Mother of nursing sessions


BERKELEY, Calif. - On the Guinness World Records list, between "Youngest School Trip at Magnetic North Pole" and "Most Snow Angels at Multiple Venues," sits the pride of Berkeley: "Most Women Breast-Feeding Simultaneously."

More than 1,100 women won that honor for the Bay Area last year, surpassing New South Wales, Australia, and its record of 536. They had gathered in Berkeley's community theater, folk lullabies on the sound system, and with the words "three, two, one, latch," they and their offspring made history.

"There were a lot of families, a lot of breasts," said Michelle Uribe, who set up her Mexican food stand with other vendors outside the theater last year.

But this week - World Breast-Feeding Week - the Berkeley record will be under attack. The Australian women, scheduled to gather today, have vowed to reclaim the record.

Meanwhile, Ellen Sirbu, the coordinator of Berkeley's WIC program (the Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children), is hoping that tomorrow an even larger lactating crowd will defend the Bay Area's honor.

"We're planning for 1,800 women," she said.

In most places, more than 1,000 women breast-feeding would strike many as odd - and probably make a good number uncomfortable.

But this is Berkeley. People here are used to challenging mores in the name of social progress.

"Breasts are so sexualized in this culture," said Laureen Hudson, 34, who nursed her 2-week-old son, Rowan, at the gathering last year and plans to participate again tomorrow. "I think we've really lost the reality that, no, no, they're for feeding."

On a recent weekend, when asked about the coming gathering of record-seeking breast feeders, most Berkeley locals shrugged and talked about motherhood and inspiration. Some commented about the evils of corporations and formula companies.

Although no longer the hotbed of protest it was in earlier decades, Berkeley leans closer to the left than most communities.

On Telegraph Avenue, tie-dyed goods and hemp beads are for sale on the sidewalk; a booth of protest stickers and "free speech posters" attracts a crowd; and joyous parades of Hare Krishnas pass by sporadically.

A "talking corner" is often set up outside Cody's Books, so passers-by can grab the microphone and expound on any topic they choose. Recently, a woman talked about how "our government is lying to us," while a group across the street with its own microphone urged pedestrians to find Jesus.

"If you pick up the newspaper, you'll see about 25 different political events during the course of the week," said Doug Minkler, a designer and printer of protest posters who has sold his wares in the city for years.

Compared to Minkler's posters, with slogans such as "U.S. warmakers never lie except when they move their lips," a group of nursing moms seems pretty tame.

But Sirbu and others said that breast-feeding is surprisingly divisive - even in Berkeley - and sometimes a baby nursing sparks more reaction than an anti-government slogan.

Despite laws in California and elsewhere protecting a mother's right to breast-feed in public, there are many stories about restaurant managers, shopkeepers and others ordering a mother to stop feeding, cover herself or retreat into a bathroom.

Hudson, who lives north of Berkeley in the more conservative city of Cotati, said she was recently nursing in a park when a man came up to her and offered his coat so she could cover herself and Rowan.

"Breast-feeding has been so stamped out and frowned upon for so many generations, I feel like a maverick," Hudson said. "It's something that should be so normal."

At the gathering tomorrow, Sirbu plans to pass out stickers that say "breast-feeding welcome here" for mothers to take to their favorite restaurants.

Although there are numerous studies about the benefits of breast-feeding, there also remains a sometimes-acrimonious debate among mothers and doctors about natural milk vs. formula and about the length of time a mother should breast-feed.

Indigo Baptiste, now 40, took her then-1-year-old, Taj, to the breast-feeding session last year.

"I told my mother that I participated in this event and there was this long pause," she said.

"My mother is a Republican and she does not live in Berkeley. She said, 'How could you? He's over a year old.'"

Baptiste is still breast-feeding and said she wouldn't miss the repeat tomorrow.

"There were psychological and emotional benefits," she said. "I did feel empowered afterward to know that over 1,000 of my peers all value this. And that my city values this."

This year, David Satcher, the former U.S. surgeon general who in 2000 released a national "Blueprint for Action on Breast-Feeding," is scheduled to speak to the crowd at noon, a new addition to the Berkeley world record quest.

Besides that, Sirbu said she expects much of tomorrow to be the same as last year: Vendors will set up in Martin Luther King Jr. Park across from the community theater, selling organic diapers, stylish nursing clothes and responsible toys.

There also will be booths for advocacy groups, such as Breast Milk Action, a group that tests breast milk as a way to evaluate environmental conditions. At last year's event, the group took samples.

Hopefully, Sirbu said, the same sea of moms, dads, strollers and babies from across the region will fill the park. And when she calls "latch" in the community theater, she hopes 1,800 empowered women will start feeding.

Uribe, the vendor, said she has no doubt that the city will hold on to its world record.

"I know Berkeley people," she said. "They won't give up."

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