Access, the law and a breastfed baby

Today,  I was called to advocate in court (in my capacity as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant)  for an illiterate migrant woman who had her baby removed whilst a patient in a psychiatric ward. This poor mama had been fully breastfeeding her 4 month old when she reported that she had been raped. While in a police station the baby was taken from her (this was probably appropriate while the mother was interviewed etc). However, the mother who was traumatised and thought her baby had been taken off her attempted suicide whilst in the police station. This is how she became a psychiatric inpatient.

Sadly,  officials didn’t organise access of baby to mother so breastfeeding could continue: in 5 days the baby was taken to the mother only once – according to a social worker, the baby lit up when she saw her mother , their mutual gaze was exquisite, they were perfectly attuned and the baby breastfed voraciously. Although the mother was expressing her milk with a hospital breast pump during  separation from her baby, the precious liquid gold was being dumped down a sink – not because it was contaminated by medications that may harm the baby, but because of a communication breakdown – nobody followed through so that the milk could be given to the baby.

Today’s case was initially about gaining daily access for baby to her mother so breastfeeding could continue. Very quickly it became evident that unless a placement in a mother baby unit where the mother could be with her baby under supervision, the baby would be weaned and placed in longer term care, regardless of the mother’s willingness to breastfeed or provide her milk for her baby.

Access to her mother’s milk is not only every baby’s birthrite, but a basic human right and this is what I argued today on behalf of this baby and her vulnerable, disempowered mother:

Ceasing breastfeeding poses health risks to both mother and infant, but particularly the infant.

UNICEF and the World Health Organization recommend breastfeeding until age two or beyond. Breastfeeding provides health benefits both for the baby (reducing the risk of juvenile diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome [SIDS]), meningitis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, chronic liver disorders, childhood cancers, asthma, ear infections, and diarrheal /gut infections), and for the mother, decreasing her risk of breast, ovarian, and cervical cancer. In addition, breastfeeding helps mothers bond securely with their babies, which is essential to a child’s future well-being.

As a breastfed baby, removed from her mother’s breast, this baby’s level of anxiety and stress would be extreme. This poses risks to mother-infant attachment that may compromise the baby’s emotional development. According to the Australian Association of Infant Mental Health,  ‘a baby under two years and particularly under one year can be severely stressed by separation from the people he or she   feels safe with even for short periods of time and ongoing stress affects the infant’s brain development. ‘

The impact of breastfeeding upon the mothering abilities of women is substantial: Australian research has found that women who do not breastfeed or breastfeed for a short time are at a 2.5 fold greater risk of neglecting their children (at any time through to 15 years) than women who continue to breastfeed (Strathearn, et al., 2009)

There is also the issue of food security. In a low income mother, if the baby was weaned and later returned to the mother, the cost of providing infant formula would significantly disadvantage the mother. This would increase the likelihood that the baby may receive inappropriate feeds if the mother couldn’t afford a recommended formula for her infant.

Although the mother is expressing milk, which demonstrates her commitment to her baby, this is not a longer term solution and may very quickly lead to premature weaning: the baby will become used to sucking a bottle which has a faster flow, requires a different suckling action and may then refuse to breastfeed at all. This would create extreme distress for mother and baby.

In 2000 a consensus statement regarding the nutrition rights of infants based on international human rights law and principles was developed (Kent, 2001). This consensus statement states that:

1. Infants have a right to be free from hunger and to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health.
2. Infants have a right to adequate food, health services and care.
3. The state and others are obligated to respect, protect and facilitate the nurturing relationship between mother and child.
4. Women have the right to social, economic, health and other conditions that are favourable for them to breastfeed or to deliver breastmilk to their infants in other ways.
5. Women and infants have a right to protection from factors that can hinder breastfeeding in accordance with:

  • the Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes
  • the International Labor Organization’s Maternity Protection Conventions
  • the Innocenti Declaration on the Protection, Promotion and Support of Breastfeeding

6. States, represented by their government have an obligation to:

  • Protect, maintain and promote breastfeeding through public educational activities
  • Facilitate the conditions of breastfeeding
  • Otherwise ensure that infants have safe access to breastmilk

7. No woman should be prevented from breastfeeding

The outcome

After many phone calls (only to discover there wasn’t a single bed available in any public mother baby unit), a full day of negotiations and some help from two wonderful paediatricians (thankyou Gillian Opie and Cathy McAdam -it certainly helps to know people in high places!) as well as information provided by other professionals who are also concerned about legal separations of breastfeeding dyads (thankyou Karleen Gribble) this baby has been admitted as a boarder in the paediatric ward in the hospital where the mother is being treated. The mother is ecstatic and, for now at least, she can enjoy holding her baby close as she nourishes her child with liquid love from her own heart, through her breasts.

baby breastfeedingbreastfeeding a human right.breastfeeding and custodybreastfeeding and the lawbreastfeeding babybreastfeeding motherPinky McKay
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  • Katherine C. H. E.

    I love your passion. Thanks for sharing with the world! XOXO, Katherine.

  • Jaclyn Lloyd

    Wow Pinky thankyou so much for sharing with us,and i must say i am so proud to hear of that you were fighting for this lady,im so glad she has been reunited with her baby.This has brought tears to my eyes,happy tears.

  • Stella

    Thank you for supporting this woman and her baby ( and all the others we probably are not aware of). The world needs more advocates with compassion, backed by knowledge.

  • Lorri

    Fantastic article Pinky. We’re lucky to have you!

