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Organizers of the initiative stigma around breastfeeding still plagues communities across B.C., despite existing laws.

Christinne Muschi/REUTERS

The City of Penticton has adopted a plan to promote public breastfeeding as part of a wider strategy to attract more families to the region and fuel population and economic growth rates.

The Baby Friendly Community Initiative, the brainchild of four nursing students at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, was passed unanimously at Penticton city council in early November. The city joins the municipalities of Kelowna, West Kelowna and Lake Country, which have also signed on to the protocol.

City officials met with the project organizers last week to confirm details of the plan, such as drafting a citywide breastfeeding policy and installing posters and other educational materials in civic buildings to promote Penticton as a "baby-friendly" place, city documents say. The policy will spell out a protocol for city officials if they are alerted that a woman is breastfeeding.

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The city will also develop an annual proclamation to coincide with World Breastfeeding Week at the beginning of October next year.

Penticton Mayor Andrew Jakubeit noted for his city, the declaration is rooted in some hard realities: Penticton saw lower-than-average population growth for two-parent and single-parent families – at less than 1 per cent – from 2006 to 2011. The national average is around 6 per cent.

"We really need to grow, and for a long time we've been typecast as a senior, retirement community," he said.

A part of changing this perception is supporting young families who are often targets of public breastfeeding stigma, despite existing laws that both prohibit discrimination against breastfeeding mothers and require legal accommodation.

"Just because you may not agree with [public breastfeeding] doesn't mean others shouldn't be able to do that," he said.

Organizers of the initiative, as well as health officials, say this stigma still plagues communities across the province, despite existing laws.

Statistics Canada reported roughly 89 per cent of mothers nationwide chose to breastfeed in 2012 – a 4 per cent increase from 2003.

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"We know there are a lot of people that would come up to us and say, 'I didn't even know breastfeeding was a problem,' and most of us don't think it is either," said Paige Bunbury, one of the nursing students who spearheaded the initiative.

"But some have had a problem with this in Penticton, and it's all around, too. The goal of the initiative is to have it accepted everywhere."

The primary cause of this stigma, according to project supervisor and University of British Columbia nursing instructor Natalie Murdoch, is a cultural ignorance of the relationship between mother and child.

"It comes from a place as a society that we are not seeing breastfeeding as a way of nourishing your child, mainly because of the sexualization of breasts that we see with women in social media," she said, adding that women have the right to choose how, when and where to nourish their child.

While the City of Vancouver didn't respond to interview requests about the initiative by deadline, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority's regional leader of early childhood development Joanne Wooldridge said the stigma of breastfeeding isn't exclusive to smaller communities – many still experience difficulty with public breastfeeding in large urban areas such as Vancouver.

"As a mother who breastfed her babies, going to hide in a corner or going to a washroom was an option that wasn't particularly comfortable," she said, adding that the health authority organizes several events and campaigns throughout the year to promote acceptance for breastfeeding mothers in the city.

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"It's an attitudinal change," she said. "It's slow."

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