is aware of the law regarding breastfeeding in Montana," said Ball, who was not the manager involved in the incident. "We apologize to anyone who was offended."

"I'm glad it happened now," says Atwood, who moved to Missoula from Chicago a year and a half ago with husband Ethan Siegel to open Organic Sprouts, a day-care center that aims to nurture a care for the planet and a healthy lifestyle in youngsters.

"This is an opportunity to educate people in the restaurant and other businesses to be aware of the law," she explains. "If a customer complains about a mother breastfeeding her child, they need to educate the customer about the law rather than ask the mother to change her behavior. More nursing mothers should know what the law is, too."

Atwood found her Internet research into the subject interesting.

"One state, I don't remember which one, got so detailed that it said nipple exposure was within a breastfeeding mother's rights," she says. "I feel like it's obvious this sort of thing has happened to enough women in this situation that laws had to be developed because of it. We're just feeding our children, but it's legally protected."

The law

Montana Code Annotated: 50-19-501

Nursing mother and infant protection

The Montana Legislature finds that breastfeeding a baby is an important and basic act of nurturing that must be protected in the interests of maternal and child health and family values. A mother has a right to breastfeed the mother's child in any location, public or private, where the mother and child are otherwise authorized to be present, irrespective of whether or not the mother's breast is covered during or incidental to the breastfeeding. The act of breastfeeding may not be considered a nuisance, indecent exposure, sexual conduct or obscenity.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 406-319-2117 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

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