Breast-feeding at Ronald McDonald House

A Texas woman defends her right to feed her kid in the facility's public spaces.

Published April 17, 2007 5:09PM (EDT)

This in from the Reluctant Lactivist: The Ronald McDonald House in Houston is going to allow mothers to breast-feed their children in communal areas, as long as they're discreet about it.

Why is this news? Because when Jessica Swimeley tried to breast-feed her 17-month-old child (who was at the Ronald McDonald House because he was having surgery for a brain tumor) in the house's communal areas, an RMH employee asked her to take the kid upstairs to her room. She protested, not wanting to have to schlep up three flights every time her sick child wanted to eat (and also pointed out that according to house rules, you're not supposed to eat in your room). Unfortunately, when she spoke with the house's director on the phone, she was told that families who do not "acclimate to the environment at RMH should find somewhere else to stay."

But apparently when it comes to breast-feeding, you don't mess with Swimeley and her sister, Melanie Mayo-Laakso, who's staying with Swimeley because Swimeley's husband is serving in the Air Force. Mayo-Laakso pulled up information on her laptop about Texas state law and challenged the house's administrators about her sister's right to breast-feed. The administrators countered by asserting that since they'd suggested another place for Swimeley to breast-feed, they'd done nothing wrong. They continued to threaten to kick her out of the house.

Before long, Mayo-Laakso spoke with the executive director of RMH Houston, Naomi Scott, who claimed that RMH didn't allow breast-feeding in common areas because "they had multicultural residents here and that they need to protect all residents from feeling uncomfortable," according to Mayo-Laakso's report of the conversation. To which the author of the Reluctant Lactivist says:

"I must say I'm amazed by Naomi Scott's creativity. I don't think I've heard the 'respecting cultural differences' argument for discriminating against breastfeeding mothers and children before, but it sounds to me like a new twist on the same ol' same old: The psychological comfort of adults who fetishize breasts is more important than the physical and emotional comfort of a young child."


Luckily, this story has a somewhat happy ending: After a long meeting with RMH board members and executives, RMH is now allowing mothers to breast-feed in common areas, with certain stipulations. Here's how Mayo-Laakso summed things up:

"The rules we are to follow are that we are to be discreet, this is at our discretion, meaning we choose what discreet means but they said they will obviously know if we are not being discreet if people are complaining that they are uncomfortable with us nursing.

"We are also being asked to inform the people around us before we begin nursing if we think there is anybody that may be uncomfortable with it. We are to tell them nicely that we are going to breastfeed, in case they want to leave or look away.

"There was a lot of discussion about what discreet meant, but after some pretty silly possibilities for discretion they decided it would be up to us as to what that meant. They said they would not bother us about nursing again unless many people complained, which nobody felt was likely to happen.

"The RMH wanted us to tell everybody that the RMH supports breastfeeding moms ... they were VERY adamant about it."

Um, OK. Except if you really support breast-feeding moms, maybe you shouldn't put forth rules requiring anyone who wants to breast-feed to evaluate whether the people around them might be uncomfortable with their breast-feeding, and give public service announcements about their intentions to feed their kid lunch. Still, this is an improvement over the original situation.

(For the entire discussion thread, visit

Update: Melanie Mayo-Laakso wrote us to clarify that The Ronald McDonald House is "bending a guideline" for her sister -- not all mothers. Also, Mayo-Laakso's name was originally misprinted, but has since been corrected.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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