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Medford mom asked to stop breastfeeding at YMCA

Posted by Your Town  July 29, 2010 07:43 PM

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The Greater Boston YMCA will train its 1,500 employees in Eastern Massachusetts on the state's breast feeding law, after a worker at its Woburn facility told a mother to stop breast feeding her child because it violated the Y's policy against eating in a child care facility.

Elizabeth Gomez , a mother of three from Medford, said she was told by a Y employee to leave the baby-sitting area of the North Suburban YMCA after starting to breast-feed her three-month old son earlier this week.

"She said there is no eating or drinking within the (babysitting) area," Gomez, 36, said in an interview Thursday. "She told me I had to go out into the hallway . . . I said 'I have a lawful right to be here."

A YMCA spokeswoman said the part-time employee, who was not identified, has been disciplined.

"The employee misinterpreted this as a public health issue," said Kelley Rice, vice president of the Greater Boston YMCA. "It is not . . . We support a woman's right to breast-feed in our facilities."

A state law protects mothers who breast-feed in public. It states that a mother, "may breastfeed her child in any public place which is open to . . . the general public," and where the mother and child are lawfully present.

A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition, which pushed for passage of the state law, said the Y incident is an example of how employers don't understand the state law, which has been on the books since April, 2009.

"Breastfeeding is not the same as opening up a lunch box with apples, bananas, and crumbs that are going to fall onto the floor," said Marsha Walker, a board member of the nonprofit coalition based in Weston. "Breastfeeding is nutrition, but it's a little different because a mother has to provide it."

Violations may be made in the form of a civil complaint to the state Attorney General's office. Violators can be fined $500, according to the law.

Gomez said she does not plan to file a complaint. Instead, she'd rather the Y train its employees. "It really is important for people to know and understand this law," she said.

The Medford mother said she went to the Woburn Y to exercise for about an hour Tuesday morning. She left her three children, ages, 5, 2 and 3 months, in the baby-sitting area known as Child Watch. After exercising, she changed into a nursing top before returning to her hungry newborn. "He needed to eat," she said. "I knew I wasn't doing anything wrong."

One employee, she said, raised concern about her breast being exposed in front of children. But the Y's main beef was violating the food policy, she said.

"I felt it was much more about the food and drink policy," said Gomez. "I was shocked."

Rice said Thursday that the Y already has started to train managers at its locations, including nine in Boston, and suburban sites in Needham, Reading and Waltham and Woburn. Training includes a review of the law, and sensitivity training. Those lessons will be passed on to all full and part-time members, she said.

The Y's written policies will be amended to clearly state that mothers are allowed to breast-feed in Y facilities, she said. The Y also hopes to have an expert on the law attend executive workshops, attended by executive directors and membership managers, to suggest ways the Y can improve accommodations for women who breast-feed, Rice said.

"We'd like to see this awareness expand to Y's across the state," she said.

Walker, of the Massachusetts Breast-feeding Coalition, said the Y is headed in the right direction. " Employee training on breast-feeding is all to the good for everyone," said Walker, who is also a registered nurse. "It is good for the Moms, good for the babies, and good for the business."

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com

For more coverage of Medford, go to boston.com/medford.

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