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Breastfeeding in Public

Michaelene Gerster Trocola
Illinois USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 22 No. 6, November-December 2005, pp. 238-243

The days after birth involve a dance of sorts. Mother and baby take turns leading and following while both adjust to the rhythm of new life. As one day slips into the next, a routine is established. The world doesn't slow down for the breastfeeding dyad, however. After the early weeks have passed and mother resumes normal activities, including social obligations, work, errands, and appointments, breastfeeding in public may or may not present itself as a challenge.

Author Katie Allison Granju writes, "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" (Granju 1999). Mothers who are uncertain about breastfeeding in public can be reassured by the fact that it is not illegal in any state in the US (see "Breastfeeding and the Law" on page 240).

In the presence of others, even if it isn't a public setting, some mothers may feel the need to explain their parenting choices or may wonder, "What do people think when I nurse in front of them?" Regardless of what people think or how they react, the benefits reaped from human milk remain the same. Breastfeeding boosts babies' immune systems, protects against common diseases (even some cancers), saves lives by preventing illness or decreasing symptoms, and may even have a protective effect against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Cultural Attitudes

Many cultures don't think twice about seeing a mother breastfeed her baby. As cultural anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler states:

[I]n most cultures around the world, breasts hold no sexual connotations for either men or women. Sexual behavior does not involve the breasts, which are perceived as existing for the sole purpose of feeding children (Dettwyler 1995).

In the United States, however, baring a breast to nourish and comfort a child is sometimes viewed as taboo.

When people see a woman using her breasts for their most basic function...they may consciously or unconsciously confuse it with something that's sexual and should be done in privacy (Pugliese 2000).

In a society that's riddled with contradictions about what is appropriate, it's not surprising that some women are unsure of how to handle certain aspects of their social lives as breastfeeding mothers. What's all the fuss about? Some people are unsettled by the idea of a child being nourished by something that comes from his mother's body. "Bodily functions are often treated with distaste or disgust...[and] may be considered ‘dirty'" (Schiedel and Chiono 2000). Regardless, all that matters is one fact: breasts are designed for breastfeeding.

Interestingly, most women reveal less skin while breastfeeding than performers in the entertainment industry, and even some women at the local grocery store. Sociologist Barbara Behrmann notes:

Women in the United States nurse in a culture in which our breasts are used to sell everything from cars to beer; in which deep cleavage dominates the checkout aisle...and in which the number of women who artificially enhance their breasts has increased 593 percent from 1992 to 2002 (Behrmann 2005).

Negative attention in the US media hasn't helped to portray public settings as breastfeeding friendly. In the summer of 2005, high-profile journalist Barbara Walters sparked a heated debate on television, in newspapers, and on Web sites after commenting on her show, The View, that being near a breastfeeding mother during an airplane flight made her "uncomfortable."

A month later, The Chicago Tribune reported that a mother, Rebecca Gray, was asked to leave the pool of an amusement park as she discreetly nursed her four-month-old and kept an eye on her splashing toddler. She was informed of more "private" locations for nursing mothers. She commented, "I got out of the pool and continued feeding my baby on a chair beside the pool, and then I left...but the whole experience made me feel bad." A similar situation happened to author Hilary Flower as she nursed her baby at a local public pool. Luckily, she knew her rights and had supportive friends to back her up. As she wrote in The St. Petersburg Times, "Some moms carry a copy of the Florida law around with them in case they get hassled. Now I do, too." (For details on breastfeeding legislation by US state, go to www.lalecheleague.org/ LawBills.html.)

More recently, popular talk show host and psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw was recruiting guests to appear on a show about breastfeeding in public. At one time, his Web site asked people with strong opinions on the subject to contact him. One section included the question, "Do you need Dr. Phil's help at confronting your friend or family member about their inappropriate habit to breastfeed in public?" These examples, just a few among many, illustrate and help perpetuate the attitude that breastfeeding shouldn't be done in public.

What's a breastfeeding mother to do? Stay at home until her child weans? Run for cover if her baby needs to nurse while others are around? Of course not; those aren't practical options. If nursing in public is a roadblock in your breastfeeding relationship, preparation, practice, and breastfeeding support can help boost your confidence. The information below will help you on your mothering journey -- take what works and leave the rest. The most important thing is that you do what's best for you and your baby.

Preparation Is Key

New mothers learn pretty quickly that preparation for an outing is key. As stated in THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, "Don't let a concern about feeding your baby in public keep you from enjoying the advantages and convenience of breastfeeding." For a baby who is exclusively breastfed, all he requires is his mother. All mother needs is a simple diaper bag and a moment of privacy to help baby latch on when he is ready to nurse.

