Nursing In Public

by Anne Smith, IBCLC

BFB Sit in toilet done nursing photoIn the United States, breasts are considered sexual objects, and while it is just fine to expose them falling out at the pool in a bikini, or  in advertisements for just about any product you can think of, many people feel that there is something disgusting about that same breast when it has a baby attached to it.

The previous generation bottle fed their babies, so many people have never  seen a woman breastfeeding. That’s one reason that a mother nursing in public has a degree of ‘shock value’, and is considered by many to be a private activity that should only be conducted behind closed doors – or in bathroom stalls. Breastfeeding is not an excretory function, and there is no reason to hide when you feed your baby. How would you like to eat your lunch in a public restroom?

I feel strongly that the way to change this attitude is for women to “NIP” (Nurse In Public) openly, comfortably, and without embarrassment, so that people (especially children) can see that breastfeeding is the ‘normal’ way to feed our babies.

With more and more mothers breastfeeding these days, the tide is beginning to turn. We are nursing our babies whenever they need to eat, and meeting their needs wherever we happen to be. We are backed by the scientific evidence that breast milk is the superior infant food, and the knowledge in our hearts that we are providing our little ones with the best possible start in life.

There has been legislation passed in most states making it illegal to harass a mother who is nursing in public, as well as laws exempting baring your breast to feed a baby from indecent exposure penalties. While it is sad that we need to have such laws, it does mean that the rights of nursing mothers are finally being recognized and validated.

I nursed all six of my babies anywhere and everywhere – the pool, the grocery store, PTA meetings, Little League games, etc. The only problem I ever encountered was with people who didn’t know I was nursing, so they would come up and pull the blanket away to look at the baby, and then get really embarrassed. I always make a point of going up to mothers who are nursing in public and telling them how wonderful I think it is that they are breastfeeding. When they see a stranger approaching, they always look uncomfortable, because they think I’m going to criticize them, but they relax and are very appreciative when they realize that I’m actually very supportive.

I think of today’s mothers as pioneers, who will make it easier for our children, the next generation, to nurse comfortably in public.

Every nursing mom has a different ‘comfort level’ when it comes to how she nurses when she is out and about with her little one. Some are more self conscious or modest than others. Some use covers and others don’t. Some will cover up in some situations, such as attending meetings or attending family gatherings, but not in the park or at the pool. Some will pump their milk and put it in bottles. New moms who are still getting the hang of breastfeeding a newborn  may feel more comfortable nursing in a  private spot, especially in the beginning when it may take a bit of adjusting to get baby latched on. Mothers with active toddlers often find that it’s easier to get their little ones to settle down to nurse in a quiet spot with fewer distractions.

Here are some tips that may help mothers find their own ‘comfort zone’ when nursing their babies in public:

