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Is Public Breastfeeding Offensive?

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There are always situations that you cannot control. Last weekend, I found myself in a situation that left me to choose between two things, neither ideal for myself or strangers around me. I had less than 15 minutes to decide which option was least offensive to others.

It was a family weekend. My husband, myself, and our three young sons were enjoying a day together. We had stopped for lunch and were getting on the new light rail train to treat our boys to a “train ride” downtown to the Science Center. The older two boys giggled with excitement as the train got closer to where we were waiting. As it came to a stop, our family, along with a crowd of strangers behind us, all crowded onto the small compartment.

I had our baby in the stroller and couldn’t go up the stairs to the raised level, where the majority of the empty seats were. So my husband and I split up. He took our older two boys up the stairs to sit down and I stayed standing, holding the stroller and protecting it from rolling. The baby was interested in our new surroundings for only a couple of minutes before he began fussing and twisting in his stroller, trying to grab the shiny silver train handles. I frantically blocked his tiny, chubby hands as my mind imagined all the people that had touched the handles before us and where their hands may have been before that. He was growing impatient as I searched for empty seats.

Thankfully, the train stopped and a few people got off, leaving a vacant seat. I quickly moved towards it. I sat down, freed the baby from his stroller and held him on my lap as I tightened my feet around the wheels of the stroller to brace it from rolling. This pacified him for a moment. "Not so bad," I tried to reassure myself. But who was I kidding? The more the baby fussed, the more I realized what the problem was. He was hungry and by holding him, he was close enough to my body to be constantly reminded that it was time to have his milk.

I was now beginning to feel sweat beading up on the back of my neck, causing my hair to stick to it. My face felt flushed. Is the air conditioning on? I was HOT and SWEATY!

Add a Comment26 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

My 2nd baby is now 3 months and I am currently breastfeeding him as I did with my first. Nursing under a cover does take coordination, but after the first baby, you pretty much get good at it and for me, I got over my inhibitions. Before having kids, I would really get embarrassed even thinking about the notion of BF in public. But, after kids, you grow up, mature and let your instincts take over. A momma's instincts are MAKE THE BABY STOP CRYING! You don't care who's watching, baby comes first. And yes, public bathrooms are germ cestpools - YOU wouldn't eat in one, why should your baby have to? I can see how someone who doesn't have these instincts would not have been forced to mature in this area and might have a different opinion, but now you are informed, so go and spread your new-found wisdom. Also, they make covers now specifically for BF that look kind of like an apron with the little hoop that allows you to watch your baby all while keeping you covered - they are much easier than manuevering a free blanket. Mine is called Bebe Aulait and I got it on ebay for about 25-30 bucks. Sweet little invention. One more little tip - wear tops that can be pulled down from the top or if you can't, I wear a tank under my shirt so that when I pull my top shirt up, nothing is exposed at all ever.

May 29, 2009 - 3:40pm
(reply to Anonymous)

Thank you, Anon, for sharing your experience. This certainly has been an controversial topic! However, having raised 3 children, myself, all breast fed, I do agree with your statement about our first instinct as mothers kicking in when the little ones cry to be fed. We do what we can and other people just need to respect our choices.

I find it so hypocritical that our society allows soft porn shoved in our faces on TV, in movies and print, but has a collective fit about breast feeding in public. After all, I seriously doubt any of us are purposefully exposing any of our body parts. I saw worse acts in public in France - and not from breast feeding!

May 29, 2009 - 4:25pm
EmpowHER Guest

I agree with the previous anonymous poster. In regards to this part:
"America's ideas shifted from this being a natural part of life to an OMG-she-showed-her-breast-in-public-and-some-man-might-see-them!!!"
I would also add that it's not always about what someone might SEE, but often about what someone knows is going on 'under there'. Meaning, even if a woman is completely covered by a blanket, some people are still disgusted by it because they know that under that blanket there is a baby suckling on a nipple. In America, we have sexualized breasts so much that, in many people's minds, any nipple suckling must be a sexual act and god forbid you involve a young child in a sexual act.
When American's can figure out how to separate the sexual aspects of breasts from the nourishing aspects of breasts, then we will be able to move beyond this entire debate and accept the dual purpose of breasts. We will be able to accept that breasts used in a sexual manner is to be kept private. Breasts used in a nourishing and comforting manner to a young child is acceptable anywhere as the need arises.

May 11, 2009 - 8:06am
EmpowHER Guest

For most of the world, breastfeeding is a natural event and is commonplace in public. This controversy is really a US perception problem which is not shared by most of the world. What is sad is that there was a time when breastfeeding in public was common place in the United States as well. I just turned 50 and am the oldest child. I distinctly remember my mother, and other women as well, breastfeeding publically at church no less! Mother (and the other ladies) always wore a blouse or dress which buttoned down the front so that there was easy "access" and carried a light weight blanket which was thrown over the shoulder during the feeding. Everyone knew they were breastfeeding but no one every saw a thing. More importantly, in that day and time, no one thought it was "dirty" and certainly no one made any of the mothers feel uncomfortable for taking care of their child. If anything, they were more likely to be chastized for not feeding the baby! Somewhere along the way, in midst of the Bay Watch Beach Babes and their Bouncing Boobs phenomena, America's ideas shifted from this being a natural part of life to an OMG-she-showed-her-breast-in-public-and-some-man-might-see-them!!! Our society today would certainly be considered a lot more liberal today in terms of what is considered acceptable behavior in public than when I was a girl. I find it fascinating that there is such a reversal on this one issue and that we even have this debate. I think it is such a shame that in our "liberated" society, young women today are made to feel uncomfortable about a freedom that our mothers and grandmothers enjoyed. It's too bad. Ultimately, every woman has to do what she is comfortable with doing on a personal level. Hopefully, society will respect that.

