Sunday, August 18, 2013

What's So Hard About Covering Up to Breastfeed in Public?

Any time a breastfeeding story comes up in the news, especially one in which a breastfeeding mom is asked to leave an area to feed her baby, I break my own rule about not reading online comments out of sheer, morbid curiosity. In real life, I'm surrounded by people who are very supportive of breastfeeding, so it interests me to read comments and questions about the appropriateness of breastfeeding in public.

Of course, there are always some unnecessarily mean people, but some sentiments that come up frequently are legitimately well-meaning. As a mom who nursed three kids in all kinds of situations, I thought I'd address a few of these:

"I totally support breastfeeding, but what's so hard about covering up to breastfeed in public?"

That's great that you support breastfeeding. I actually would love to get to the stage when we stop calling it breastfeeding, and just call it feeding. That's all it is. You're not feeding a breast, you're feeding a baby. It's babyfeeding. Should women have to cover their babies to feed them in public? That sounds a little silly, doesn't it?

But to answer your question, there are several reasons why moms might not cover up in public:

1) It actually is hard to cover up and feed a baby at the same time. Especially when you're a new mom, and you're trying to wrangle a squishy baby into a comfortable position where they can latch on correctly. Even with my third baby, keeping a cover over my shoulder while latching on wasn't easy. And really, the only time one would "need" to cover up due to possible nipple exposure (if that's the reason you think moms should cover up) is during the latch-on. And balancing a blanket on your shoulder while trying to see what you're doing to get the baby latched is a big pain in the butt. Truly.

2) Some babies hate being covered. Most of the time, my babies would try to pull the cover off. I wouldn't want to eat with a blanket over my head, would you? Especially when it's hot. Ugh, it makes me claustrophobic just thinking about it.

3) One of the benefits of breastfeeding is the eye contact between mom and baby. The location of the breast is designed to put the baby within the vision range of mom's face. Yes, you can have the same eye contact when you're bottle feeding, which begs the question - would you cover up your baby's face while cradling and bottle feeding, rather than looking at your baby and smiling at him/her at regular intervals? That would be silly.

4) When I was nursing, I actually felt like using a cover drew more attention to what I was doing. Uncovered, most of the time, it just looked like I had a baby cradled in my arms, sleeping. No breast could be seen once baby was latched. Nothing screams, "Hey, I'm breastfeeding over here!" like a draping a blanket over your shoulder while awkwardly trying to get your baby into a comfortable breastfeeding position.

5) Covering up implies that there's something inappropriate about feeding a baby. There's not. It's feeding a baby. That's it.

"I breastfed all my babies, but I never did it in public. Why don't women just pump if they're going out?"

That's great that you breastfed all your babies. That's also great if you were able to pump and that your baby took a bottle. Not all moms can pump successfully. Not all babies will take a bottle. After working at it for a while, I could pump, but my babies never took a bottle. That wasn't for lack of trying - they just wouldn't. I'm sure if their lives depended on it, and if I wasn't around for a long time, they would eventually take one, but having a baby is hard enough. I wasn't about to go through that much unnecessary effort so that I could bottle feed in public.

I've known some women who couldn't get anything from pumping. Some women can't relax enough with a machine hooked up to their body to get a letdown. Totally understandable.

But the real answer to this question is, they shouldn't have to. Think about what you're suggesting: that a mother skip a feeding to pump, or pump regularly enough to have the extra milk to pump outside of a feeding, then find a way to keep the milk cold in transport, then find a way to warm up the milk once she is where she's going, then feed the baby with the bottled milk, then deal with the leakage or discomfort of the full breasts she has from feeding with the bottle instead of the breast for that feeding, and then wash and sterilize the bottle afterward--all instead of just taking her baby with her and feeding the ready-to-go milk she has on hand in her own body?

Doesn't that seem a little ridiculous?

Most women who successfully pump have a system and a routine for it, and usually it's because they're away from their babies for a certain amount of time on a regular basis. More power to them. I've known lot of working, pumping moms, and I think they're amazing.

But the idea of pumping just to go out in public with your baby, when your breasts are right there with you, is goofy to me. How long have breast pumps been around? How long have humans been feeding babies? When did we get to the mindset that feeding babies in public is better done with machinery and accessories than with mom?

"I don't mind if moms breastfeed in public, as long as they do it modestly. Especially if there are kids or teens around."

That's great that you don't mind if moms breastfeed in public. But let's discuss the modesty idea. I hope you have the same feelings about modesty when you see a woman in a bathing suit, or a low-cut top, because 99% of the time, that's all you can see of a woman's breast when she breastfeeds.

