Before I became a mom, I didn’t really have an opinion on the topic of breastfeeding in public. But after my son was born and we became a nursing duo, I was forced to choose a side. Unfortunately, making this choice was not exactly stress-free.
You see, I’ve always been the hyper self-conscious type, especially when it comes to my body. As a kid, I never liked wearing shorts, skirts, dresses, tank tops—essentially anything that exposed large areas of skin. So when it came to nursing in public (and potentially exposing tender parts of my body), I was in constant conflict with myself.
On the one hand, I wanted to feed my baby on cue. As soon as he started showing signs of hunger (and no, it wasn’t always every 2 to 3 hours, like the “experts” and books say), I certainly didn’t want to make him wait until we got home to breastfeed! On the other hand, I was deathly afraid of anyone *seeing* anything. Once, at a crowded theme park, I became so anxious that I actually resorted to doing the deed in a cramped and smelly bathroom stall. As I struggled to balance my son’s flailing body while simultaneously trying not to breathe in the #2 fumes, I had an epiphany: “This is crazy,” I told myself. “Why are you hiding in a shtanky restroom to breastfeed? YOU wouldn’t eat a sandwich in here, would you? Why should HE be forced to have HIS meal in here? He should be able to nurse whenever and wherever he wants!”
From that point on, we did. No more public restrooms for us. I was still nervous at first, but the more we nursed in public, the easier it got. And now, with the birth of my daughter, I don’t hesitate to nurse her when we’re out and about. All I need is a clean and comfortable place to sit (nursing while standing is a little too hard with my 17-pounder!) and some peace and quiet (so she can concentrate and not be distracted).
Here are six reasons why I’m no longer afraid to nurse in public and why I encourage other mothers to do so, too. If you’re a mom who gets antsy at the thought of public breastfeeding, I hope you find some of these ideas comforting and useful, as well.
Reason #1: Breastfeeding in public is best for the baby.
When we adults get hungry, we eat. When our older children get hungry, we feed them. If you are exclusively breastfeeding your baby (i.e., no bottles or artificial milk), YOU are your baby’s only source of food. Don’t make her wait to eat, or worse yet, make her CRY before feeding her (crying is a late sign of hunger). She will learn from an early age to listen to and honor her body’s hunger cues.
Reason #2: Breastfeeding in public can be done however you and your baby see fit.
If you are more comfortable nursing discreetly under a blanket, do it that way. But if your baby doesn’t like having her head covered (my son didn’t), don’t feel obligated to hide. Remember, do it the way that makes you both most comfortable. Trying to nurse any other way will only make the process more stressful for you both.
Reason #3: Breastfeeding in public is NOT the same as indecent exposure.
Critics of public breastfeeding like to say that because a man isn’t lawfully allowed to gallivant around buck naked or relieve himself any old place he likes, a woman shouldn’t be allowed to expose her breasts to breastfeed. Let’s be clear: Indecent exposure is considered a criminal act; breastfeeding your infant is not. To say that exposing one’s genitalia for psychopathic jollies or to whiz/poop on a public corner is the same as nursing an infant whose sole source of nourishment is her mother, is like comparing apples to bananas. There’s just no comparison.
Reason #4: Breastfeeding in public is a legally protected right in most states.
Nearly all states have laws that legally defend a mother’s right to breastfeed in public. California’s civil code states: “A mother may breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, except the private home or residence of another, where the mother and the child are otherwise authorized to be present.” Other states simply exempt public breastfeeding from being considered a crime. See how your state protects your right to breastfeed in public.
Reason #5: Breastfeeding in public normalizes it for my other child.
I want my son to learn that a mother breastfeeds to nourish and comfort her baby. I want him to know that breastfeeding is a natural, loving act and is a normal part of child-rearing. In doing so, I hope that he’ll grow up to be a husband and father who supports and encourages his wife to breastfeed their children.
Reason #6: Breastfeeding in public normalizes it for the current and future generations.
Ditto #5, but for other people and their kids. There are so many distorted perceptions in the media and our society about women’s bodies, especially breasts. Sadly, they have become highly sexualized and taboo “objects.” A nursing mother should never be made to feel ashamed of doing what she feels is best for her child. As breastfeeding in public becomes more common, my hope is that one day we will become what Mothering magazine’s Peggy O’Mara calls a “breastfeeding culture.”
National Conference of State Legislatures – Breastfeeding laws by state
La Leche League International – Articles and personal stories on breastfeeding in public
San Diego County Breastfeeding Coalition – Breastfeeding advocacy links
Your turn. Do you or did you nurse your baby in public? What concerns did you have about public breastfeeding and how did you overcome them?
Sophia savors all the joys (and challenges!) of family life with her husband and two kids in San Diego. Read more of her (mis)adventures in mothering at MamaSayMamaSo.