breastfeeding in public

I’m a big supporter of breastfeeding. I truly believe that hospitals, the medical institution in general, and all of society should support breastfeeding moms far more than they do, starting with placing the baby skin-to-skin immediately to accepting women feeding children in public. (Mega props to the Pope for furthering this cause.) I managed to breastfeed my son for a full year and am only now just tapering off. But I do have a reoccurring issue with how some advocates frame the issue of breastfeeding in public.

While I appreciate that they don’t want to be shamed for nursing without a cover, I feel hurt by the way they refer to the idea of mothers covering themselves up. Terms like “breastfeeding burqa”, implying that I’m denying my baby fresh air (even though that article is pretty funny), and phrases like “I would never put my baby under a blanket!” make me feel as if I’m not “doing it right” or letting down feminists by wearing a nursing cover. While I think they intend to make nursing a more accepted activity, by denigrating a tool that enables many women to breastfeed who wouldn’t otherwise, I think they could be driving mothers away instead.

Personally, there is no way I would ever be able to breastfeed after a couple of weeks if I didn’t have my nursing cover. I am an extremely modest person; just writing this post gives me the shakes. So when I started nursing Sprout in public, I became hyper-aware that people would be thinking about my breasts, even if they couldn’t see them. And that totally freaked me out. I was so nervous that even with the cover, I tried to make myself as invisible as possible. I sat in the back of the church instead of our usual spot; I fed Sprout in the car at an outdoor mall instead of on one of the many benches. There is absolutely no way that I could have started feeding him in public if there was the chance anyone would see my bare boobs, nipple exposed or not. And as any nursing mom knows, you absolutely need to feed your baby in public. Bathrooms are not appropriate places to bring hungry babies. So if it wasn’t for my nursing cover, I would have breastfeed my baby for a drastically shorter period of time.

I suspect I’m not the only one in this situation. Now, some advocates would say we should just get over our neuroses and throw off societies’ restrictions. But it’s damn hard enough being a new mom – why add more emotional and social burdens than necessary?

Beyond the modesty issue, I wonder if Sprout himself would be able to eat in public places without the cover. He’s been a very observant, engaged baby since the day he was born. As a result, he’s always been easily distracted while eating. His very first night, I struggled to get him to latch as my husband and I talked. A moment after my husband left the room, he latched on perfectly, his attention no longer split between eating and our conversation. Even if he wasn’t too distracted in public to latch on, he would constantly be breaking his hold, exposing more nipple than a wardrobe malfunction would. He still does this when my husband walks in the room while I’m nursing. Even if I wasn’t quite modest, that would be a whole lot of public nudity and unfortunate leakage.

Beyond my personal experience, assuming people have the social capital to nurse their babies in public without a cover is a privileged position. Women of color and poor women already have huge societal burdens put on them and shouldn’t need to feel even more judgment. People are more likely to feel like they can make disparaging comments to them than a white, middle to upper class woman. Lastly, the consequences of social approbation are likely to be more severe for people who have less power to push back. While a manager of a restaurant or pool may give a more privileged person a warning first, they may go straight to kicking out someone who society already undervalues. Plus, these groups are already less likely to breastfeed, so they should have access to anything that might help them do it.

In general, we need to support breastfeeding moms in whatever way they choose to breastfeed. Shaming women or denigrating blankets or covers only harms new mothers that are trying to do the best for their babies and themselves. There’s enough judgment out there – let’s stand in solidarity in a positive way.

Previously published on We’ll Eat You Up We Love You So

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Shannon Brescher Shea is a mom of an infant and three-year-old in the Washington D.C. suburbs. She explores parenting, growing up, and this big, beautiful world at her blog We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So as well as on Facebook. When she's not at her day job as a science communicator or hanging out with the family, she's gardening, bicycling, or advocating for environmental and social sustainability.

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