HARLEM — When she's outside and it's time to breastfeed her two-month old daughter Zae-Simone, Tiombe Bowman usually retreats to her car.
"I cannot do it outside. I'm not savvy enough to slip my nipple in her mouth without being exposed," said Bowman, 39 who works in human resources. "I don't like the attention, inappropriate comments or the eyes on me."
Bowman doesn't have those problems at the Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership's Lactation Lounge at 127 West 127th St. between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. Opened in May, organizers believe the Central Harlem spot is the first dedicated lounge in the city where any woman can walk in and breastfeed her child in a comfortable environment, no questions asked.
Under New York City law, women are allowed to breastfeed anywhere, whether public or private. But many women still experience stares and hostile comments when trying to nurse in public, advocates say.
"People have told me to feed my child in a bathroom, but I'm not going to do it," said Bowman. "Do you eat in a bathroom?"
The lounge was once a dusty storage space filled with boxes, books and pamphlets. Today, it has a comfortable leather couch and a rocker with an ottoman where women can sit while nursing. The room has a hospital grade breast milk pump, a small crib and a flat screen television.
When Bowman comes with her infant and two-year-old son, the staff will watch the child while she nurses.
"They make it comfortable for a nursing mother. They provide whatever support you need," she said.
Ekua Ansah-Samuels, the health education coordinator for Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership said the idea grew out of wanting to set a good example.
"We were telling churches and other businesses that they needed to provide space for women to breastfeed, so being a maternal and child health agency we felt it was necessary for us to have a lactation space. We wanted to set a good example for other organizations," said Ansah-Samuels, who is also a lactation counselor.
According to health experts, breastfeeding is better than bottle feeding for newborns. Breastfeeding provides newborns with a variety of essential vitamins and nutrients that helps to prevent diseases, allergies, obesity and may even boost intelligence, according to some studies. For women, breastfeeding can reduce stress and decrease postpartum depression.
Save the Children's annual State of the World's Mothers report ranked the United States last on its Breastfeeding Policy Scorecard, specifically because the United States is one of a handful of economically advanced countries that does not require paid maternity leave.
Approximately 90 percent of babies in New York City are breastfed initially, but by two months, that figure goes down to 31 percent of babies being exclusively fed by breast milk, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
African-Americans lag behind whites and Latinos when it comes to breastfeeding rates.
"Some people think the breasts are just sexual, or that it's not convenient and they don't feel comfortable in public," said Fajah Ferrer, a program coordinator at Northern Manhattan Perinatal Partnership.
"Formula is so available and it's targeted to low-income African-American and Latino women through aid programs such as Women Infants and Children (WIC)," she added.
The city's Health Department recently launched "Latch On NYC," an initiative designed to increase the numbers of women who breastfeed. Twenty-seven hospitals have agreed to not give out infant formula in gifts bags and to prohibit materials promoting formula.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was criticized for the plan which critics call part of a "nanny state" which also includes a smoking ban and a recent ban on the sale of any sugary drink larger than 16 ounces.
Ferrer said it's important that women who choose not to breastfeed, as she did with her now 15-year-old daughter, are not ostracized.
The best solution is education and making breastfeeding more accessible to women, she said.
"We know if we were downtown in another community this place would be bustling," Ferrer said.
When the lactation lounge opened, workers went to businesses on the nearby 125th Street to let them know that their female workers had a right to nursing breaks and that the lounge was available.
"More women need to see other women breastfeed," said Ansah-Samuels. "We want to change the social norm so that breastfeeding is the standard and formula is not."
For mothers such as Bowman, the lounge has made breastfeeding much more comfortable. If she needs to go shopping or run errands and has to nurse before she gets home, she knows the lounge is available. City officials should focus on opening lounges all around the city, she said.
"If Bloomberg can make bike lanes in Times Square, he can get mothers more places to nurse," said Bowman.
The Lactation Lounge is located at 127 West 127th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard.