For a minute Saturday morning, local mothers will stand up to stigma while sharing some quality time with their children — and one another.
At the 2018 Big Latch On event at Soldotna Creek Park, mothers will breastfeed together and be counted as part of a global effort to promote breastfeeding, raise awareness about resources for families and encourage community support for mothers.
Started in 2005 by the Women’s Health Action — a New Zealand organization that promotes women’s health — the event has spread to two dozen countries and brought thousands of women and babies together. In 2017, the group reported events in 725 locations in 23 countries — with nearly 18,000 breastfeeding children and about 54,000 total participants, according to the group’s website.
Local event organizer and board member of newly established nonprofit Kenai Peninsula Birth, Samantha Van Vleet has seen the event grow since 2011 — when about 20 people turned up for an informal gathering. Last year, about 100 people participated. Van Vleet is hoping for a higher turnout this year.
“I think it’s going to be a lot bigger. We’ve already gotten about 80 RSVPs,” she said.
Van Vleet has had both good and bad experiences breastfeeding in public.
“I’ve had an old lady pitch my arm and tell me, ‘Good for you, honey,’” she said.
Other times she’s received “creepy” looks or been barred altogether. A mother of four who had her first child in high school, Van Vleet was initially prohibited from breastfeeding in class. With a lawyer’s help, however, she was able to quickly resolve the issue, she said.
Under Alaska law, municipalities can’t prohibit or restrict a woman from breastfeeding in a public or private location where the woman and child are otherwise allowed to be.
Brittany Berger, an apprentice midwife at Juniper Tree Midwifery, also had to wrestle with discomfort — even from family members — when she first began nursing. She was even personally squeamish about breastfeeding at first.
“I had times when I had to hang baby blankets up in my house to be able to do it,” she said. With her fourth child, however, “I just kind of broke free and nursed whenever I wanted,” she said.
Berger is now a strong advocate of breastfeeding, and has participated at Big Latch On four times — twice as a breastfeeding mother and twice as a host.
Kenai resident Bridget Wimberly, a mother of three with a fourth baby on the way, has had her share of dirty looks and complaints when breastfeeding.
“My first encounter was with my first child and it was at the bookstore coffee shop, and I remember being so ashamed. I don’t want people to feel that way,” she said.
Although Wimberly hasn’t attended a local Latch On event, she has been involved in local breastfeeding support organizations, and provides breast milk to other women who have difficulties producing their own breast milk through a milk-sharing program.
She is also working to raise awareness about the importance of nursing beyond the first few months of a child’s life.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Foods can be gradually introduced to the child after six months, with breastfeeding continuing after one year if both mother and child desire, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The World Health Organization goes further — recommending that a child is breastfed along with supplemental nutrition until he or she is 2 years old.
“I’m more confident in nursing and nursing toddlers, but I know there are a lot of new moms who aren’t so confident and don’t have a good support network,” she said. “I’m always willing to talk to somebody, and pass along information that I can.”
As someone who provides peer support, Van Vleet emphasized the importance of talking about birthing issues to help women feel better about their decisions — whether it’s choosing to use formula or choosing to breastfeed.
“One of the thing that I constantly see is that woman feel unsupported in choices,” she said.
Although the Latch On event provides a space for women to embrace breastfeeding, it’s not exclusively for those breastfeeding.
“What I love about it is that it’s not just for nursing moms. Anyone who is going to support nursing moms is welcome at this event.”
The 2018 Big Latch On event will take place at the Soldotna Creek Park on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event will be accompanied by a carnival, including food, games, prizes, face painting and a petting zoo.
Reach Erin Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.