Lilo H. Stainton, NJ Spotlight

The goal is to extend current law, to cover women who work for small businesses or who are nursing babies older than one year

State and federal laws give New Jersey mothers the right to nurse infants in public and at most jobs, and breastfeeding rates here have risen steadily in recent years. But these protections don’t extend to moms who work for small businesses or those who want to nurse toddlers.

A handful of Democratic lawmakers are seeking to change that with a proposal that would extend civil rights protections to breastfeeding mothers in the Garden State. The measure is scheduled for a vote in the Assembly labor committee on Thursday.

All states — except Idaho — plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico legally permit mothers to breastfeed in any public or private location, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Jersey’s law, approved in 1997, protects a woman’s right to nurse in any public place, including resorts or amusement parks.

The federal Affordable Care Act, enacted in 2014, requires insurance plans to cover breastfeeding counseling and supplies. And, in recent years, New Jersey hospitals have adapted their practices to encourage new mothers to nurse.

The legal protections and growing education campaign — breastfeeding was a priority for former New Jersey Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd — have clearly paid off.

In 2010, 72 percent of Garden State mothers had nursed their babies at some point; by 2016, this had jumped to 82 percent, according to the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s biannual Breastfeeding Report Card. New Jersey was one of 29 states to already have reached one of two breastfeeding targets for 2020 set by federal regulators.

“We’re doing well, but we could be doing better,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who is leading the effort to expand breastfeeding protections. Sometimes nursing mothers “still feel unique, and it shouldn’t be that way,” she said.
In addition to wanting to continue to drive up nursing rates, which vary significantly between counties and among different ethnic groups in New Jersey, Vainieri Huttle wants to make sure all mothers are fully protected. The current law doesn’t extend to women nursing toddlers over 12 months or to those working for small businesses with less than 50 workers, she said.

While the CDC findings show the vast majority of New Jersey mothers now give nursing a try, not enough are sustaining the practice. The federal breastfeeding goals for 2020 also seek to have more than 60 percent of women still breastfeeding their children at six months; in the Garden State, the rate was closer to 53 percent, according to the latest Report Card.

Vainieri Huttle’s bill (A2294), co-sponsored by Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak, (D-Cape May), seeks to amend an anti-discrimination statute dating to 1945 to include breastfeeding among a number of categories —race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and more — that must be treated equally. The measure would protect nursing mothers from discrimination in getting a job, while at work, in securing housing, joining a club, accessing a loan or mortgage, or doing other business.

The proposal would also spell out workplace protections for breastfeeding moms, requiring employers to give them time and a private place — other than a bathroom stall — to feed their babies or pump their milk. (It does not expressly permit women to bring children to work for this purpose.) Similar legislation was introduced during the last legislative session, but failed to advance. A Senate version – sponsored by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) in the past – still awaits a vote. The measure has support from public health advocates and the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Breastfeeding builds a baby’s immunity, reduces the likelihood of obesity and assists in development, and many experts believe these advantages continue if a child is nursed for several years. It was standard practice for centuries in cultures around the world, but fell out of favor in western societies during the mid-1900s, as women’s schedules shifted to include work outside the home and corporations promoted “modern” alternatives, like manufactured infant formula.

The trend has started to turn back to breastfeeding in recent decades, thanks to a growing awareness of the benefits it provides and increasing protections for nursing moms.

While its popularity is growing nationwide, the latest CDC report shows New Jersey is among the states where breastfeeding rates are particularly robust. In this region, Connecticut reported more than 85 percent of mothers had breastfed at some point and more than 55 percent were nursing their baby at six months. New York’s figures resembled those in the Garden State: 82 percent had breastfed and nearly 56 percent sustained this pattern through six months. (New Jersey’s numbers were 82 and less than 53, respectively.)

But in Pennsylvania, just over 73 percent of mothers had nursed at some point and less than 48 percent did so at six months. In Delaware, less than 75 percent had nursed their baby and just over 40 percent kept it up for six months.