      • Have a positive attitude. Remember that you have every right to feed your baby when he is hungry, and you have no reason to be apologetic. It’s not about your right to breastfeed in public, it’s about your baby’s right to nurse whenever and for whatever reason.
      • Find a comfortable spot, whether it’s on a bench in the park, in a dressing room, or in a restaurant booth. You’ll need space not just to feed your baby, but also to put your diaper bag, purse, stroller, and/or settle your toddler with a snack or toy.
      • Create your own ‘privacy zone’. If you are with a companion, have them position themselves to create a more private space for you. Turn away from the people around you while you get situated, then turn back around.  If someone approaches you, meet their eyes and smile. If you are with someone, just carry on your normal conversation. Chances are that people won’t even notice that you’re breastfeeding.
      • Wear two piece outfits, or clothes with nursing slits. When you pull up your top to nurse, the fabric covers the top of your breast, and the baby covers the rest. When breastfeeding at home, most moms lift their clothes away and then bring their baby in close to nurse, without bothering to cover up. When you want to nurse more discreetly in public, you can do the opposite. Bring the baby in close to you first, then open your top. Many  nursing clothes are designed so that that they don’t look any different from your regular clothes, and can be worn after your baby weans.
      • Carry a blanket to throw over the baby once he settles down and starts nursing. You may want to get a very light piece of fabric to use when it’s warm outside. If you feel that it’s too hot, don’t use it. If you’re nursing an older baby, he’s probably going to pull it off anyway. It’s just an option if you feel that it will make you or the people around you uncomfortable.
      • Baby slings can double as hands free carriers and are one way to NIP without anyone noticing. With a little practice, you can learn to nurse while you’re walking around, and most babies love to ride in them. There are many different types of slings, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Do some research, talk to moms who have used them, and decide which type is best for you.
      • Pay attention to your baby’s hunger signals. Nothing attracts more attention than a crying baby. Everyone in the general vicinity will stare disapprovingly at you until the crying stops. Learn to read his feeding cues and  find a spot to nurse when he first starts getting fussy, rather than waiting until he is frantically screaming with hunger.
      • Nursing a young baby in public is easier than nursing a wiggly toddler. With older children, you can begin to set limits and negotiate. Toddlers can learn that they can’t pull your shirt up or play with the other breast (“Twiddling”) while they are nursing, and they can also learn that they may have to wait for their feeding. Saying “You can have num-nums (or whatever your little one calls it) when we get to the car, or when we get home, but not right now” is reasonable when you are standing in the checkout line at Target or attending a wedding. Toddlers are not always happy with the limits you set, but you need to be firm, (but gentle), unless you are willing to drop everything and nurse immediately on demand regardless of where you are at the time. If you don’t set some limits on NIP, you may find your shirt and bra up in the most embarrassing places while your toddler yells “I want boobies NOW!”
      • When you go shopping, try to nurse in the car before you go into the store, if it’s not too hot or cold. Look for comfortable nursing spots when you go inside – locate lounges or stores with areas set aside especially for nursing. More and more stores are providing these areas as breastfeeding rates increase.
      • At the beach or pool, throw a beach towel over you or wear a cover-up that can be pulled up from the bottom. There are lots of attractive swimsuits on the market made for breastfeeding moms, but they can be pricey. Most of them can be worn after your baby weans, as well as while you’re nursing.  Shopping for swimsuits may be depressing for new moms with their postpartum bodies, so take your time when choosing one that you feel most comfortable wearing out in public.
      • One last tip for moms who NIP: In my opinion, most if not all, of the nursing cover ups do nothing but make moms more conspicuous when they are NIP. Nothing screams “I’m nursing my baby now!” more than sitting under a multicolored tent-like contraption. I’m sorry if that offends the makers of “Hooter Hiders” and other nursing cover ups, but I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a single one that didn’t draw attention to the nursing mom. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of moms nurse so discreetly that no one knew they were feeding their babies, by simply tossing a blanket over their shoulder or nursing their baby in a sling.

If it seems ironic to be concerned about covering up your breast while nursing, while women with silicone boobs are strolling around in thong bikinis, that’s because it is. If you think Facebook is hypocritical when they delete pictures of moms nursing their babies because they deem them ‘inappropriate and offensive to children’, while they allow pornographers to blatantly post pages showing really offensive and demeaning photos, it’s because you’re right.

BFB Cartoon billboard display breastsI refuse to get embroiled in the whole emotional minefield of angry lactavists versus hung up conservatives. It doesn’t accomplish anything, and wastes valuable time that we moms could be spending with our families and enjoying our babies. If everything in life was fair and made sense, we would all get along with each other and nobody would care where a mother breastfed her baby.

The stigma attached to nursing in public isn’t fair, and it doesn’t make sense.

The fact is that many people are uncomfortable seeing a woman’s breast in any setting. They were raised in a bottle feeding culture, and it will take time for them to overcome their hangups. Of course, there are still going to be those in the lunatic fringe who think that NIP is either a) sexual, and they like to stare, or b) think that women who NIP are exhibitionist pedophiles hell bent on corrupting their innocent children.

I feel that In order to change the negative mind set of a culture that turns the very natural act of feeding our babies  into something shameful,  breastfeeding in public is the best way to normalize breastfeeding .

There is no reason to ever feel ashamed or apologetic about breastfeeding your baby at any place or any time he needs to nurse, because breastfeeding is so much more than a ‘milk delivery system’. Babies nurse not only because they’re hungry, but because they’re tired, frightened, sick, or stressed. Often they nurse because they simply need the closeness and skin to skin contact with mama that makes them feel safe and secure. Breasts are Mother Nature’s original pacifier, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with using your breast as a way to comfort your baby as well as feed him your milk.

No baby should ever have to cry because his mother feels she has to find a ‘private place’ to nurse.

We’re not moving as quickly as we’d like to in this fight to normalize breastfeeding, but we are making great strides, thanks in part to groups like The Badass Breastfeeder - nearly a quarter millions mothers have joined the movement to normalize breastfeeding by NIP openly and unapologetically.

It’s going to take some time to get the general public to accept NIP, but it will happen, hopefully sooner rather than later. I’ve been helping mothers nurse their babies for over 35 years, and there is a world of difference between attitudes toward NIP now and back in the ’70s.

NIP is the best way to get the message across that breastfeeding as the natural way, the best way, and the simplest way to nurture our children while providing them with the many nutritional, emotional, immunological, and emotional benefits of breastfeeding.

Anne Smith, IBCLC
Breastfeeding Basics

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