Supporting Breastfeeding Moms is Critical to Public Health

Juliana Melo, MD MSCS, FACOG, is an ob-gyn in Sacramento, CA. Dr. Melo is also ACOG District IX, Section 1 Fellow Vice-Chair elect.  Read her guest blog below:

“It’s your choice if you want to hold up the line.”

“You’re delaying other passengers.”

“I don’t care if you miss your flight.”

Those are some of the responses I received from TSA agents about how arduous they were going to make the screening process if I decided to try to transport my breastmilk home with me.

It was the first time that I experienced what countless other women have had to endure—a humiliating, public experience when trying to continue efforts to breastfeed my baby.

Standing in the security line at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, a colleague and I were both harassed by TSA staff for simply attempting to transport our breastmilk home. It didn’t seem to matter that national TSA policy explicitly states that breastmilk in reasonable amounts is allowed in carry-on luggage. It also didn’t matter that we had both traveled through several other airports in the past with more milk than we had in tow that day and never had a problem.

The agents insisted my colleague had to open all of her breastmilk bags to screen for explosives. I was then told my breastmilk would need to be screened in a machine and every single bag would need to be screened individually, even those that had less than 3.4 oz. We were mocked for caring about possible contamination of our breastmilk and pump parts, and when we asked about alternative screening, we were threatened with an extraordinarily long screening process and the possibility of missing our flights. The message: it would be easier to just toss our breast milk. When I tried to bring up the TSA policy, the supervisor rudely told me I was wrong and that he didn’t care how other airports were doing it or if we missed our flights because of the screening delay.

As we observe National Breastfeeding Month, I want to affirm that it is past time for this type of treatment of breastfeeding moms to stop.

I am an ob-gyn, and like you, am committed to improving women’s health. Ironically, this harassment by TSA staff occurred while I was on my way home from a clinical meeting where we discussed ways to empower moms to meet their breastfeeding goals.

We all know breastfeeding has well documented health benefits for both babies and moms. Babies who are breastfed have improved nutrition and decreased risk of infection and illness. Women who breastfeed have lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer and, the longer they stick with it, it also lowers the rate of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. To maximize the benefits of breastfeeding, ACOG recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life with continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced through baby’s first year, or longer as mutually desired by mom and baby.

As a physician, I can encourage moms to initiate and continue breastfeeding until I’m blue in the face, but my counseling is not enough if they leave the hospital and enter a society that doesn’t value their decision to breastfeed or support them in their efforts.

Breastfeeding is already one of the most difficult and labor-intensive commitments—physically, mentally and emotionally—that a woman can make. Even as an ob-gyn, I did not fully grasp how challenging it was until I became a breastfeeding mom myself. If we make breastfeeding women outcasts in public places and force them to continually encounter obstacles when they try to work, travel and carry on with tasks in their daily lives they will feel discouraged, as I did, and may assume their efforts are not worth it—and they are.

We’ve seen slow but continued progress in recent years to enable women to breastfeed in public spaces. In late 2018, a law was enacted that requires large and medium hub airports to provide lactation rooms for public use. Last year, we also saw two Philadelphia moms successfully petitioned Amtrak to provide lactation pods at five of its major train stations. And, just a few weeks ago, the Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act of 2019 was signed into law, requiring certain public buildings to provide lactation rooms for public use. Currently, legislation is pending in Congress that would expand this requirement to small hub airports. 

We have the power to initiate change by bringing awareness to the importance of breastfeeding and signaling to policymakers that protecting breastfeeding mothers is critical to the public health. It’s our responsibility, especially as ob-gyns, to take action to ensure that women are never publicly humiliated or burdened when breastfeeding. We can start by reaching out to our Members of Congress and urging them to make breastfeeding moms a priority. If we persist, we can achieve the society we envision—a society that empowers and supports women in their decision to breastfeed.