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Breastfeeding in Public

By Anne Robb Pugliese
Tangent, Oregon USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 17 No. 6, November-December 2000, p. 196-200

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time

The idea of breastfeeding in public makes many people feel uneasy Unfortunately, as Katie Granju writes in her book, Attachment Parenting, "Surveys have revealed that far too many women are uncomfortable at the thought of nursing their baby in public and that this discomfort is a common cause for disruption of the breastfeeding relationship." Mothers may feel uncomfortable even when the "public" they are breastfeeding in front of is family members in their own home. The key point is not the place, but the presence of other people with the mother, whether those people are strangers or people she knows. Sometimes we don't think very clearly about the source of those feelings, but examining them can help mothers feel more confident about their choices, no matter what they choose to do.

Breastfeeding in public matters because hungry babies aren't very patient and it's hard to be a parent without leaving home. Once the early weeks have passed and a mother has resumed activities outside her home, finding a truly private place to breastfeed her baby can be difficult, if not impossible. Beyond practical considerations, many women make a philosophical choice about breastfeeding in public because they feel it is the most effective and natural way to meet their babies' needs. Breastfeeding doesn't stop being best for babies and mothers just because other people are present, and mothers want to continue to give their babies (and themselves) the best.

Cultural Attitudes

It can take a while to get comfortable with breastfeeding in public. The main reason for that initial discomfort is probably the taboo against revealing one's breasts around other people. Ironically, most breastfeeding women reveal much less skin while breastfeeding than the average jeans commercial reveals. Yet many people find one inappropriate and the other tolerable. Their concerns seem to stem less from actual skin exposure and more from cultural beliefs.

One of the differences between drinking from a bottle and nursing from the breast is that the breastfeeding mother and child are in direct, intimate contact with each other. The breastfeeding mother and baby respond to each other physically and emotionally. A mother who bottlefeeds her baby with either her own milk or formula is more physically distant. In some people's minds, the physical and emotional intimacy of the breastfeeding mother and baby is sometimes connected with sexual activity. So, when people see a woman using her breasts for their most basic function, in an intimate relationship with her infant, they may consciously or unconsciously confuse it with something that's sexual and should be done in privacy.

Current cultural attitudes toward breastfeeding mimic past attitudes toward pregnancy. At one time, it wasn't acceptable to discuss pregnancy openly and women who were "in a family way" were not supposed to be out in public. They were expected to quit work immediately. Although that has changed over the years, mainstream media and private conversations alike still tend to focus on the external aspects of pregnancy rather than the emotional - preventing stretch marks, maternity clothes that disguise the growing belly, pain prevention in labor, and article after article on losing all that "fat."

The breastfeeding mother and her baby continue the physical bond begun in pregnancy. Mainstream publications sometimes gloss over the unique relationship a mother shares with her baby while she is breastfeeding. Health writers are quick to assure mothers they will have a perfectly wonderful relationship with their child if they bottle-feed. Where is the discussion of the intimacy involved in giving and then sustaining life? A very popular pregnancy and child care book lists, under information on the decision to breastfeed, that the mother take into consideration not being able to fit back into pre-maternity clothing because of larger breasts. In any other context, most women would see the possibility of having larger breasts as positive, not negative. But when connected with their biological function, breasts seem no more than a nuisance and breastfeeding just another baby care gadget to consider while you are pregnant.

The availability of clothing for breastfeeding mothers may also reflect cultural taboos. Sexy lingerie is available in plentiful supply in major department stores and specialty stores alike. But shopping for a nursing bra can be a daunting task. The nursing bras are often behind the counter, if they exist at all. Some sizes may have to be special-ordered. Unless the mother asks, she may assume they are not available. The unspoken message is that breastfeeding should be kept behind closed doors and is inappropriate for public display, while displaying images of women's bodies to help attract customers is just fine.

Images of breastfeeding infants also reflect the taboo. A brand new infant nursing in his mother's arms is often seen in a soft-lit, lullaby-laden, nostalgic atmosphere. In a talk at the 1999 La Leche League International Conference, Dr. Jack Newman gave an overview of images of breastfeeding in the media. He pointed out that advertisements depicting breastfeeding rarely show women in public lives. They often show breastfeeding mothers dressed in darker hues or in nightgowns, and rarely looking at her infant. Yet images of feeding a baby with a bottle are portrayed with active, smiling, well-dressed women who are out in public and/or back to work. Once again, the unspoken message is that breastfeeding mothers should stay in the nursery and that once they return to "real life," they will leave breastfeeding as part of their private lives, not bring it out into public view.

"Just Give Him a Bottle"

Offering breast milk in a bottle is often suggested when the debate on breastfeeding in public hits television or radio talk shows. But that option offers problems for the mother and baby that may be overlooked by the general public. First, it takes extra time and care to pump, store, and transport milk - time that may be precious, particularly in the early weeks and months. Babies receive fewer of the benefits of breastfeeding when they receive human milk that is not fresh from the source. They also run the risk of developing nipple confusion - having trouble switching back and forth between breast and bottle. Mothers run a higher risk of developing a plugged duct or breast infection because of the delay between feedings at the breast, particularly in the early months. A mother who skips feedings will probably be very uncomfortable from full breasts. If she is unable to pump her breasts, her supply will probably decrease slightly. So she'll still be experiencing the consequences the next day, when her baby nurses more frequently to replenish her supply. She also loses the convenience of being able to soothe her baby quickly and easily while she is out. She may even run out of milk in bottles before she finishes her errands.

