By Matthew Young, RealWV
LEWISBURG, W.Va. – “Our breastfeeding rates are some of the lowest in the country. If moms can be better prepared and supported, that positively impacts long-term health.”
That’s what Molly McMillion, director of the West Virginia Breastfeeding Institute, told RealWV last week. For the second consecutive year, the Breastfeeding Institute will be operating a safe and private facility for breastfeeding mothers to nurse their children at the State Fair of West Virginia.
“Last year, we were asked to redo the fair’s nursing-mother station,” McMillion said. “When they started having a nursing area available at the fair, it was just in with the first-aid, and it wasn’t used very much. But then Kelly Collins (State Fair CEO) reached out and said, ‘You know, I think we need to make this a separate thing.’”
McMillion said she was excited to take on the project, explaining that the fair supplied a 10’ x 20’ shed to serve as the new nursing-mother station – lovingly referred to as the “She Shed.”
“It looked like a little red barn, which was appropriate since we were down near the barn,” McMillion said. “Kelly kind of created a monster – I went a little over the top, outfitting it, and making it a nice space.”
McMillion noted that Gillespie’s Flowers of White Sulphur Springs provided floral arrangements with which to decorate the station.
“It was a comfortable space,” McMillion added. “It was cool because it was air-conditioned, and people were absolutely thrilled. So many moms used it, even on the slower days of the fair.”
According to McMillion, the station’s popularity was such that, at several points during fair week, nursing mothers were lined up awaiting their chance to make use of it. On the slower days, McMillion added, in the neighborhood of 15 nursing-mothers would use the station. On busier days, the shed would serve up to three times as many mothers.
“So this year we’re doing two stations,” McMillion said. “The whole point of this is to provide the space. Some moms are okay with nursing in public, but a lot are not. Plus, we know the fair is hot and crowded, so being able to get them (nursing mothers) into a more comfortable, quieter spot is nice.”
“But it also sheds a light and helps us promote breastfeeding in general,” McMillion noted, adding that August is National Breastfeeding month.
The Breastfeeding Institute’s participation in the State Fair is but one way in which McMillion’s team strives to promote the concept of the “Breastfeeding Friendly Community.” Another way is the normalization of “breastfeeding-friendly employers.”
“One of the reasons that our breastfeeding rates are lower in West Virginia is that so many of our moms go back to work,” McMillion said. “It’s a little known fact that there’s actually a federal law that mandates that employers give nursing mothers time and a place to pump when they’re at work that isn’t a bathroom.”
“Women have not known what protections that they had – that they can go back to work and their boss is supposed to provide that space,” McMillion added. “But it’s not new. This (law) has been around since 2011.”
McMillion explained that the laws were strengthened in 2022, adding salaried-mothers to already protected mothers who are paid by the hour.
“But still, how good are the laws if nobody knows about them?” McMillion asked. “By putting these nursing-mother stations out there, the idea is to make them visible. Moms need a place, and I’m happy to say that it’s no longer considered indecent exposure to nurse your baby in public in West Virginia.”
According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data released in Aug. 2022, 78.6% of infants nationwide had received some breast milk at one-month old. In West Virginia, that number is 59.8%. At six months, the national percentage drops to 55.8%, while West Virginia’s breastfeeding rate drops to 31.8%
After the State Fair, next up for Molly’s team will be the West Virginia Business Summit in September. The Breastfeeding Institute will be on-hand at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs to continue their advocacy for breastfeeding-friendly employers.
“What we want is for businesses to understand though, while this is truly a basic human right to be able to maintain your milk production while you’re away from your child, it’s also great for their bottom line,” McMillion said. “Particularly if they provide insurance for their employees, because when mom breastfeeds, she doesn’t have as many sick days and the health care costs are less in general.”
“Not to mention it’s a great hiring and retention tool if you make sure that mothers get what they need in the workplace,” McMillion added.
The Breastfeeding Institute is active on social media, @wvbreastfeeds. Mandy Quick, certified lactation counselor and the Breastfeeding Institute’s Social Media & Promotions Coordinator, provides a constant monitoring-presence.
“I keep our social media channels updated with current, timely information about breastfeeding,” Quick said. “I’m always available to answer questions, and help people get connected to the right resources.”