Breastfeeding, Custody, and Best Interests

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A fascinating and controversial child custody case is pending in Virginia that involves a battle over breastfeeding. The Washington Post recently reported on the custody dispute involving the mother, Arleta Ramirez, who gave birth to a daughter in July. Shortly after, she split with the child’s father, Mike Ridgway.

Their baby is currently exclusively breastfed and feeds, according to Ramirez, as often as once per hour. But on November 28th, a judge in Prince William County ordered that Ridgway be allowed visitation four days per week, with overnight visits beginning in February. Furthermore, the order stated, “Mother is to make every effort to place the child on a feeding schedule and use a bottle.”

Ridgway’s lawyer, Tara Steinnerd, who has worked on numerous custody cases involving breastfeeding, contends that mothers give “a myriad of excuses” why they cannot pump or find a feeding alternative, and they “[use] breastfeeding as a weapon against visitation.”

Ramirez will contest the court order in an April hearing, offering supporting evidence from her daughter’s pediatrician and other experts. “Why are they forcing me to stop breastfeeding? Isn’t that her right? Isn’t that in her best interest?” Ramirez said.

Although this case is making headlines—the decision has sparked heated debate—it’s not unusual for breastfeeding issues to be part of the equation in custody cases when there is a very young child.

La Leche League USA Council president Stephanie Bodak Nicholson told The Washington Post that in 30 years, she had fielded at least one call per year about breastfeeding in a custody dispute; she also pointed out that she is only one of 1500 regional leaders who offer practical and emotional support (but not legal advice) for breastfeeding mothers.

It’s a complex issue with many significant factors to weigh. There’s no simple one-size-fits-all solution. But as in all custody issues, it must come down to the child’s best interests.

It’s important to note here that the choice to breast or formula feed is very personal, and you can raise healthy babies either way.

However, the scientific community has a strong stance. The CDC points out that the USDA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization all “recommend exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months, with continued breastfeeding along with introducing appropriate complementary foods for up to 2 years of age or longer.” The CDC further advises, “Mothers should be encouraged to breastfeed their children for at least one year. The longer an infant is breastfed, the greater the protection from certain illnesses and long-term diseases.”

Although there is no standard definition of best interests, and the court has broad discretion, there are guiding principles a judge must use in making the determination. In the case of breastfeeding, there may be competing interests. While breastfeeding is best for the child’s health (nutrition, immunity, tooth development, protection from ear infections, asthma, diabetes, obesity SIDS, and more), it is also well-established that the father plays a vital role in child-rearing and, except in unusual circumstances, it is best for a child to have frequent contact and meaningful connection with both parents.

Ridgway says he gave Ramirez “space to both nurse and to pump milk for me to bottle-feed our daughter while she is in my care.”

Pumping might seem like an obvious solution, and in many cases, it’s useful. But some women do not have success producing milk without the child at the breast. Additionally, experts emphasize that the benefits of breastfeeding exceed nutrition and include developmentally necessary bonding and attachment. Some caution that overnights away from the breastfeeding mother while the child is still night-nursing or before the child fully bonds with the non-residential parent can be traumatic.

Every child is unique. It’s possible a judge may not fully appreciate the breastfeeding needs of a particular child—for example. There’s an extensive time frame in which it is natural and healthy for a child to wean. There is also a significant difference in the breastfeeding needs/habits of a baby with a stay-at-home mother who co-sleeps compared to a baby who is already bottle-feeding part-time because the mom is back at work.

The health benefits of breastfeeding have no expiration date, but a strong and secure attachment with the non-birth parent is similarly valuable. Even a supportive judge of breastfeeding is unlikely to let it dictate the visitation schedule forever. And, of course, the court will not look favorably on it if it appears the mother is deliberately leveraging breastfeeding to restrict the other parent’s access.

When possible, it’s wise for co-parents to avoid court and work together to create a parenting plan that accommodates visitation and the child’s breastfeeding needs. Remember that keeping the peace is also a significant factor in your child’s best interests—exposure to high-conflict situations can negatively impact an infant or toddler’s well-being.

There are many potential solutions. Rationally working out a satisfactory custody and visitation agreement, perhaps through mediation, is in everyone’s best interests. It’s constructive if all parties are well-educated in breastfeeding (benefits, process, mechanics, weaning, etc.) Try to focus less on “50/50” and more on what’s best for the child now—it will evolve.

Remember that this problem will only last for a while. “Parents are more likely to work out a favorable situation if they remain flexible to a co-parenting relationship that will change over time. It helps to focus on the child’s need for a relationship with both parents and emphasize that visitation will become more frequent and longer as the child grows older and weans from the breast,” advises the La Leche League. The American Bar Association Publication: Your Parenting Plan and Los Angeles Superior Court: Parenting Under Age 3 also offer helpful resources.

If you’re going through a divorce and your custody and visitation issues involve breastfeeding an infant or young child, the experienced and caring family lawyers at SFLG can help you find a balanced approach.

by Debra Schoenberg

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