As a breastfeeding mother, what are my rights in Virginia?

As a mom who is (yes, still) nursing my almost two year old daughter, I get it. Actually, my littlest is my second child; I struggled to nurse my son, who is a couple years older, and spent an entire year obsessively exclusively pumping.

I like to think that I have experience on all sides of this issue.

I can tell you – from personal and professional experience – how important that nursing relationship is to a mother, so you don’t have to justify your feelings to me. I also understand how pumping and bottle feeding may not be an option for you, whether because the baby legitimately will not accept a bottle (my second born is this way), or whether because logistically or emotionally you feel unprepared to handle the toll that pumping would put on you.

Being a breastfeeding mother is a challenge in a million different ways, but its especially challenging if you’re facing a custody and visitation case. One of the main problems is that judges don’t always understand the importance of nursing, or, at least, they don’t prioritize the nursing relationship sufficiently.

These days, with the recent changes in the law related to shared custody, it seems like the biggest emphasis is on making sure that dad feels that he has enough time with the child. Look, I’m not saying that dad’s relationship with the child isn’t important – it is. Even nursing mothers understand the importance of dads.

It’s just that, developmentally speaking, very, very young babies aren’t able to be away from their mothers for long periods of time. So, the challenge is in making that point to the court, and getting the judge to recognize the importance of the nursing relationship.

It’s not a given. No matter what the World Health Organization or the La Leche League says about the importance of nursing, we can’t stipulate to that. In every single case where we’ve got a nursing mother, we have to make the case for nursing again and again. There’s no one single thing we can point to and say ‘see, that? That’s why she should be able to do this.’ It doesn’t work that way. Every single time, we have to make the case like it’s a brand new issue.

How do we make the case for a custody and visitation arrangement that supports the nursing relationship?

Well, usually, we involve doctors, nurses, and/or lactation consultants. We have to bring in experts to testify about how important nursing is, both for mother and baby.

Really, though, the emphasis is on baby. Custody and visitation questions are less about YOUR rights, as a nursing or any other kind of mother, and more about the CHILD’S rights. The child’s right to a relationship with her dad, for example, is a biggie. Does her RIGHT to have access to her dad outweigh her interest in nursing? And, if so, for how long?

It’s super challenging, and it’s absolutely not a given. Even amongst professionals, there’s disagreement, too. I’ll never forget at my daughter’s 9 month checkup, when I was seeing a pediatrician other than my regular one, he told me that it was really time to start thinking about weaning. I hadn’t even reached the one year mark! (Luckily, I have not seen him again, because we’re going on two years now and I don’t care what he has to say about it!)

We’ll need evidence and experts to testify – and even then its up to the judge.

Breastfeeding cases are not easy.

Even though it seems like it should be easy – there are a number of authoritative medical resources out there that support breastfeeding, and even continued breastfeeding. But, ultimately, the child does have a right to have time with her dad, too.

In complicated cases, I usually recommend that mom have a plan going into it. It’s not just “well, I’m breastfeeding, so that’s a no from me”. Spending some time coming up with real, viable alternatives is going to be really helpful here.

So, he can’t have every other weekend, but what CAN he have? For how long? At what point will it expand into something greater? By showing him that you value his role as a father and that you will make a provision for frequent and continued contact that will expand as the child grows and develops, you may be able to pacify him a bit.

After all, it’s not about keeping him away from the child indefinitely, it’s about protecting the importance of the nursing relationship. So, talk to him about frequent, shorter term visits. Talk to him about being welcome in your home, if you have a relationship that can sustain it. Talk to him about a point at which you could, maybe, send him with some expressed milk, just to see how it goes. Talk to him about how you could potentially meet him out with the baby at a park or a museum, so he can have an opportunity to see the child, too.

There are no rules here, except what you and he can agree to. Be creative. Try to think of some solutions. Maybe overnight isn’t possible right now, because of night feedings. But as she gets older, and the time between feedings stretches out longer and longer, he may be able to take longer and longer visits. They might even be more frequent visits, since he can’t have entire weekends that he might otherwise enjoy.

Think about your child’s needs and how you can accommodate them. Make suggestions. Don’t just shrug your shoulders without coming up with anything better. You don’t have to have an end date in sight, either, but just to say that it’s worth considering that, at some point, she WILL sleep through the night, even if she’s still nursing. You can re-assess then, and come up with a plan that works for you then.

I know as well as anybody that sometimes these things tend to stretch out for longer than you maybe originally intended. There’s no reason that, with proper planning and inclusion for dad, you can’t find a way to meet your goals, meet the child’s needs, and even courage and support dad’s involvement.

For more information, to request a copy of our custody book, or to schedule an appointment, give us a call at 757-425-5200.

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