Nursing In Public

by Anne Smith, IBCLC

nursing_in_publicWhile my personal belief is that nothing in the world is more natural than breastfeeding, and therefore every nursing mother should feel comfortable pulling her shirt up or off and nursing anywhere at all, I understand that we live in a society where this just isn’t always possible. In this country, breasts are considered sexual objects, and while it is just fine to expose them at the pool in a bikini, or in Penthouse, many people feel that there is something disgusting about a baby at the breast.

The previous generation bottle fed their babies, so many people have never, ever seen a woman nursing. That’s one reason that it has shock value, and is upsetting to so many people. I feel strongly that the way to change this is for women to “NIP” (Nurse In Public) openly, comfortably, and as discreetly as possible, so that people (especially children) can see that breastfeeding is the ‘normal’ way to feed our babies.

With more and more mothers nursing these days, the tide is beginning to turn. We are nursing our babies whenever they need to eat, meeting their needs wherever we happen to be. We are backed by the scientific evidence that breastmilk 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. 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?

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 have to have such laws, it does mean that the rights of nursing mothers are finally being recognized and validated.

I have always nursed my babies anywhere and everywhere – the pool, the grocery store, PTA meetings, Little League games, etc. The only problem I ever encountered was when people who didn’t know what I was doing would come up and pull the blanket away to look at the baby, and 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 this strange woman 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 that today’s mothers are sort of like pioneers, who will make it easier for the next generation (our children) to nurse comfortably in public.

Here are some tips to make it easier to nurse discreetly, no matter where you are:

      • 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 when he needs to – whether it’s because he’s hungry, or tired, or sick, or scared, or sad, or any other reason.
      • Find a comfortable spot, whether it’s on a bench or sitting down in the corner behind some racks of clothes.
      • Create your own ‘privacy zone’. If you are with a companion, have them position themselves to create more private space for you. Turn away from the people around you while you get situated, then turn back around. Look up from your baby once he starts nursing. If you aren’t looking down at him, most people will think he’s just sleeping. You may want to read a magazine or book. If someone approaches you, meet their eyes and smile. If you are with someone, just carry on your normal conversations.
      • 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 you nurse at home, you lift your clothes away and then bring your baby in close. When you nurse in public, do the opposite. Bring him close to you first, then open your clothes. There are many more options for nursing clothes that there were in the past. Many of them are designed so that that they don’t look any different from your regular clothes, and can be worn after your baby stops nursing.
      • 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 throw it off anyway. It’s just an option if you feel that it will make you or the people around you uncomfortable. Nursing slings can double as a carrier and a way to NIP without anyone noticing. 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. Try to find a spot to nurse when he first starts getting fussy, rather than waiting until he is frantically screaming.
      • Practice discreet nursing in front of a mirror, or have your partner watch you. Believe me, he will tell you if anything is showing, because he doesn’t want any strangers to see your breasts even more than you do.
      • Nursing a young baby in public is easier than nursing a wiggly toddler. With older babies, 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 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 – my babies called it ‘milky-side’ – when we get to the car, but not right now” is reasonable when you are standing in line at Target. Toddlers are not always happy with the limits you set, but you have to be firm, (but gentle), unless you are willing to nurse on demand and have your shirt pulled up in the most embarrassing places whenever your toddler feels like it.
      • 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 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. This is another advantage of baby slings. With a little practice, you can learn to nurse while you’re walking around, and most babies love to ride in them.
      • 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 nursing moms, but they’re pricey. Most of them can be worn after your baby weans, as well as while you’re nursing. If you decide to invest in one, do your research and find out which one is best for your body type. In other words, try to find one that minimizes your belly and your boobs as much as possible. Shopping for swimsuits is usually very depressing for new moms with their postpartum bodies, so take your time when choosing one that you feel most comfortable wearing out in public. It’ll be a good investment, especially if you spend a lot of time at the pool or beach.
      • 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.

It isn’t fair, and it doesn’t make sense, but I feel that by NIP in public and not making a huge deal out of it is the best way to normalize breastfeeding in the long run. Lots of perfectly nice people who don’t have anything against breastfeeding are uncomfortable seeing a woman’s breast in any setting, and it’s not their fault. 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 get off on it; or b) think that women who NIP are exhibitionist pedophiles hell bent on corrupting their innocent children. It’s going to take longer to get them to accept breastfeeding as the norm, but it will happen eventually.

I think it’s reasonable to nurse as discreetly as you can in order to spare both groups (those who are uncomfortable seeing a woman NIP because they haven’t seen it enough, and the redneck nutcases who are rabidly and irrationally opposed to it) as well as you, the embarrassment, but you don’t have to apologize for anything. Remember: it’s not about your right to breastfeed in public, it’s about your baby’s right to nurse whenever and for whatever reason he needs to.

In my opinion, being militant and angry and having an ‘in your face’ attitude about NIP is more likely to reinforce the idea that nursing moms are crazed hippy lunatics who want to corrupt the youth of America than it is to help make the general public accept the idea that breastfeeding is the simple way, the best way, and the natural way to feed a baby. We’re not moving as quickly as we’d like to in this fight to normalize breastfeeding, but we are making great strides, and it will happen sooner rather than later. Let’s take it one step at a time…

(Edited September, 2013)

Anne Smith, IBCLC
Breastfeeding Basics

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About Anne Smith, IBCLC

Anne Smith, IBCLC
As the mother of six wonderful breastfed children, one perfect breastfed grand baby, and an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) with over twenty-five years experience in lactation counseling, I can offer you professional support, as well as information and advice based on my personal experiences over the years.

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