Breast is best... for a protest? 'Lactivists' debate whether nurse-ins help the cause 

You got kicked out of a store for breast-feeding? A flight attendant ordered you to cover up while nursing? What better way to respond to the harassment of breast-feeding mothers than to organize a group of women to stage a nurse-in?

Attention-grabbing nurse-ins, organized public displays of breast-feeding, have become a popular protest tactic for women who want to improve the climate toward nursing in public. But some breast-feeding advocates say the events can do more harm than good.

Abby Theuring nurses her son Jack, 17 months, at a pro-breast-feeding protest at a Hollister store in Skokie, Ill.

“At best, they’re ineffective and at worse, they’re offensive and they make it more divisive,” said Deena Blumenfeld, 36, who owns Shining Heart Prenatal Education in Pittsburgh, Pa., where she offers nursing classes. “They make it easier to say, ‘See, look at how crazy these people are,’ rather than maybe, ‘Oh, breast-feeding in public is OK.’”

An ardent supporter of breast-feeding rights, Blumenfeld still nurses her 3 1/2-year-old daughter. But you won't find her latching on at a public protest.

“If somebody believes breast-feeding in public is inappropriate, you’re not going to change their mind by breast-feeding in front of them,” she said. “By putting it in someone’s face, you’re making it a confrontational issue and it shouldn’t be, because it’s normal.”

Abby Theuring, a Chicago mom and self-described "lactivist," acknowledges the divide over nurse-ins.

“Some lactivists feel that they bring negative attention to the cause,” said Theuring, who writes about nursing and nurse-ins on her blog. “I disagree with that.”

She likens nurse-ins to the sit-ins of the civil rights movement.

“They’re extremely effective because they cause a lot of agitation,” Theuring said.

Nurse-ins have popped up around the country in recent years, sometimes as headline-getting protests against a business where a nursing mother was hassled or yelled at, told to cover up, or asked to leave a store or restaurant, despite laws in the District of Columbia and 45 states that permit breast-feeding in any public or private location.

Hollister was the most recent target of a national nurse-in earlier this month, after a breast-feeding mom was kicked out of a changing room at the mall chain store. Women have also organized breast-feeding protests in recent years at Target, Delta airline counters, Applebee's restaurants and even Whole Foods, with word of the events spreading over social media.

Supporters say nurse-ins help improve attitudes toward public breast-feeding and make it easier for nursing moms to do their thing wherever and whenever they need to. Women are still being asked to nurse their children in bathrooms and are taunted by people who tell them what they are doing is disgusting, nasty or akin to urinating, defecating or even having sex in public view, advocates say.

Nurse-ins aren't radical, said Theuring, 36, who attended nurse-ins at Target and Hollister stores with her son, now 17 months. In fact, they're “more of a play date than a protest.” Most casual observers reacted to the Hollister nurse-in with "that's pretty cool," she said. 

“There are not Molotov cocktails going through the windows of Hollister,” she told TODAY Moms. “We’re breast-feeding. Our kids are playing. It’s not an ugly thing.”

In August, Rachel Papantonakis organized the “Great Nurse-in” on the National Mall in Washington in response to all of the stories of women being harassed for nursing in public.

“It’s getting to, this is a normal, natural thing,” said Papantonakis, 32, of Washington, who has a 1-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter.

“The only way that’s going to happen is women getting out there and breast-feeding and people getting used to it,” she said. “One hundred years ago it was shocking to see a woman in pants, and now it’s no big deal. We could do the same thing with nursing.”

Still, not all breast-feeding advocates think that nurse-ins are the best way to get there. Like Blumenfeld, Rochelle McLean, a lactation consultant in Oceanside, Calif., feels that nurse-ins can backfire. 

“In the moms’ minds, they are doing something proactive, but to the general public, the people who oppose public breast-feeding, the nurse-ins foster their beliefs that it’s overzealous crazy people,” McLean said, adding that she would rather see more education on the benefits of breast-feeding.

Rather than organize protests, Blumenfeld encourages women to breast-feed in public just like it's normal -- because, she said, it should be. 

“To take something that is normal, like breast-feeding, and then try to make it special by having a nurse-in, is problematic,” she said. “The first thing we need to do is practice breast-feeding in public in a normal, everyday fashion to teach women that this is OK.”