Nursing in public: you’ve got some nerve

What you will read below may shock you.

Can you believe the nerve of some people? “Some breastfeeding mothers feel it’s their God-given right to do it whenever, wherever, and however they choose, regardless of whether or not there are more appropriate locations to do so.” This person isn’t talking about taking a dump; they’re talking about breastfeeding. They say we should breastfeed “respectfully.” Does anyone say that we should bottlefeed “respectfully”? Could you imagine the outrage?

Breastfeeding is the normal way to feed a human baby. We are mammals, and we make milk to feed our young. There is nothing shameful about a bare breast—not that you’ll even see much of a breast when someone’s breastfeeding, because there really isn’t that much to see. You see more when you’re at the beach. You see more on advertisements for, well, everything. Breastfeeding “whenever, wherever, and however” is even an explicitly protected right in 49 states.

Who could possibly argue against this? The answer may astound you. 

The author of the comment in the screen cap is me, circa December 2006. I was pregnant with my firstborn. I fully intended to breastfeed because that’s what mammals do, and that’s how babies are fed. I thought “breastfeeding is the best way to go.” I would have said that I support breastfeeding, and, honestly, this screen cap, provided by a friend who never forgets anything, surprised and embarrassed me. What in the world was I thinking?

When I had my firstborn, I thought that breastfeeding was not just normal, but the norm. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t seeing breastfeeding in public because people weren’t breastfeeding. Had someone called me on my statements—especially if they did so in a way I perceived as an attack—I would have argued my position tirelessly. All of the talking points in the world would not have changed my mind. Eventually, I came around on my own, through exposure to new ideas and experiences.

I did end up breastfeeding my firstborn for over two years. I used a cover exactly once, and that was in a private residence. One of the first times I breastfed in public—on the patio of a yarn shop that I was going to go into and purchase yarn after I fed my baby—I was asked to leave by an employee. Two years later, I had a new baby boy. I was asked to leave a McDonald’s play area because I was breastfeeding. An employee of Savers thrift store came up to me with a heavy, old beach towel off a rack to tell me I needed to cover up or go into the back room they have for breastfeeding mothers. A lifeguard at an empty-but-for-us indoor waterpark told me I couldn’t breastfeed by the pool. Each of these negative breastfeeding-in-public experiences filled me with a combination of anger, shame, and self-doubt.

Here I am, almost ten years later, an IBCLC who writes advice like 5 DOs and DON’Ts of nursing in public (spoiler: it’s very pro-NIP however you choose). Clearly, something changed.

What changed? Motherhood, probably. Having my eyes opened to how difficult it is to be a nursing parent in the United States, definitely. It wasn’t arguments or talking points, but time and experience that opened my mind.

This isn’t to say that we should turn a deaf ear to negative comments about nursing in public or breastfeeding in general. And by all means, poke through holes in the logic of people who insists that “feeding breasts” are somehow different than “looking breasts.” But we can also make a difference with the little things we do; it is not always about arguing. Normalizing breastfeeding by breastfeeding our babies, talking about breastfeeding our babies, and supporting the breastfeeding of babies is not just about making it so other breastfeeding parents feel comfortable, but creating change in an entire culture that needs to be gently, slowly steered toward being more accepting of, well, virtually everything. Change happens, often slowly, and you never know who will become the next ally to your cause.\