Granted, there might be a couple of seconds of nipple showing. If you really don't want to see that, pay close attention to moms with babies. Here are the cues that a mom is getting ready to breastfeed:

1. She starts to lift her shirt or adjust her bra.

There you go. As soon as you see that starting to happen, look away. If you're really concerned about your children seeing a woman breastfeeding, take that cue to show them something in the other direction.

But really, if kids are going to have any exposure to breasts (and they already have, if you have ever taken them to the grocery store and waited at the checkout stand where they keep the magazines), isn't that the kind of exposure they should have? Don't you want your children to see what breasts are primarily for? They're getting plenty of messages on billboards, television, and other media that breasts are sexual. Seeing them used in a decidedly and awesomely unsexual way can only be good, in my opinion.

"Can't you just go to the bathroom to breastfeed?"

1) Bathrooms are gross. Would you want to eat in there?

2) Many bathrooms don't have a chair to sit in, which leaves Mom with the option of sitting on the floor (yuck) or on the toilet (double yuck).

3) If a mom wants privacy to nurse because she feels more comfortable that way, that's great. I'm a big fan of having lounge areas for nursing moms. But it should be for her comfort, not for yours. When I was nursing, I occasionally removed myself to nurse because it was too loud or I wanted a little space, but the times I removed myself because of my worries about other people, I felt exiled. When a mom feels that she needs to hide to breastfeed, the message is that there's something shameful or wrong with what she's doing. And that's not right.

Along with the presumably well-meaning comments, I've also seen a few more, ahem, "strongly-worded" sentiments I'd like to address:

"Breastfeeding is totally natural, but so is going to the bathroom / having sex, and people don't do that in public."

Going to the bathroom is gross, stinky, and unsanitary to do in public, which is why we don't do it. Feeding a baby is none of those things. Sex is an incredibly private, intimate act. Feeding a baby can be intimate in that it's a bonding experience between baby and mom, but it's more of a holding hands kind of intimacy--not something that needs to be confined to the privacy of a bedroom or home. The comparisons are apples and oranges.

"If you want to breastfeed, that's fine, but I don't want to / shouldn't have to see it."

Then don't look. And I don't mean that in a snarky way. You really don't have to watch a mom breastfeed. (See cues in third question above.) Just look the other way and move on.

"Women who breastfeed in public are just trying to get attention / make a statement."

Actually, 99% of women who feed their babies in public are just trying to feed their babies. Having been around hundreds of women who breastfeed, including dozens at a recent La Leche League conference, I can attest to the fact that most women are very matter-of-fact about feeding their babies.

I've known one mom who exposed much more breast for much longer than any other moms I've known, but she was raised in Africa, so that explains it. I've known of one other mom (don't know her personally) who sounds like she has some exhibition issues and takes the opportunity to show more breast than necessary any old time she can. That's by far an exception, and not the norm. Most breastfeeding mothers don't "let it all hang out." They do what they need to do to feed their babies, no more, no less.

"This isn't a village in Africa. It's culturally inappropriate to bare your breasts in public here."

I'm curious about what this says about villages in Africa, or other places where breasts are common sights. Why is it culturally inappropriate here? I don't necessarily think it should be, I just want to walk through the reasoning for our cultural views of breasts. Is it because our society views breasts as primarily sexual in nature? Are African breasts not sexual in nature as well? Would you shield your eyes from a National Geographic magazine showing bare-breasted women in Africa? Would you hide that from your children? If so, why? Are African women inappropriate? Is there some kind of fear that if we start accepting breastfeeding in public without freaking out about covering up, women will eventually start walking around bare-breasted all the time? Lots of questions pop up from this statement that are worth examining.

I personally think it should be culturally appropriate for women to bare a breast for a brief second in order to latch a baby on, no matter where in the world they are. There's nothing sexual or inappropriate in that act. I think it should be way more culturally appropriate than, say, going to Hooters. Our priorities are a tad bit skewed when it comes to what's culturally appropriate regarding breasts. If we want to get all righteous about the appropriateness of breast exposure, let's direct our energies at movies, music videos, billboards, magazines, and other popular media. Leave moms who are trying to feed their babies out of it.

And if you really don't want to see a woman feed her baby in public, don't look. Don't make her feel ashamed, don't exile her to the bathroom, don't make erroneous assumptions about her motives, don't compare feeding her baby to defecating, don't make hypocritical cultural statements, don't make it harder to do than it already is. Just don't look. It really is that simple.


  1. BEAUTIFUL!!! Thank you for such a diplomatically expressed essay.

  2. I'm tempted to print off several copies of this and carry it with me when I go to restaurants and see people reacting negatively to breast-feeding. Very well said!

  3. Kids gotta eat! People who can't handle it need therapy.

  4. I absolutely love this! I will be giving it to my hospital breastfeeding class.

  5. +10. Yeah,though I'm a guy, IMHO this ahould be an editorial/commentary in every paper in the land, and if a book comes of it, incorporated in all schools at some level. The cultural taboo about breastfeeding is in fact malicious and backward-thinking. Onward!

