In 38 months I spent nursing my two children, I had nothing but completely neutral to pleasantly friendly experiences when I was feeding them in public. I breastfed everywhere, from big box stores to churches, playgrounds to museums. Most of the time I was completely uncovered. The challenges I faced were practical in nature and not social. Still, as I contemplated any difficulties a nursing mom might face, I came up with ideas of what I could do and things every woman should do for moms breastfeeding in public. I weaned my last child about two years ago, so it's too late for me to benefit from any of these pointers, but it seemed a shame to let them go to waste.
I had great experiences with breastfeeding in public. Mostly I was just left to my own devices, but every now and then I'd find myself in an almost comically positive interaction with someone who wanted to cheer me on. Usually this "someone" was an older mom who wanted to tell me about how she nursed "back when nobody did, and it's so nice to see breastfeeding on the rise." I didn't mind these exchanges because I'm, like, the Queen of the Extroverts.
That's a great point and I'm glad you're thinking along those lines! Let's start with "why moms?" I am a cis, femme woman who is a mom and, as such, I dare not speak to the things a chestfeeding trans-parent, for example, would want from someone while nursing in public. (If anyone wants to tell me about that, please get in touch!) As for "every woman," since we're talking about breastfeeding moms, I don't think it's going out on a crazy limb to suggest that, maybe, this is not a space where male strangers are particularly helpful. (Though I would contend that some of the more "hands off," general advice here is appropriate for people of any gender.)
So now that we've established where I'm coming from on this, let's get to it and discuss how non-breastfeeding women can help the nursing moms they may come across in your run-of-the-mill, every day outing. Hey, we're all in this together, right?
Don't Be A Jerk
I mean, it's just a good life rule, but it bears mentioning here. Why? well, because people have a lot of Very Strong Feelings about breastfeeding, especially breastfeeding in public, and not all of them are positive. Breasts have become so sexualized that some people get all bent out of shape seeing them put to a practical use, and they can wind up being, well, complete and total assholes who say disparaging and/or angry things.
Don't be one of those people. It's actually not hard, really. Just turn your head and move on with your life.
Don't Let People With You Be Jerks
Even if they're not directly being a jerk to the breastfeeding mom in question. Like, if they say under their breath, "Ugh, gross. Why does she have to do that here?" call them to task for their piss poor attitudes in a manner you deem to be most effective. Maybe just give them a dirty look at tell them they're the ones with the problem, not a mom feeding her baby. Maybe ask them "Why do you feel that way?" (Then just keep asking "Why?" until they finally have to admit that they have issues with women's bodies existing in a way that doesn't focus itself around the male gaze.) Then repeat what they said back to them in a stupid-sounding voice (it's not mature but sometimes it's effective at the very least in getting people to keep their stupid thoughts to themselves).
Don't Ask Them To Cover Up/Breastfeed Somewhere Else
"Excuse me, I see you're feeding your baby. They're so adorable. Unfortunately this is a family establishment and we're going to need you either cover yourself or nurse somewhere out of sight, like a bathroom."
This is being a jerk. I know that "don't be a jerk" was already a point made, but I wanted to highlight the idea that you can be polite and still be a jerk.
Don't Be Weird
This is behavior that reflects deep-seated discomfort, but is nice enough to not be a complete jerk about it. Conspicuously turning your head. Shuddering. Making weird, grossed out or uncomfortable noises. All of this is just... weird.
And I get it: a lot of us have been socialized to be weird about this issue and we're not all super woke about breastfeeding, even some people who would like to be. But please restrain yourself as best you can. Keep your discomfort internal. It does not need to be performed.
Conversely, this also isn't the time to gush about how amazing breastfeeding is and how much you loved nursing and "let me just tell you about the evil's of infant formula" either. Inserting yourself in someone's personal space is just as awkward as making a big show of letting them know you're here for none of it.
Know Breastfeeding Laws In Your State
Knowledge is power, you guys. Knowing your state's breastfeeding laws about nursing in public (yeah: there's no federal law) enables you to be comfortable with another woman's decision, helps you to support women, and ensures that you will do the right thing (say, if you are a store owner and someone else comes up to you and complains at the sight of a nursing mom).
Different states have different rules on the books (with the exception of Idaho, which has no rules on the books) but, generally, mothers have a legal right to breastfeed anywhere they have a legal right to be, and there is a pretty good chance that they're legally protected from any indecent exposure laws. Also there are no states that forbid anything to do with nursing in public, just states that do not specifically protect a woman's right to do so.
Not, like, an unblinking, socially aggressive creeper smile. Just, like, if you happen to make eye contact, let that mom know you're friendly. Because for a lot of nursing parents, breastfeeding in public can be a nervous experience. You're on edge that someone might start yelling at you at any moment. A quick, neighborly smile or nod can be a welcomed bit of relief for a mom nursing out in the open.
If You Know A Comfy Spot, Let Her Know Or Give Her Access
This should in no way be mistaken for a "please go somewhere else" but, speaking from experience, it can be really difficult to find a comfortable place to breastfeed (especially when you're just starting out). If you see a nursing mom looks uncomfortable or is having difficulty, it's really nice to go up to her and say something along the lines of, "Excuse me, you're welcome to nurse wherever you like, but if you're interested I know a place that you might find more comfortable."
Casually Keep An Eye On Her Other Kids
Certainly you are in no way obligated to babysit a stranger's children while they nurse (I think we can agree that falls solidly into the "weird" category), but I'm also very much of the mind that humans should look out for each other as best we can because #hippie. Breastfeeding limits a mom's mobility and requires focus... which can sometimes make it difficult to handle other children as efficiently as usual. What does this mean for you?
Again, you're in no way obligated to step in or watch anyone. The mom probably has a decent handle on things. But if you're around, and you notice she's having difficulties (and you're in a position to casually keep an eye out), go ahead and do that. If you see a mobile child of a nursing mom, say, toddling off or getting themselves into a dicey situation and the mom doesn't notice right away (and she probably will, because moms are magical, but no one is more magical than a child's magic ability to get into trouble), say something to the mom, or offer to help her out.
Back Her Up If Someone You Don't Know Is Being A Jerk
There may come a time when a rando comes up to a breastfeeding mom, in front of you, and starts getting rude. You can help, and here's a good strategy, which I did not come up with, but was first brought to my attention in the context of what to do if you witness Islamophobia. I've thought about it, and it seems like a great strategy here, too.
1) Approach the mom and grab a seat next to her, or place yourself so that looking at you means she will turn away from the person harassing her.
2) Strike up a conversation about any mundane subject you wish with the person being attacked. I will always suggest Game of Thrones because I love Game of Thrones and I always want to talk about it.
3) Keep ignoring the jerk.
Eventually the jerk will get annoyed and walk away. If they don't, see if the mom want you to walk with her elsewhere (perhaps to the manager of the establishment).
Mostly Just Leave Her Alone
Seriously. A mom nursing in public isn't that big a deal and, at least 90 percent of the time, will not require your assistance, input, or opinion. There might be a time when a conversation comes up naturally, or you'll be in a position to support her, but on the whole just let nature take its course and let her do her thing.
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