Some mothers avoid breastfeeding in public by expressing their milk to bottle-feed. Their babies still benefit from receiving human milk, but neither of them receive the calming effects that nursing at the breast provides. In addition, young babies may have more trouble learning to breastfeed effectively, since different techniques are required for removing milk from a bottle than from the breast. Mothers will have to clean bottles and pump parts, and carry extra items in their diaper bags. They also run a higher risk of developing a plugged duct or breast infection when feedings at the breast are delayed. The challenges associated with offering human milk in a bottle while in public can be overcome, but:

[M]any 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 (Pugliese 2000).

Another benefit of breastfeeding is that it helps hone parenting instincts.

The more you hold your child and nurse him on demand, the higher your levels of prolactin and oxytocin -- the "mothering" hormones -- will soar....Babies are biologically programmed to let us know what they need, if we just listen to them (O'Mara 2000).

If you breastfeed according to your baby's needs, you'll become familiar with his early feeding cues (such as rooting for the breast or sucking on his hands) and it's likely that you'll be able to anticipate his needs, whether you're at home, enjoying the company of others at a social gathering, or running an errand. Timing is everything. To avoid tears and tantrums, nurse when you see the telltale signs that he is hungry, needs comforting, or just needs to be close to you. Breastfeeding may attract unwanted attention in public if you wait until your baby begins to fuss or cry frantically before you offer your breast.

Out and About

An exclusively breastfed baby will need to nurse every couple of hours, especially in the early months. Some babies may nurse more often. If you feel confident and comfortable with your location and the surrounding people, don't hesitate to breastfeed your baby.

Wherever the destination, it will prove helpful to evaluate your surroundings upon arrival. At a shopping center, for example, be on the lookout for accessible spots to nurse before your baby is hungry. Many stores designate rooms for breastfeeding mothers, but remember that a hungry baby will not be a patient baby! Having a few areas in mind instead of searching for that "perfect" spot with a cranky baby will be easier on you both. In restaurants, request a seat that is out of the way of high traffic areas -- the less you have to move your chair to accommodate passersby, the better. Beware of the common suggestion to use a public toilet facility while breastfeeding. Adults and bottle-fed babies aren't expected to eat in a toilet facility; the same should hold true for breastfed babies.

Some women are more concerned about nursing in front of family members and friends than in front of strangers -- that's because criticism and questions from people we don't know are usually easier to ignore. If you're criticized for breastfeeding during a family gathering, there are ways to diffuse the situation. Remember that some people may just not be aware of the exquisite benefits of human milk. It's also possible that your dedication to breastfeeding makes them defensive or feel criticized for their own parenting choices. As explained in a New Beginnings article by Marianne Vakiener, five tactful ways to respond to criticism involve:

Ignore: walking away or changing the subject;

Inform: sharing books, articles, or a medical professional's thoughts on breastfeeding according to baby's needs;

Humor: making a joke about the situation or yourself, not the other person;

Acknowledge: recognizing the person's viewpoint and asking further questions without agreeing or responding to criticism;

Empathize: being empathetic to demonstrate that you understand the other person's feeling and meaning.

Employing one of these tactics may work for you in difficult situations when the value of breastfeeding is questioned.

Clothing Makes a Difference

The right clothing can make nursing simple and inconspicuous. Two piece outfits or tops that unbutton from the bottom are convenient because they can be pulled up or opened from the waist. If you're concerned about modesty, clothing can be arranged to cover the breast. Depending on the position used, your baby may also cover your torso. Many companies sell stylish nursing bras, shirts, tank tops, and dresses with concealed openings for breastfeeding. Become familiar with how they open so that you can quickly and easily latch your baby on to the breast. (A variety of clothing retailers advertise in NEW BEGINNINGS magazine. For more information, see the pages within or go to the "Valued Advertisers" section of the LLLI Web site at www.lalecheleague.org/valued.html.)

Babywearing (carrying your baby in a sling or a pouch carrier) also lends itself to inconspicuous nursing. As your baby shows early signs of hunger or fussiness, adjust his position and your clothing for nursing. The extra fabric from some baby carriers can easily be pulled over your baby's head and you can continue with the task at hand. With the fabric of the carrier blocking out distractions, your baby can settle down to the business of eating and may nurse quietly off to sleep. This strategy is one that can become a familiar routine for you and your baby, making it more likely that he will be comfortable with it even in unfamiliar places.

