When Beyonce nursed Blue Ivy under a black Donni Charm scarf at a West Village restaurant earlier this year, she was hailed for being a celebrity “lactivist.” Tiombe Bowman, a Harlem mother of two, tried to breastfeed at an uptown park and got disapproving glares and uninvited gawks.
“People don’t say anything verbally, but they do with their expressions,” says Bowman, who left the park and retreated to her car.
These days, she happily heads to a place where a hospital-grade breast pump, soft leather sofa and flat-screen TV welcome her.
The Lactation Lounge on West 127th Street, Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership’s answer to the hostility some breastfeeding mothers face in public spaces, is a sanctuary for women like Bowman who live or work uptown or are just passing through.
The lounge — a breezy, cream-colored room whose walls are decorated with diagrams, tip sheets and photos of nursing women — has a changing table, a refrigerator and water. Once a dusty storeroom stacked with discarded furniture, the lounge opened last May after a $5,000 facelift.
“It’s comfortable, quiet and clean. The environment is perfect for nursing,” says Bowman. She especially likes the room’s no-partition design because this way, “there are no boundaries and everyone is just a mother feeding a child.”
The Lactation Lounge gets at least one mother and baby a day, which demonstrates the low percentage of local women who breastfeed. A few weeks ago, frustrated with the unrewarding results of street marketing, the nonprofit flooded the neighborhood with pamphlets and hit Twitter and Facebook. The lounge is open on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
According to the New York City Department of Health, only 31 percent of babies in New York are breastfed for more than two months.
“And this number is much lower among African Americans and Latinos,” says Program Manager Fajah Ferrer, who attributes that to socio-economic factors and easy access to formula. “It’s just not the norm in our community the way it used to be.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has encouraged the city’s Latch On NYC program, which supports breastfeeding and discourages supplemental formula in maternity departments.
“A lot of women aren’t able to see their breasts as something that could serve the purpose of breastfeeding,” Ferrer says.
In New York, women may legally breastfeed in public, regardless of whether the mother’s nipple is covered. “If I do get stares, I ain’t paying no mind. I’m bonding with my baby,” says Denise Bostick, a Harlem mother of four, nursing her infant named Harlem at the lounge.
But not every mother has the courage to go through a public ordeal. Ferrer, for example, often found herself running to the bathroom with her baby in tow.
“If that’s the only private space you’ve got, that’s where you’re going,” she says. After a few weeks, she gave up. “When you’re a new mom, what you see is what you do, and all I saw was formula.”
Now an impassioned lactivist, Ferrer helps women with problems ranging from sore nipples to isolation. She works with Ekua Ansah-Samuels, a lactation counselor who visits homes to encourage frustrated mothers to continue breastfeeding.
Ansah-Samuels breathlessly recounts the benefits of breastfeeding: It helps build the baby’s immune system and babies are less likely to become obese, get infections or develop chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes. She adds that it helps the mother recover from pregnancy, lowers her risk of ovarian and breast cancer, costs less than formula and helps with post-partum depression. Most important, it helps a mother bond with her baby.
“If we can reach the mothers before a bottle is put in the baby’s mouth, we’re successful,” Ansah-Samuels says. “Often, moms are feeling down because it’s supposed to be natural and easy and they feel like they’re failing. They just need a little encouragement.”
The breaking point for most women, says Ferrer, is when they resume work.
“A six-week maternity leave doesn’t give you an opportunity to continue breastfeeding unless you have a place where you can pump up while you’re at work,” she says. Mothers working at the retail stores on West 125th Street, for example, have to resort to bathrooms because that’s the only space without cameras.
Meanwhile, Ferrer says Con Edison recently asked if some of its employees who work in the field could use the lounge, which is free and open to the public.
Ferrer and Ansah-Samuels hope that someday women will be able access a smartphone app to find the nearest lactation lounge.
“Maybe one day, the attitudes toward breastfeeding will change and people will throw open the empty spaces in their homes to women who need to feed,” says Ferrer. “It could be anything, a small private space, even clean closet space with a light, just as long as it’s not a bathroom.”