  • Goals Coaching

    Pinky, this is a magnificent post. I got quite emotional. Bless you for what you did and are doing. If we want to change our world we have to start with the babies and change how we bring them up, all over the world.
    Lynn Moore

  • Mitch Tublin

    Thank you for this information. I had no idea.

  • Sue Painter

    Quite a story, and the woman in question is very fortunate to have you as an advocate.
    Sue Painter

  • Amanda

    Thank you Pinky for your tireless efforts, and thank you to the wonderful “friends in high places” who helped make it work out.

  • Deb

    I find it a truly sad indictment on modern society and its obsession with sexualisation that we even need a charter that guarantees the rights of breastfeeding women and their children. As far as I am aware, no such laws are required for other lactating mammals.

  • Michelle

    How cruelly this woman has been treated- no wonder so many rapes go un-reported! She was doing the right thing and SHE ends up being the one punished & having her baby taken away. It makes me so sad that this situation could even arise in Australia.
    First a victim of rape, then a victim of the system.

    Thank you to all those who stepped up for her today. I only pray that this mother and baby are able to grieve, heal and move on safely from this trauma.

  • Alison Brunton

    Thankyou for supporting this woman and for posting this. I found it very emotional and am so pleased your work permitted this mother and baby to be reunited. You are an inspiration!

  • Trudy

    What a heartwarming post and what an amazingly beautiful thing you made happen Pinky

  • Christine McIvor

    What a terrible breakdown of a system. Thank goodness this woman had people like you to help fight for something so natural, keeping a baby with their mother. I couldn’t imagine.

  • Phil Dyer

    She is so fortunate to have an advocate like you in her corner…

    Good on ya!


  • Faye Kricak

    I was reading this and feeling so sad for this woman. I put myself in her shoes, and how I would feel if some one took my babies away from me when breastfeeding; and to have most likely very limited understanding of the English language how scary that would be. What must have been going through her mind when her baby was taken away from her, who knows what she thought could have happened to her baby. And doesn’t this demonstrate the obvious lack of understanding of how important breastfeeding is in our culture for both babies and mothers as well as just how bad mental health care really is in our country. Thank you Pinky for being her advocate and rounding up troops in high places to ensure mother and baby can stay together and breastfeed beautifully.

  • admin

    Yes Faye
    mental health care is appaling at so many levels and there must be many other mothers who are separated from their babies and small children when the mothers need care. I saw this woman yesterday – she is still in hosiptal and is again fully breastfeeding her baby even though it is in a different ward from her and she needs a staff member to take her to visit her baby. Her sad eyes will haunt me for a long time.
    I am also in the process of organising an appeal for baby gear for these refugee women and women with babies in detention – oh yes thats another sad story…

  • Debbie Jeffrey

    Pinky, I don’t know what the situation is like in Melbourne, but in NSW there is only one (that’s right, ONE) mother-baby psychiatric inpatient unit, and that is in a private hospital (I’m lucky enough to work there sometimes). No public facilities at all. IMNVHO, Health Dept’s ought to have specific policies about allowing mothers in mental health units contact with their babies, breastfeeding or not. They have policies for everything else and then some. This poor woman has been through so much trauma already, I can only imagine the added trauma caused by separation from her baby, and how that would be complicating her mental state. Well done, for advocating so powerfully for these 2! – Debbie

  • Wendy Verma

    Thank you so much for caring for this woman and child. You are a true godsend!!!

  • ChandaMija

    My 8-years old son has a lot of personality quirks and mental conditions yet to be diagnosed. He was taken away from me by DHS when he was 8-months old and the caseworker wouldn’t allow twice a day visiting nor me to give my baby to a family member. He was starved for 4 days and lost 2 pounds and 8 ounces. He breastfed for the entire hour a week later and screamed when the caseworker carried him away at the end of our visit. A few days later, he lost so much weight that he was forcibly tube-fed in a pediatric hospital unit UNNECESSARILY! All they had to do, was return my baby to me and check in with me daily, like a probation officer or something likewise. Now, Easter Seals wouldn’t help us because I speak sign language and they don’t provide translating services. I’m in the process of suing the state for taking away my breastfed baby and Easter Seals for denying help.
    Lots lots lots of problems! I didn’t even use drugs, my ex did. Who pays? ME and MY SON!! Arrrrrgh.

  • victoria

    Please consider those Mothers in detention who have their breastfeeding impacted by the stress & lack of privacy. Some of these Moms have very successfully breast fed previously babies, but find they cannot establish a milk supply in immigration detention.

    Now for most of us this would mean a simple case of getting formula to then feed our baby. But the private contractor running the centers does not want to spend the money. But Moms in detention are having a very hard time doing this. In Villawood recently it took a full week for Serco to get her food for her tiny infant!

    This baby only survived because visitors brought it in.

    Now what about the Moms at Leonora, an isolated centre where few of us visit, and only very sporadically. There are several pregnant women, no lactation consultants, and n one keeping a close eye on how Serco is treating these Moms and bubs.

    Years a go a friend of mine was detained in Port Hedland, unable to establish a milk supply for her baby born in detention. She repeatedly begged for milk that was not supplied. It was only when a Dr examined the baby and noted he was actually losing weight and now very malnourished that the private contractor supplied food.

    These Moms need to be in the community where they can access survices and be in an environment conducive to nursing their babies! Please help

  • Naomi

    This broke my heart that a already traumatised woman could be further injured by having her baby removed. Not to mention the impact this would have on the baby. The poor woman and the poor baby, how distressing for them both! Thank you so much for advocating on their behalf!!!