Breastfeeding my first kid was fairly uneventful. She was born at the beginning of winter, so rarely was I outside with her and breastfeeding in public wasn’t something I really did until she was quite a few months old. By that time I was very comfortable with the whole process. With my son, however and who was born in the summer, I was outside with him much more in those early postpartum days. I learned there were things I didn't have to do when breastfeeding in public, despite all the helpful (and somewhat judgmental) advice circulating out there for new moms. My biggest takeaway from the experience of breastfeeding in public was that having conventions for the act is putting pressure on moms like me to perform in a certain way so that we're collectively inconspicuous.
A lot of tips I gleaned from parenting forums and sites, and even other moms, revolved around ways to avoid exposing myself when nursing in public. I get it. I’ve never been totally comfortable with my body, and I’ve rarely sought opportunities to flaunt (except for those 10 minutes when I hit my goal weight in my late 20s). Reading all this “advice” made me realize that the stigma attached to public breastfeeding came only from others. After all, in a sea of people at a public place, I’d bet most of them are not actively nursing babies. The breastfeeding mom is the outlier, and he is constantly being reminded of that by others who want to advise her to “blend in “ by shielding the act of feeding a baby and making it look like nothing is going on.
I resent that standpoint. Why should I pretend I’m not doing what I’m doing, when all I’m doing is feeding a hungry kid? Miffed by a societal norm that perpetuates the idea that women who nurse their babies should do so in hiding, I’ve thought of a few things you actually don’t have to do when breastfeeding in public.
Seek Out Privacy
Personally, I was more comfortable finding a quiet spot without a lot of noise or distraction if I had to nurse my baby. However, since we were in New York City, that was not always possible. So if I had to whip it out in a crowded area (waiting for a brunch table, for example), I just rolled with it.
Even if it was possible to find a bench around the corner, away from the cluster of people, maybe I didn’t always want to interrupt whatever conversation I was having to go somewhere more private to breastfeed.
Then again, maybe I really didn’t feel like talking to anyone while I fed my baby. After all, breastfeeding affects me in addition to my infant. It was a great excuse to sit down, and, if possible, zone out. Being a new mom is exhausting enough; I didn’t also have to worry about multi-tasking during nursing sessions.
I guess it’s polite to announce that you’ll be breastfeeding your baby when you’re with company. I mean, people might be shocked to see a woman’s breast in the service of nourishing a youngster and not to titillate (I know, I know) straight men.
However, if a fussy baby and me fumbling with my buttons weren't clear enough clues for present company to deduce that there was going to be some breastfeeding happening, it was not up to me to prepare their delicate psyches for it.
My son was born in July. It was seriously hot for the next three months, so I didn’t love the idea of draping anything over my chest and his face when the sweat factor was already high.
No mom, breastfeeding or bottle feeding, should feel compelled to apologize for anyone around her for her methods of tending to her kid’s basic needs. I have a tendency to say “I’m sorry” frequently — sorry I missed that email, or, sorry we can’t make the birthday party — and I’m trying to break that habit.
What jumpstarted my progress in being less apologetic was realizing how ridiculous it would sound to say, “Sorry, I just need to feed the baby.” Like sating an infant’s hunger was inconveniencing another human being.
It should be pretty obvious that I’m breastfeeding because my child needs to be fed and breast milk is her main source of nourishment. I really don’t think I need to launch into a whole backstory about how my kid slept through her regular feeding time and I allowed it because it allowed me to take a shower, and that is the only reason why I’d dare to breastfeed in public like this. I don’t owe anyone an explanation about breastfeeding in public.
Be OK With Someone Else’s Discomfort
Tolerance is a double-edged sword. Am I really grateful that people who don’t approve of mothers who breastfeed outside their homes are tolerating me nursing my baby in this furniture store? Not really.
Sure I appreciate people who keep their opinions to themselves, unless they are expressing support for my choice, but I can tell when someone is taken aback by seeing a mother nurse her baby outside (even if that person says nothing). So, while I guess it’s cool some disapproving person is not making a scene about being uncomfortable in the presence of public breastfeeding, I don’t think it’s OK at all that I can sense their discomfort. I am truly not doing a thing that gets in anyone’s way, and if they don’t like what they see, they can over their own eyes.
Carry A Copy Of The State’s Nursing Law
I strongly believe that the onus is not on a nursing mom, who clearly has her hands full, to produce evidence that she is protected under the law should someone challenge her right to breastfeed in public. Despite what some suggest, carrying a copy of a state’s nursing law puts breastfeeding moms on the defensive, which is not a position we should ever be forced to be in. If someone wants to cite the legality of what you’re doing — when you need to nurse your infant in a courtroom, or restaurant, or at an amusement park — it’s on them to waste their own time to prove they don’t even know what they’re talking about. It’s not my place to educate fools on my right to feed my hungry baby when it would detract from the act of actually feeding him. I’m happy to go off when he’s full, though.
I nursed both my kids until they were 2 years old, because that is what worked for them and for me. I have witnessed onlookers’ different reactions when seeing me breastfeed my newborns versus my toddlers. I got a lot a lot more raised eyebrows when I had my 18 month old latched on than my 3 month old. I didn’t turn away or lower my gaze. It didn’t feel great to be stared at, knowing a stranger was silently passing judgment on my parenting, but I couldn’t let shame win.
Just because I was empowered to breastfeed in public, didn’t mean I always enjoyed it. If I was at the playground, I’d be afraid I’d get hit with a wayward ball. I was sometimes annoyed that I had to stop and nurse (though I did get fairly proficient breastfeeding my infant with one arm so I could hold a book to read to my toddler with the other). I think there is this assumption that when we women have these “wins,” such as normalizing public breastfeeding (which hasn’t totally happened), it’s always cause for celebration and joy. The fact is, however: there should not be anything remarkable about having to feed my baby wherever is best for us. I’m so glad that society is evolving, slowly, to a place that will, hopefully, stop shaming women for the choices we are making in raising our own kids to the best of our abilities.
I don’t always feel like a million bucks when I’m pressing my kid’s sweaty head to my boob in 106-degree weather while everyone else is in the pool. Progress is a wonderful thing, but when it comes to breastfeeding, it's never without its downsides.