KOKOMO -- Kayla Britton was in full-time mother mode at Kokomo Beach July 12. She was treating her children to a fun-filled day at the water park. She was walking with her toddler along a wading area, ankle deep in the water, to the kiddie pool, breastfeeding her youngest son.

A lifeguard told her she wasn’t allowed to breastfeed there and to go to the locker room.

“I was surprised, so I took a moment and then said, ‘Um, no.’ And I walked away.” She said. “We had a great day, we all really did.” Until the issue hit social media.

Exposed in public

According to the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH), breastfeeding is one of the best things a mother can do to give a baby the healthiest start in life.

“The state of Indiana supports your decision to breastfeed! Indiana Code 16-35-6 allows a woman to breastfeed her child anywhere the law allows her to be,” according to the ISDH website.

Britton is a mother of four, her oldest is 9, and her youngest is 3 months old. She knew her breastfeeding rights when she was asked to go into the locker room.

After taking to Facebook to share her experience and posting a photo of herself breastfeeding, the story gained traction and was picked up by news outlets locally and nationally. With the coverage came criticism and confusion, and some things Britton called inaccurate.

“It was said I was fully exposed, but I was never more exposed than the photo I posted showed,” she said. “And it was said that I was in the water, but in reality I was just walking through with my daughter.”

Britton said she wants to know the problem is taken care of in the form of an apology and staff education.

“I want [Kokomo Beach] and other businesses to make sure their staff are educated to avoid things like this in the future,” she said. “I’m just a mom, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just feeding my baby.”

Comments on Britton’s Facebook post spanned messages of support, “You go momma!” and compliments from parents and professionals alike, to insults riddled with vulgarities.

MommaJuse, a mother support organization based in Kokomo with services ranging from support groups, to lactation counseling to exercise classes, took the situation to task. The group organized a “Nurse In,” a protest of a public nursing incident in which protesters nurse their children, at Kokomo Beach on July 15. The group also wrote Torrey Roe, Kokomo Parks Department superintendent, a letter.

MommaJuse founder Manny Wagaman, a certified lactation counselor (CLC), wrote in the letter that while mothers in the community agreed their experiences at Kokomo Beach were good ones, the situation was concerning.

“Torrey Roe responded promptly with a phone call to MommaJuse assuring us that the issues were taken care of and breastfeeding mothers would not have issues there from employees in the future,” a post on the MommaJuse Facebook page said. “Summarizing his words, he claimed that [the lifeguard] had no right to be the breastfeeding police.”

The ways in which a mother breastfeeds in public vary by the woman’s comfort level. Wagaman said some mothers like to sit in quiet when they nurse, some don’t mind walking the aisles of a grocery store with their baby on the breast.

Wal-Mart just joined the ranks of many businesses that offer a room for nursing mothers to feed their baby, which Wagaman said is a great step.

“It’s necessary for moms to have safe places to breastfeed, and it’s important that moms feel like they don’t have to use the rooms,” she said. “We need our mothers to feel connected to the community.”

Growing that community connection is important, and there is a push to strengthen that bond during August. August is National Breastfeeding Month and Aug. 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week. The Global Big Latch On is a worldwide public breastfeeding event held Aug. 2-4.

There will be a local Big Latch On event held from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Aug. 3, hosted by MommaJuse and the Downtown Kokomo Farmers' Market. The event will feature baby-related businesses and create an opportunity for mothers to mingle.

Benefits of the breast

Wagaman founded MommaJuse after the loss of her baby about a year and a half ago. She has three surviving children and feels passionately about breastfeeding and moms supporting moms. The group is for all mothers, not just those nursing.

One thing MommaJuse offers is lactation counseling. Wagaman is already a CLC, and she’s working on getting her master’s degree, and then will qualify to sit for the exam to become an international board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC).

Breastfeeding benefits both the mother and baby, according to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Breastfeeding Support page. It can lower a baby’s risk of ear infections, asthma, lower respiratory infections, childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and more.

Breastfeeding mothers may also recover more quickly from childbirth, and can reduce the risk for certain breast and ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes, according to WIC.

Breastmilk changes to meet a baby’s needs as they age, is rich in vitamins, minerals and nutrients, and is easy to digest. Colostrum, the thick, yellow milk mothers make during pregnancy and immediately after birth, is sometimes called “liquid gold” because it is jam-packed with nutrients, antibodies, and helps the baby’s digestive system grow.

Shakti Scircle, a mother of two, is breastfeeding her 6-week-old son. She said the benefits of breast milk cannot be overstated.

“It’s hands-down the best thing for your baby,” she said. “I think formula companies make everything seem great, like it’s just as good, but people don’t realize what the body does for the baby.

"If my son needs more water or more vitamins, my body reacts to that and provides it. My body responds to my baby’s needs. I’m a custom nutrient machine,” she said.

Tongue-tied

Despite the benefits, nursing a baby isn’t without challenges. There may be problems with latching, nipple sensitivity, milk production, pumping and more. 

