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Applebee's, woman in dispute over breast-feeding

lblackford@herald-leader.com

In June, Brooke Ryan walked into a Nicholasville Road Applebee’s restaurant to celebrate an anniversary lunch with her children.

She walked out humiliated, in tears and without the lunch.

But the incident over breast-feeding her 7-month-old son at Applebee’s has spurred the soft-spoken 34-year-old to start a public awareness campaign on the rights of breastfeeding women in Kentucky.

“On a small scale, I want Applebee’s to change its policy,” Ryan said. “On a large scale ... I want breast-feeding to be accepted.”

The dispute with Applebee’s began June 14. Ryan chose a booth in the back of the restaurant away from other customers. When her baby, Michael, got hungry, she began to nurse him discreetly, she said.

But a waitress came over and said that if she wanted to breast-feed, she had to cover the baby with a blanket. Ryan said it was so hot that she didn’t have a blanket. The waitress then repeated her request. Ryan said she then asked to see the manager and handed him a copy of the 2006 law that prohibits any interference with a woman breast-feeding her baby in public.

The manager said he knew about the law but a customer had complained about indecent exposure, so she had to cover the baby with a blanket.

Just as her food arrived, Ryan left to nurse her baby in her car.

Her lawyer wrote a letter to Thomas and King, the company that operates Central Kentucky’s Applebee’s. They got no response. After a second letter, a Thomas and King lawyer said the restaurant chain would consider keeping blankets in the restaurant so that breast-feeding women could cover themselves.

“That’s like telling Rosa Parks she still had to sit in the back of the bus, but we’ll give her a blanket to make her more comfortable,” Ryan said.

When contacted yesterday, Mike Scanlon, president of Thomas and King, said he didn’t know about the incident. However, he called the Herald-Leader back to say that Applebee’s had no policy against breast-feeding.

“It is perfectly legal to breast-feed in public and we support that,” Scanlon said. “I’m not sure the manager said cover the baby’s head, I think he said cover yourself modestly. This was by no means intended as interference, but a request to do it modestly, which I believe is an appropriate response.”

Ryan says that as an experienced breast-feeder, she is extremely modest, and, in that instance, made sure that she was facing into the corner.

“Some women think it’s fine to cover up with a blanket, but a woman shouldn’t be forced to,” said her husband, Michael Ryan.

Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, who sponsored the breast-feeding protection bill, agrees.

“She was not treated right under the new law,” he said. “There should have been no comment made to her at all; the restaurant overstepped its boundaries. There’s no way they can explain their way out of this.”

Thirty-nine states, including Kentucky, allow women to breast-feed in any public or private location.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for about the first six months and support for breast-feeding for the first year and beyond as long as mutually desired by mother and child. But according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 11 percent of mothers meet the six-month mark. Thirty percent breast-feed exclusively for the first three months. Kentucky’s rates are 7.5 percent and 25 percent, respectively, according to a 2007 report.

Scanlon suggested that Ryan had an “agenda.”

“I note with interest that she had a copy of the statute with her,” he said. “I’m glad to let this become a matter that we can all learn from.”

But if all Ryan wanted going into Applebee’s was an anniversary lunch, she may indeed have an agenda now.

August is World Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and Ryan has organized two related public events:

• A “Nurse-In” at the children’s play area at Fayette Mall from 1-3 p.m. Saturday. Ryan says the mall is not a target, but has a place for kids to play.

• From noon to 2 p.m. Sept. 8, she is holding a “Nurse Out” with posters and breast-feeding in front of the Applebee’s on Nicholasville Road.

She’s also asking for a public apology from Applebee’s and training for its employees about the rights of breast-feeding mothers.

Some day, she says, she would like to see the international breast-feeding symbol of a mother and child in every restaurant that supports the practice.

“I’m not trying to be provocative,” she said. “I want to teach.”

Reach Linda Blackford at (859) 231-1359 or lblackford@herald-leader.com.