How Not to Support Breastfeeding in Public - This West Coast Mommy
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How Not to Support Breastfeeding in Public

World Breastfeeding Week 2013August 1-7 is World Breastfeeding Week, and this year’s theme is BREASTFEEDING SUPPORT: CLOSE TO MOTHERS. What better time to write about the time I tried to support a mom breastfeeding in public (and failed miserably)?

I was out shopping a few weeks ago when I saw a young mom sitting on a mall bench with her new baby in a wrap. Her baby was crying, obviously hungry, and mom was trying to comfort him. I had my two girls with me, and I looked over at the mama in sympathy. She said, “He’s hungry,” and I smiled and said, “So feed that baby!” She looked flustered and told me she was trying to, but she had a lot of buttons to undo and was trying to figure out how to rearrange her shirt to nurse her little guy so nobody would notice.

Ack! That came out so wrong! I hadn’t meant to be critical of her in any way. What I’d meant to say was that she should just go ahead and feed her baby and not bother worrying about what other people might think. I rushed to explain myself, and I think she understood, but I was mortified that I had probably made her feel more self-conscious. That was the exact opposite of what I had intended.

You see, I think it’s crucial for moms who breastfeed to feel supported to nurse in public. If a mom feels uncomfortable breastfeeding in public, then she either rearranges her life so she’s never out of the house when her baby has to eat (good luck with that one – both my babies ate around the clock their first few months), or (the more likely scenario) she starts bottle feeding and/or formula feeding. Either of those outcomes are likely to interfere with successful breastfeeding, at least to some extent.

New moms have a hard enough time adjusting to motherhood as it is without having to worry that somebody might call them out or criticize them for feeding their baby the way nature intended. We shouldn’t feel like we need to hide. Babies need to and deserve to eat when they’re hungry, and mothers need to and deserve to feed their babies normally. That means in the mall, at a restaurant, in the park, at the doctor’s office, and wherever else mom and baby are.

public breastfeeding

I remember how nervous I felt in the early months with my first baby whenever I was breastfeeding in public. Nobody ever did, but I was so anxious that somebody would give me a dirty look, or say something rude, or ask me to leave. What would I say? What would I do? Here in British Columbia, a mother’s right to breastfeed in any location open to the public is protected under BC’s Human Rights Code. But being aware of your rights is entirely different from actually finding yourself in that kind of a hostile situation with the embarrassment of somebody making rude comments or even telling you to leave, your baby crying, passers by staring at you… While I pride myself on being educated and assertive about my baby’s right to eat, I don’t know if I would be willing to make a scene in that moment. I’d probably leave and then spend the next week beating myself up for not standing my ground.

All of these thoughts are why I’ve been trying to figure out some small friendly thing I could say to support moms I see breastfeeding in public and to acknowledge what a wonderful thing they’re doing. Obviously I need some help with this. I don’t want to come across as condescending or patronizing. What I want to communicate is that I’m just another mom who agrees that feeding your baby when he or she is hungry is normal and so much more important than shielding others from the fact that this is how babies eat. And oh yeah, I think you’re fabulous.

Have you ever said or done something to support a mother breastfeeding in public? If you’re a breastfeeding mom, what might you find supportive?

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18 Comments

  • In a group I’m in online a few women have had someone come up and simply thank them for nursing in public to help normalize it with a smile. One handed a card that said thank you and had a number for local nursing support in case it was ever needed. I’ve been tempted to make my own cards! In another situation, a Starbucks barista came up and gave the mom a glass of water with a smile and a word of thanks for nursing in public. I’m going to try to give a smile and possibly a thank you in the future, but I’m afraid even a thank you could come off as condescending!

    • I’m worried about that as well. Did the women in your online group appreciate the thank you or was it too weird? Now the water would definitely be a nice gesture if I were in that kind of position. I know I’m always thirsty when I’m nursing!

  • I never had anyone offer any type of support like that when I was breastfeeding, but it would have been appreciated. I was always thirsty when I nursed.

  • I breastfed, but I do have to say, I don’t think was ever in a situation were I felt uncomfortable feeding my son in public. I guess I suggest people just not stare! I mean, it’s just a baby having a meal 🙂

    • Yes! Just a baby eating. I wish everybody understood that. But I guess that’s what World Breastfeeding Week is about – normalizing what is, in fact, just a baby having a meal.

  • I think it is crucial for women to know their right to breastfeed in public! I’m very fortunate that my state (Indiana) protects a woman’s right to breastfeed anywhere that she is allowed to be. So basically, I can BF my baby anywhere I please. This is not to say that everyone accepts that right but if someone confronted me, I would politely tell them that it is my legal right to do so.

