To the Editor:
We need to calm the hysteria about breastfeeding a sick child in class. Recently several news outlets reported that an American University assistant professor of anthology, Adrienne Pine, breastfed her mildly feverish child in class. Several people (including American University administrators) suggested that Ms. Pine's bringing her child to class was a "public health risk for the campus community."
The facts is that working mothers who breastfeed have few options when their children have minor sicknesses. Almost no day-care provider has a sick room to take care of sick children, so day care is not an option—not even when the child has only a mild temperature caused by teething or a minor common cold. Children have minor sicknesses or slight fevers very often, and most working mothers cannot cancel work every time this occurs.
The other important fact to keep in mind is that all people carry germs. It is probably less risky to go to the classroom with a mildly feverish child who is separated from the rest of class than it is to sit on an the airplane, ride the subway, walk down the street, go to the hospital, or attend a meeting of university administrators in a closed room.
The concern here should be to support a hard-working mother who has no viable alternative than to take care of her child and continue her work. Several recent news stories have pointed out the dilemma faced by working women with regards to lacking back-up emergency child care and not receiving full support to take leave to take care of their children.
We need our universities to be woman-friendly and mother-friendly. We need our universities not to use "public health" arguments in unrealistic ways that shame working mothers without other options. It is the job of universities to teach students that bringing a baby to class and of necessity breastfeeding the baby to keep the baby comfortable and healthy is entirely natural. Finally, universities need policies to support working mothers who do not have back-up options to care for their children and continue their work.
Seth M. Holmes, M.D.
School of Public Health
University of California