Some sources suggest putting a baby blanket over your shoulder so that it drapes over your baby's head. Some babies don't like this strategy much, so it doesn't work for every mother and baby. Also, the blanket-over-the-shoulder approach creates a distinctive look that announces to everyone in sight that a breastfeeding baby is present. Many breastfeeding mothers prefer more inconspicuous strategies for breastfeeding in public places.

If you're self-conscious about what you might be revealing while latching baby onto the breast or breastfeeding, practice at home. Your partner, a close friend, or even a mirror can give helpful feedback and put you at ease. And don't forget about attending La Leche League meetings! They provide the perfect setting to connect with other mothers, learn about breastfeeding, and, of course, see live demonstrations of how other mothers go about nursing their babies or toddlers in public. Family, friends, and LLL meetings are wonderful sources of information, support, and encouragement. (To find an LLL meeting near you, call 800-LALECHE or go to www.lalecheleague.org.)

Breastfeeding with Confidence

Mothers are often surprised by how few people realize they're breastfeeding once they're comfortable and have mastered the art of nursing in public. The more you nurse in the presence of others, the less you may find yourself worrying about the thoughts of people around you. Go ahead: make eye contact with passersby or relax and enjoy the moment. Your positive attitude can even influence others and help create a society that is more breastfeeding friendly. As Behrmann notes:

I've long believed that to nurse in public does more than meet the needs of a child; it does a public service....For despite the ways in which the cultural milieu makes our nursing experiences more complicated, one feeding at a time, one woman at a time, we change the world. (Behrmann 2005)

At the moment, your main concern is probably making your baby's world the best it can be. As a breastfeeding mother, you're off to a great start. Listen to your baby, follow your mothering instincts, and decide what your level of comfort is for breastfeeding in public. Whether you choose to nurse in front of a few close family members and friends or in a crowded area of unknown faces, do so with confidence. No explanations are necessary.

References

Behrmann, B. The Breastfeeding Café. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
Dettwyler, K.A. "Beauty and the Breast: The Cultural Context of Breastfeeding in the United States," in Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, (New York: Adline de Gruyter, 1995) 167-215.
Flower, H. "Nursing Mothers Have Rights, Too." St. Petersburg Times, 14 August 2005.
Granju, K.A. Attachment Parenting. New York, New York: Pocket Books, 1999.
Kuczka, S. "Mom Tells of Park Incident" Chicago Tribune, 15 June 2005.
La Leche League International. THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING. Schaumburg, Illinois: La Leche League International, 2004.
O'Mara, P. Natural Family Living. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Pugliese, A.R. Breastfeeding in public. NEW BEGINNINGS 2000; 17(6):196-200.
Schiedel, E. and Chiono, M. Breastfeeding and Sexuality. La Leche League International, 2000. Publication No. 926-17.
Vakiener, M. Responding to criticism. NEW BEGINNINGS 1999; 16(4):116-19.

Breastfeeding and the Law

Canada

From INFACT Canada (www.infactcanada.ca/HumanRights.htm):

The right to breastfeed anywhere, anytime is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (discrimination based on sex). In Canada each province has a Human Rights Code. These codes protect women from discrimination on the basis of sex. To date, only Ontario (www.ohrc.on.ca/english/guides/pregnancy-breastfeeding.shtml) and British Columbia (www.infactcanada.ca/B.C._HR_Policy_Procedure_Manual.htm) specifically detail the rights of breastfeeding mothers. These provisions include time, access and accommodation in the workplace and in public. Ontario has also has a policy on Discrimination Because of Pregnancy (www.ohrc.on.ca/english/publications/pregnancy-policy.shtml).

In Canada, legal precedent has not been set to specifically include breastfeeding under human rights protection to date, however, the Supreme Court of Canada decision, Brooks v. Canadian Safeway Ltd. (1989), 59 D.L.R. (4th) 321 (S.C.C.), Dickson C.J.C. confirms that pregnancy discrimination is sexual discrimination since only women can become pregnant. If challenged about breastfeeding in public, find out more information at www.infactcanada.ca/BreastfeedinginPublic.htm.

Scotland

Under The Breastfeeding Etc. (Scotland) Bill, it is an offense to prevent or stop a person in charge of a child who is otherwise permitted in a public place or licensed premises from feeding milk to that child in that place or on that premises. Although the bill applies equally to bottle-feeding, it is the issue of breastfeeding in public that is likely to cause most debate and therefore much of this briefing is centered on this theme. For more information, go to www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/bills/index.htm.