All of the challenges of offering human milk in a bottle while in a public place can be overcome. But the bottom line is that many women find it easier, healthier, more economical, more ecologically sound, and more relaxing to fit breastfeeding in with all their daily activities than it is to fit occasional bottle-feeding in with their breastfeeding.

Other Options

Another often suggested strategy for breastfeeding your baby when you are out is to take him to the restroom or toilet facility to feed him. However, no one would suggest that an adult eat his or her lunch in a public toilet. When a mother has older children, spending twenty minutes or longer feeding the baby in a toilet facility with a bored two-year-old does not seem like a viable option. In smaller stores, toilets may not be open to the public. At least in the restaurant, the mother can feed herself and her older children, too. And babies invariably get hungry when everyone else is eating.

Some shopping malls and larger stores are starting to offer a separate room that can allow privacy for nursing mothers. Sometimes they have a small lounge with a chair or a couch, which can be more comfortable for some mothers and babies, particularly when the baby has older siblings. When such rooms are not available, try a fitting room in a women's clothing store, or check to see if there is a rocking chair in the baby department or the furniture department. Many maternity stores welcome nursing mothers to feed their babies in a comfortable area. Or ask at an LLL meeting about where to find the most comfortable places to breastfeed in public places in your area. Any place to sit, even the floor, can work if it is out of the way. You can often face away from onlookers while you get baby started. Once your baby is latched on and nursing contentedly, most people won't give you a second glance.

Using Cover-Ups

A small blanket can be used to cover your baby while he nurses. There are also special capes and other cover-ups made just for this purpose. This can be a good compromise if it worries you to be too exposed. In some situations, a blanket or coverup acts like a flag that says, "I am breastfeeding my baby now." In addition, some babies don't like having their faces covered while they breastfeed. A blanket may provide a little extra privacy while you're getting your baby started, though. Once he is breastfeeding, there really isn't much for anyone else to see unless they look so closely that they are intruding rudely on your personal space.

During mild weather, the car can be a quiet, familiar place for both you and your baby to settle down for a nursing. Breastfeeding just before you go into a store helps fill your baby's tank emotionally and nutritionally and may encourage a nap, particularly if you put your baby in a sling. Overall, it's easier to find a comfortable place when you plan ahead and pay attention to your baby's hunger cues so he doesn't get too hungry to begin with.

Many women prefer to find a place that is "private enough" to breastfeed rather than searching for absolute privacy. You may have initial doubts, but faced with the obvious needs of your baby, you may find that your priorities will change.

Other People's Reactions

Ironically, women who choose to feed their babies at the breast in public situations, especially in social gatherings, often find themselves in the middle of the "why breastfeeding didn't work for me" discussion. This can be uncomfortable for everyone. The breastfeeding mother may feel that her breastfeeding brings up pain for other women present. Those women have a need to discuss their experiences and often the discussion is about regrets. This need to talk about their experiences hints at an underlying truth. Being unable to breastfeed, whether the cause was societal pressures or lack of information and support, may leave women with nagging regrets and a feeling of failure. The mother who is nurturing her child at the breast may be surprised when such things happen and feel ill equipped to handle the strong feelings coming from those around her. Probably the most helpful thing to do is just to listen to their story, empathize, and gently move the topic along to something else.

In a recent issue of NEW BEGINNINGS a question was asked about how to handle the decision to nurse in front of co-workers in an academic setting. While each woman's life is different, this situation brings up the issue of the woman's comfort level with mixing her personal life and her professional life. While some may argue that a mother who feeds her baby with a bottle wouldn't face the dilemma of whether or not to feed her baby in front of her colleagues, she may well be faced with another dilemma. Instead of, "Why is she doing that in public?" the question may become, "Why didn't she leave that baby at home?" In both cases, the real issue is not about the feeding method; it's about what society expects of babies and their parents. Mothers who keep their babies and toddlers close as much as possible are frequently cautioned that their children will never learn to be independent. Healthy attachments between mothers and children are seen as too intimate in some circles.


Breastfeeding advocates point out that being too discreet or too private about breastfeeding may actually work against more acceptance of breastfeeding in general, since it tends to keep breastfeeding hidden from most people. In her new book, Natural Family Living, Peggy O'Mara suggests:

If you encounter any curious or hostile stares, smile benignly back, knowing that you are contributing to the health of the next generation, and that you are setting a beautiful example for other women, young girls, and expectant fathers. Fortunately, fewer people raise an eyebrow at nursing mothers today - in fact, a woman's right to breastfeed in public is protected by law in many states. Perceptions are changing, as people become educated about the health benefits of breastfeeding. With continued awareness, perhaps breastfeeding in public will become as accepted as smoking in public is now frowned upon.
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