GREEN BAY, Wis. — A woman says she was not allowed to express breast milk for her newborn daughter during her recent seven-day incarceration, which prevented her from continuing to lactate and causing digestive problems for her baby.
Britney Weber says her now 4-week-old daughter, Elsy, has been spitting up and having other digestive issues because Brown County jail officials would not allow her to express milk before her release on Feb. 26.
"Everybody stresses the importance of breast-feeding," Weber said. "You'd think that for people who were there for a short time, they would allow it."
The jail allows inmates to express milk in cases where a physician or nurse considers it necessary. But they say they can't do so without a medical reason.
Sheriff's Capt. Larry Malcomson said the jail has limited refrigeration capacity and lacks other the necessary facilities to allow all incarcerated nursing mothers to express milk.
"We try to be very accommodating," said Brown County Sheriff John Gossage. "But the fact is that when you're incarcerated, you lose a lot of privileges that you otherwise had when you're not in jail."
He said he could not discuss specifics of Weber's case because of medical privacy laws.
Weber was locked up on Feb. 19 on two contempt of court charges related to a traffic case — and she was unable to post the $1,066 bond.
Weber said Brown County Jail workers didn't show an interest in her situation other than saying rules "prohibited" her from pumping breast milk. She also said she was not provided with an iron supplement that her doctor told her to take after giving birth, and that she can no longer breast-feed. That's common for women who have stopped breast-feeding for a week, Pam Klingert, a registered nurse and lactation consultant with Bellin Health.
Jail workers knew that Weber had given birth three weeks before being booked into the jail, said Gossage who could not say if she had requested a breast pump. He said he was not aware of any complaints having been filed about her case.
Weber said she had not filed a formal complaint. But her sister, Lizabeth Weber, said the jail should change its rules governing nursing mothers.
"Something needs to be done about this," said Lizabeth Weber. "It's known all over the place that it's important for the baby — and for the mother — to be able to breast-feed."
The issue is similar to one that has played out in other parts of the nation. While health professionals and other breast-feeding advocates say it improves the health of both mother and child, some jail officials say the accommodations associated with it create other potential problems.
In upstate New York, for example, a woman being held in jail in 2011 for a parole violation was provided with a breast pump and a refrigerator. According to a newspaper report, jail officials allowed the girl's father to bring the couple's daughter to the jail once per day so the inmate could breast-feed, but balked at the woman's doctor's request that she be allowed to express milk twice a day, citing "security issues."
Women who breast-feed generally have healthier children than women who do not, said Pam Klingert, a registered nurse and lactation consultant with Green Bay-based Bellin Health. Children who are breast-fed have fewer infections, lower instances of obesity and diabetes, and fewer other health problems than children who are fed formula, she said.
"This sounds like it was a missed opportunity to do what's best for a mother and her baby," she said of Weber's case. "Breast milk is the perfect food."
Klingert said breast milk is the only food that babies need for their first six months. For the next six months, she said, mothers can introduce some solid foods to their baby's diet while continuing to nurse them.
An estimated 8 percent to 10 percent of women entering prisons are pregnant, and those women average six to 12 months in prison after childbirth, according to a 2013 report in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing.
The report by Virginia Commonwealth University Health System researchers found that mother and infant both benefit when the child can continue to be fed breast milk while the mother is incarcerated. They cited a case where health care workers, jailers and parents worked together to create a plan where the mother's breast milk was stored in a jail refrigerator for someone to pick up and feed to the baby.
"The newborn's nutritional needs were met with expressed breast milk while awaiting his mother's release from jail," the researchers found. "For incarcerated women, pumping and storing breast milk is ... an uncomplicated way to promote maternal-infant attachment, and improve health for both."