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Homeless mom to shelter: Respect my right to breastfeed

Karen Penley currently lives at the Institute for Human Services (IHS), a homeless shelter in Hawaii. Penley says that staff members at IHS told her she’d have to leave the facility if she didn’t cover up while breastfeeding. Did the shelter have the right to ask a mother to leave or breastfeed somewhere else?

Cover up, or get out?

The Institute for Human Services in Hawaii’s executive director, Connie Mitchell, has denied Penley’s claim. At first, Mitchell said Penley was asked to be sensitive to other guests, and that she was free to find another shelter if she desires.

Penley was offered private areas in the facility to nurse her baby, but she says that the air conditioner is broken and it’s too uncomfortable for her and her little one. Having breastfed four kids myself, I know how awful it is to nurse a sweaty baby in the heat. Just because this mom is currently struggling doesn’t mean that she doesn’t deserve to be protected by laws that specifically address breastfeeding moms. I applaud her for taking a stand.

Homeless mother |

Photo credit: Hawaii News Now

A happy ending

On Wednesday, IHS took action to make things right instead of making excuses. Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies educated staff members on the rights of breastfeeding moms and how to handle nursing moms with sensitivity. New moms are an especially vulnerable portion of the homeless population. “This is an opportunity for us to learn more and to really share with the community that we are about being proactive and about being helpful to our community as well,” Mitchell told Hawaii News Now.

I love that Penley was brave enough to bring attention to the plight of breastfeeding moms in homeless shelters. It’s so important for moms to speak out when things don’t seem right, whether they’re speaking up for their babies or themselves. Not only will Penley and her baby benefit from this additional staff training, but so will all other mothers who are there now as well as those that will follow her in the months and years to come.

Nursing a baby is feeding a baby. It is not a sexual act, and it is not an indecent act. For many moms, it’s the least expensive, most convenient and healthiest way to feed a baby. The human body is a wonderful thing — not only does it produce milk to feed our young, but our heads are attached to our bodies with a joint that swivels, which allows us to look away.

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