    1. Leave it to a man to butt in to women's territory, women's business, and scold women because many do not want to show their breasts with men around. How about you spending a little time getting men to dislplay their testicles and penises? Stop saying the cultural taboo for breastfeeding is malicious and backward thinking!! Who you calling backiward anyway???? You know what is backward, you and your male gender protecting and hiding anything about the penis and testicles, but you have the nerve to say that we females are backward and malicious. How dare you!!!!

      I am not a troll. I am a female who is tired of men always jumping into the discussions about women's bodies, that they don't know a darn thing about. You are a man!! Why don't you start up a blog about penis implants, circumcision, shaving hairy balls, premature ejaculation,etc. 8-24-13

    2. Anonymous - Your boobs have one function. To feed babies. I don't see why a man supporting women is offensive to you. More power to you, David and Annie!

  6. Pounds of Chocolates to you Annie for your wonderful writings...

  7. Go Annie!!! After nursing my three babies (including the adopted one!) and occasionally under extenuating circumstances other peoples' babies I totally appreciate this. Incidentally all women bear their breasts all day every day unless they have had a mastectomy. I think the issue arises when BARING a breast. (Sorry, the latent English teacher in me rears its ugly head.)

    1. Oh, my gosh, I had already gone back and fixed one "bear" to "bare." Thanks for the heads up - I found two more! Sheesh. The latent English teacher in me is hanging her head in shame. :)

      I also nursed a couple of other babies under extenuating circumstances, and also pumped for my adopted nephew while I was nursing my second. These breasts are veterans, man.

      Thanks, Anonymous (I'm trying to guess if you're someone I know based on your comment. I think I know, but I'm not sure.)

    2. Yes, I am someone you know. :-) I just don't actually spend that much time online so I don't have a registration/username/profile/or whatever it is that is so nifty that lets you recognize me. :-) LC

    3. Ha! I thought it was you, LC. Thanks for the comment. :)

  8. Fantastic, Ms. Annie. It's always seemed odd to me that seeing a man's nipples is completely okay, but a woman's is not. Every pediatrician in the land should have a copy of this to share with their nursing moms.

  9. Not to mention it's ILLEGAL to go to the bathroom or have sex in public. I can't stand when people compare the two.

    1. I know! The first time I heard that comparison, I felt my brain melt a little.

  10. This is wonderful. I only nursed my first two for a couple months each, partially because of the culturally ingrained shame I felt while nursing in public. The covers are so inconvenient and I always felt like I was smothering my baby when their sweaty heads/red faces emerged from underneath. Yet I didn't have the guts uncover and nurse freely. This time I do. This time I won't let the disapproving stares of the ignorant get to me. When #3 arrives, I will be feeding my baby whenever and wherever baby wants. And if someone sees the back of my baby's head and gasps in horror, that's their problem, not ours.

  11. What angers me and drives me bananas, is the fact that these breastfeeding promoters are males have the nerve to scold women because they do not want their breasts visible.
    I keep telling you females of the world that this movement consists of female and males who just want to see breasts everywhere. WTF?
    These people should spend some time trying to help the sick, homeless, and needy people, while they are worrying about us females showing breasts. This is not even worth the effort they are putting into it !!
    Get men to show their some penises and testicles. (Pam in the Valley) 8/2013

  12. AMEN! Thanks for writing this. I wish I was more brave and didn't feel so pressured to cover up with my stupid nursing cover - it can be such a pain and causes me anxiety. Hopefully one day nursing in public will be more normal - I've heard of lots of people giving up on nursing because they feel like they can't go anywhere for more than an hour - and that's sad.

  13. I am pro-breastfeeding (or pro baby feeding in your words) I nursed my baby for 7 months and I covered up with a light nursing cover. My reason? I didn't feel it was my place to show that off to children whose mothers may not be ready to explain the situation. Some of my family were anti-breastfeeding and I made them uncomfortable, so I felt the cover gave them a good way to just tell their children I was trying to let baby nap. In general, I knew it made many people uncomfortable, really.
    Now my baby is two and I'm not ready to think about explaining these things to her yet either.
    Just today I saw a woman holding her breast while feeding her baby and recently saw a woman just straight whip out her boob before baby was even ready. Or the ladies that lift their shirts exposing stomach to chest. It's those that seem to try drawing attention to it that make it not so much a beautiful thing.

    1. With respect, if more mothers explained what was happening, then maybe this whole discussion wouldn't need to happen. The fact that it's referred to as"the situation" is where the problem is. It's not a "situation", it's a natural way to feed your child. Children should not be protected from seeing a woman feeding her child in public.