BISMARCK — For many new mothers, breastfeeding is a learning experience that is stressful and does not come naturally. Many have anxiety about nursing their children in public, and the North Dakota Legislature is considering a bill that aims to make this aspect of motherhood a little less stressful.
The proposed bill would strike language from the North Dakota Century Code that states a woman may breastfeed her child in any public or private location as long as the woman "acts in a discreet and modest manner."
The legislation would clarify the language to say that a woman may breastfeed her child in any location if they otherwise have permission to be there. As it is currently written, House Bill 1105 includes a potential infraction to any person that "prohibits or attempts to prohibit an individual from breastfeeding her child."
"'Discreet' and 'modest' are subjective adjectives. They reflect an individual's feeling versus fact," said Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, D-Fargo, at a House Judiciary Committee meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 12. Dobervich is the bill's primary sponsor.
She said many people have different definitions of "discreet" and "modest," and this ambiguity adds additional stress to breastfeeding — an already difficult task for many. One woman may be able to breastfeed in a business without any questions, but if she were to breastfeed in exactly the same manner in a different business, there might be objections based on personal feelings, Dobervich said.
"I'm hoping to remove any barriers to babies being fed when babies need to eat," Dobervich said.
An identical version of this bill failed to pass the North Dakota House in 2019 in a 61-32 vote. Dobervich, who was the primary sponsor for the 2019 bill, said she is more hopeful this time because there is an amendment available if the House Judiciary Committee decides it does not want to implement an infraction.
With many mothers returning to work weeks after they give birth, there is a lot of anxiety about taking their babies out in public just in case they become hungry, said Willow Hall, a North Dakota lactation professional. Hall said she has heard from dozens of mothers who have anxiety about being unsure where to nurse in public.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their children for the first six months and then wean them onto a combination of breastfeeding and other foods. Children who are breastfed have a lower risk of developing asthma, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and obesity, among other conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
All states have laws that allow women to breastfeed in public spaces, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and 31 have exempted breastfeeding from public indecency laws, though North Dakota's does so on the basis a mother does so in a "discreet" and "modest" manner.
Opponents to the bill also testified on Tuesday, stating they could not support a potential penalty or infraction for someone who tries to prohibit a mother from breastfeeding.
Businesses and churches should have the right to implement certain dress requirements, said Sara Woods, a business owner and mother of three children, at Tuesday's hearing.
"I am opposed to changing the current wording, which incites no penalties while also protecting the rights of breastfeeding mothers, to wording that could impose unnecessary infractions and penalties upon another group of citizens for standing up for their convictions," Woods said in her written testimony.
Tracy Simons, another mother who has 11 children and said she breastfed all of them, said she believes breastfeeding is more widely acceptable in comparison to years past and pointed out that there are many blankets and coverings women can use to cover themselves and the baby when nursing.
In 2018, a woman was asked to leave a Fargo restaurant for not covering up while breastfeeding her child, which induced a passionate reaction from social media and an apology by the restaurant's owner.
Dobervich and Hall said feeding babies is not indecent, and feeding a child should not be faced with barriers based on another person's feelings.
"Nursing a baby is just not indecent, and I think the sooner we remove 'breastfeeding' and 'indecent' from the same conversation, the better," Hall said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.