One growing topic is tongue-tie, or ankyloglossia, a condition in which the thin flap of skin under the tongue that attaches to the bottom of the mouth is short, limiting range of motion of the tongue. This can make latching difficult for the baby and painful for the mother. Latching is the way a baby takes the nipple and areola into its mouth to suckle milk.

Tongue-tie is treated with a frenotomy, surgery that clips the skin in question, and has been on the rise. A study published by the National Institutes of Health found frenotomies nationally climbed from approximately 1,200 in 1997 to more than 12,400 in 2012.

Wagaman said it has become popular with moms, that at the first sound of another mom having discomfort or challenges, to suggest it is tongue-tie. Education in both mothers and medical caregivers may be a better solution than jumping to a diagnosis of tongue-tie and undergoing the frenotomy procedure.

Molly LeClerc is a mother of seven, and has breastfed six of her children. She told a story about a friend who was struggling with nursing her baby while in the hospital, and how support from close family and friends can help a mother stick to nursing.

“She was really struggling and she went home, and two people around her went out and bought her formula,” she said. “Maybe there was an issue with tongue-tie, maybe there was another issue with latching or sensitivity. People around you and their support can make or break your success rate. I want everyone to make sure their support system knows how much they want to do this, because now she looks back at that with regrets.”

As Wagaman pursues her master’s, her research is focused on increasing the father’s or partner’s education on breastfeeding. She said the significant other has a bigger influence on breastfeeding success than anyone else outside of the mother.

Mackenzie Burke, a mother of two, said nipple confusion caused her to stop breastfeeding her now 3-year-old son too early. Nipple confusion is when a breastfeeding baby is having trouble latching and breastfeeding successfully after being fed with a bottle.

Her son was losing weight, having reflux issues and vomiting. Her practitioner told her to supplement with formula, but she wasn’t aware that a bottle would be an easier exercise for her son.

“Until babies are about 3 to 6 weeks old, they have to work harder to take from the breast than the bottle. It’s actually like exercise, which is why they usually sleep after nursing.

"If you give them the bottle too early, the baby basically becomes lazy and will prefer the bottle.”

Burke said education on her practitioner’s part would have prevented the need for formula supplementation.

“I’m still convinced something else was wrong,” she said. “He was losing weight, had terrible reflux, and threw up before he ate. I came in with a blanket that was covered in vomit to show her and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on but something is wrong.’ She didn’t even look at it, it was like the doctor didn’t even want to investigate.”

Does doc know best?

One reason why mothers may stop breastfeeding is because doctors aren’t required to get training or education in breastfeeding, Wagaman said. Doctors are taught about formula feeding, but still only basics.

“They understand how many ounces a baby should take, and all of the normal behavior for a bottle-fed or formula-fed baby,” she said “Unless a doctor goes out of their way to attend trainings or get certifications, and I don’t know any locally that have, then they do not get very much information.”

When Burke was a student at Indiana University Kokomo, she was working on a debate on medical education regarding breastfeeding. Her research involved speaking with the American Academy of Pediatrics, and she learned doctors are not required to seek an ongoing education regarding breastfeeding.

When LeClerc had her first child 26 years ago, she didn’t know anyone who ever breastfed. Breastfeeding didn’t seem like something people did.

“I was in the hospital and the nurse was looking at me and said, ‘You aren’t going to breastfeed are you?’ I said no, and they gave me a pill to dry up the milk,” she said. “They don’t use that pill anymore, but that was all anyone ever said to me about breastfeeding.”

Wagaman is one of a few CLCs in Kokomo, said she hopes to partner with more pediatricians in the future to build education. She offers in-service education to businesses and medical professionals who are interested.

“I hope to someday work more together in this community with lactation. I feel like [lactation specialists] are moving in that direction. It's not a competition. We all have one goal, to help breastfeeding mothers breastfeed,” she said.  

Erasing shame

Even as opinions vary among the mothers, they all want to support other moms, whether or not they breastfeed.

“There’s nothing wrong with formula-fed babies, two of mine had formula and they grew up healthy and brilliant,” LeClerc said. “I just want those moms who really want to breastfeed to reach out for anything they need, we can’t deny the benefits of breastmilk.”

LeClerc even breastfed her now 6-year-old daughter until she was about 4-and-a-half years old.

“It was usually when she was scared, sad, frightened or got hurt, she’d come up to me and whisper, because I think she was a little anxious, ‘Mom, can I nurse?’ And we’d do our thing,” she said.

However, she didn’t face many dissenting opinions. She said most people knew better than to challenge LeClerc on nursing her children.

The members of MommaJuse said they want to cut the stigma surrounding breastfeeding, whether that means nursing an older child, pumping at work, or feeding at a water park. Burke said if someone is offended by her breastfeeding, she’d like them to look away.

“We live on a circular planet, there are literally 359 other degrees a person can look, so if they have a problem, they can pivot their line of sight anywhere else,” she said. “I don’t care if you don’t like it. I don’t care if you’re offended. I’m feeding my child.”