    There was a local restaurant that had an incident with this recently. A mother was nursing her child at her table when another patron was “offended’ and said something to their waitress. A manager later approached the nursing mother and asked her to please stop or to leave. The woman calmly explained that she was well within her rights and that they could not make her leave and the manager replied that another diner was offended. It turned into a really big incident and the restaurant later apologized but the woman had to contact a local news station to bring awareness to the issue.

    The more we exercise our right to NIP, the more normal it will become. Kudos to you!

    • Thank you, DIva! The situation you described is the kind of thing I’m afraid of. Yeah, I know my rights, but would I really want to have to have a stand off in a public place, go to the media, etc.? I mean, I hope that I would for my baby’s sake, but I’m not sure.

      You make an important point at the end of your comment too. I nurse in public because my baby needs food. But secondary to that is doing my part to help normalize breastfeeding so my daughters won’t feel nervous or uncomfortable or face criticism when they’re feeding my grandchildren.

  • Thanks for this post – it’s hard to offer support to mothers breastfeeding in public because most of the condescending comments that I’ve seen towards mothers BFing in public are from other mothers! Even my mom has said that you should BF modestly in public and she’s a hardcore breastfeeder. I think it’s just trying to bring awareness to the issue so women don’t have to be uncomfortable to nurse in public.

    • I hope I never come across as condescending to any mother because of her feeding choices. I do have a hard time with the concept of “breastfeeding modestly” though, because my idea of modesty and someone else’s idea of modesty are probably not the same, and it opens the door to moms being criticized/judged for not being modest enough. I agree raising awareness is critical – whether through a special event like WBW, or just by nursing in public and showing by example it’s no big deal.

  • A friend of mine recently posted that she felt nervous breastfeeding in public for the first time, until a woman came up to her and just started a conversation. She appreciated being treated normally. So, maybe nothing special is required, just a hello or other conversation starter. I remember women would comment about how much they enjoyed breastfeeding when I would do it in public places, and sometimes women would bring their babies over and join us.

    • Thanks for the idea! I don’t normally walk up to strangers and start up a conversation, but I could see how a friendly hello would be nice. If I had to nurse my baby too, I’d pick the bench with the other nursing mom. Strength in numbers, right?

  • This is an awesome post. I have always commended women that breast fed. All three of my children had issues with latching so it was easier to bottle feed. Thanks for sharing!! Breastfeeding mom’s always have my support!

  • I am honestly conflicted. At 27 years old, I’ve passed the age even my own mother gave birth to two babies, but I can say I have given more than a few thoughts on having babies / breastfeeding / raising a baby. In my country, about 3 or 4 women out of 10 breastfeed, and even those stop after about 5-6 months. My mom stopped about that time for both me and my brother because she had excrutiating pains while doing it. I support breastfeeding for a few months, but I find too many similarities between breastfeeding in public and public nudity. Especially when a handkerchief or a small towel or a cute scarf could give a mom the perfect cover to fed her baby anywhere. But many don’t bother. And become offended when a passerby (a modest woman / man; small children not ready to have The Talk with their parents yet; or people enjoying a night out / romantic dinner / first dinner / etc.) finds their entire naked pale flabby stomach and breast distastefull. What’s the difference between inconsiderate, careless breastfeeding and distastefull public nudity ?

    • Thanks for your question and honest thoughts. I guess I would start by saying I think there’s a vast difference between feeding a baby and getting naked in public. Some mothers cover up and others don’t, either because they don’t want to or the baby won’t tolerate it. As a mother responsible for the survival of tiny beings, I also don’t feel that someone else’s “right” not to be offended somehow trumps my baby’s right to eat. Are these people just as offended by all those naked pale flabby stomachs and breasts on the beach or at the pool? From your comment, I’m not sure what part you think is distasteful – the breastfeeding or the fact that mama is pale and flabby. I don’t think anyone has the right to say, “I don’t like your body, so you should cover yourself up to meet my standards.” If a young couple are unable to enjoy their night out together because they saw somebody’s stomach, chances are they weren’t meant for each other anyway!

      I’m not sure what you mean by “The Talk”. I usually think of “The Talk” as a reference to explaining about sex, but since breastfeeding isn’t sexual, that’s not an issue. If you mean a discussion where kids learn that human babies drink human milk, that doesn’t seem like something that needs to be a “Talk”. It’s pretty normal actually.

      I do agree that we should all try to be considerate when interacting with other people. You can see in the picture above that nothing is hanging out, even though I’m not using a cover. However, where it becomes a problem is when that same courtesy and consideration are not extended to the breastfeeding mother and baby. As adults, we can look away if we don’t want to see something. It’s much more difficult (and inconvenient for everyone within earshot) for a baby to wait to eat or for a mother to isolate herself at home or in a bathroom because someone else has an issue with her appearance. Maybe more mothers would breastfeed and for longer if they weren’t treated like they were doing something wrong.