USA

Breastfeeding in public is not illegal in any state of the US; however, only certain states have laws addressing public breastfeeding. Some states exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws; other states have statutes protecting a mother's right to breastfeed in public. If you reside in a state that does not have a law or only exempts breastfeeding from indecency laws, a private business owner may have the right to ask you not to engage in breastfeeding on the premises. This does not mean that breastfeeding in public is illegal in these states, just that a mother has no protection in a situation where she is asked to leave a private establishment. More information can be found at www.lalecheleague.org/LawMain.html.

Is there legislation to protect breastfeeding in your country? We're interested in finding out more about breastfeeding and the law in countries outside the US. The information may be compiled and used in future LLLI publications. Send information to Publications at LLLI or to the LLLI Publications Department, 957 N. Plum Grove Road, Schaumburg IL 60173 USA.

 

Breastfeeding in public is an issue that many mothers struggle with. It's common to be nervous about nursing in the presence of others in the early days, only to lose those inhibitions with time and practice. Here's what mothers have shared in past issues of NEW BEGINNINGS.

It's tricky balancing discretion and the needs of children, and somewhere in there I take into account my own comfort and the needs of the moment. It's fun reflecting on the places I've nursed, and it lets me realize how far I've come in this area of my parenting. It helps me strengthen my resolve.

Lora Reynolds
Trafford PA USA

I was still rather conservative [about nursing in public] but much braver and open about my inhibitions than I thought I could be. Having a child changed the way I thought about my breasts....Maybe it was the realization that my breasts were not sex objects but rather a source of food and comfort for my baby. And certainly, it was becoming a mother and doing what I felt was best for my baby. I let go and let love happen and everything else fell into place.

Shari Ann Wenzel
Hometown IL USA

My first foray into the world of breastfeeding in public in Jordan was not exactly "public"... I wasn't up to pushing the cultural envelope at a quaint little village restaurant, so I retreated to the toilet facility. I was amazed at the reception Nolan and I received. The universality of a breastfeeding mother far outweighed the difference in nationalities, and women came over to watch, converse, and tickle the baby. Emboldened, I began to nurse in more public places....I turned my back when possible and I always wore suitable clothing. I was never made to feel out of place. I was always treated with respect and given privacy.

Joan Carlton Griswold
Bellevue WA USA

A "nursing in public" event I never anticipated was a turning point for us. One morning when Samuel was 17 months old, I went on a guided nature tour....When Samuel was ready to nurse as we neared the end of our walk...I just knelt down and latched him on, then stood up and continued walking and talking with him in my arms. My sweatshirt kept us discreet. Just as we neared our destination, I looked ahead and saw a photojournalist snapping pictures of us as we approached him, and my first thought was, "What do you think you're doing! I'm already nursing a toddler in public, I don't need to explain myself to a reporter, too!" Samuel was mostly asleep, but wouldn't let go, so I just resigned myself and walked on. Our picture made the front page of the paper the next day, and the only people who noticed that Samuel might be breastfeeding were friends who also nursed their babies....Somehow, since that point, I just haven't worried much about nursing in public!

Kathy Rausch
Greenland

Several years ago...my husband's younger sister joined us on vacation. While we were walking near the beach one afternoon, my son, David, asked to nurse. My sister-in-law asked with surprise, "He's still nursing?" Time almost stood still for me as possible responses ran through my head....I took a deep breath and said, as calmly as I could, "Yes, isn't that wonderful? I'm really proud that we've been able to keep it up so long especially because I went back to work part-time." She seemed satisfied by my answer and the moment passed, leaving both of us with our dignities intact.

Marianne Vakiener
Fairfax VA USA

As I nursed my son at the local shopping mall, a family approached our bench and glanced at us. "Look, Mommy," said the little girl. "See the baby? There's a baby." The mother looked in the direction her little girl was pointing and smiled....After looking at us for a few seconds, she realized Morgan was breastfeeding. Her expression changed. She gasped and grabbed her daughter's hand, pushed her husband and son ahead of her, and whispered loudly and furiously, "Don't look at her. She's breastfeeding."

I felt humiliated, embarrassed, sad, angry, and misunderstood. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to cry out, "I am just feeding my baby. I am doing what I believe to be best for him. It is not a disgusting or perverted thing -- he is getting the best possible food for him right now, and we are forming a close bond in the process."

I longed to educate all those people who were so set against nursing a baby in public....I wanted to tell them...that we need to be out there discreetly breastfeeding in public, not only for our own comfort and sanity, but to educate.

Alicia Clemens Booksh
Kenner LA USA

Last updated December 17, 2007 by kts.
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