May 8, 2009 - 6:28pm
EmpowHER Guest

I'm pretty much on the fence with this one. I'm all in favor of breastfeeding, but I can understand Susan S's discomfort of doing it in public. Most people don't want to feel like they're putting themselves on display, I know I don't!

But reading this thread made me curious. For the "should have breastfed on the train" women, are there any public places where you would take a child but you would leave before breastfeeding them there? Church service, wedding, funeral, anything? What if the wait was 5 minutes instead of 15?

April 30, 2009 - 9:57am

I'm a lactation counselor and former breastfeeding and pumping mom. I work with nursing moms every day in my job with Lansinoh. Many women come to me with questions about public nursing. Did you ever do it? Is it appropriate? For me the answer is yes and yes. There were many times when my babies needed to nurse NOW and my baby’s need to nurse trumped someone else’s possible discomfort about a baby doing something as normal and natural as breastfeeding. Waiting until I could find a private place wasn’t an option and I did not feel as though I had to compromise my baby’s hunger or happiness to satisfy someone else—much less an adult who can simply avert their eyes. Sometimes a baby needs to feed. If the option is to hear a screaming, hungry baby or seeing a baby nursing, I bet a lot of people would not choose a screaming, hungry baby. As discreet as the majority of moms are, it is almost impossible except to other nursing moms to see that a baby is nursing at all. The combined immediacy and intimacy of breastfeeding is one of its challenges, and one that I coach women to embrace wholeheartedly! If you’re not comfortable in public it is of course fine to cover up or hold off, but I do urge all the nursing moms to give it a shot and be proud of their natural ability to provide for their child anytime, anywhere. It is, after all, about feeding and nurturing your baby.

Gina Ciagne, CLC
Lansinoh Laboratories

April 30, 2009 - 6:36am
EmpowHER Guest

I know that some moms are uncomfortable with public nursing, and I am trying to be sympathetic to that, but I have a hard time understanding how forcing a hungry baby to wait is more important than your own comfort level or those of the strangers around you. With my first child, I was a little leary of public nursing, but sometimes it was necessary. I forced myself to step outside my own comfort zone because my son needed me to. It didn't take too long and I was completely comfortable with public nursing. By the time my 2nd son came along, I nursed him in public all over the place and not one person made a comment to me ever.

If you ever find yourself in a situation like that again, maybe just try nursing him instead of waiting. Focus all your attention on his angelic little face and completely forget that there are others around you. If any comments are made, ignore them and let you husband deal with them.

You may also want to consider trying a sling. In your situation on the train, a sling would not only offer completely shielded nursing, but it would've also allowed you to leave the stroller at home and you could've gone up to the upper level and nursed a little more privately.

Your baby isn't going to care how many people are watching him eat. He is only going to care that he gets to eat.

April 21, 2009 - 2:16pm
EmpowHER Guest

But excusing yourself and moving to a more private area IS reasonable. It is the raging mothers who expect the room to conform to her wishes that are unable to be reasonable. It is the bellyaching about dirty washrooms, refusing to wait a short amount of time, and lots of I AM WOMAN, HEAR ME WHINE thrown in for good measure.

Here's a question. If this should be viewed as a completely comfortable and acceptable thing to do in a crowded room, do you mind if people watch you with interest? I imagine you don't mind if someone eavesdrops, since its as public as a cell-phone conversation.

Oh, that's right! You demand politeness on the part of everyone else around you to pretend as if they didn't notice, yet the lot of you are unwilling to extend the courtesy in return by simply excusing yourself to a more private location.

This seems to be more about proving a point than feeding a child--that is quite clear from the reactions of some of you to Susan's wise choice to take this private moment to a private place.

April 20, 2009 - 3:41pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

"yet the lot of you are unwilling to extend the courtesy in return by simply excusing yourself to a more private location." Hmm, where's this onslaught of women breastfeeding in public? I just don't see it. You've got issues. It IS just about feeding a child.

April 20, 2009 - 4:00pm
EmpowHER Guest

The simple truth is, for most people who object to breastfeeding, it has nothing to do with what's visible. It's the entire idea they dislike. They don't want to know about it, they don't want to think about it. Discrete or not, they can't stand knowing it's happening. They want it to stop and the mother and baby to go away. There's no way to deal reasonably with such people. They just need to grow up. The issue is with them, not the nursing mother.

April 20, 2009 - 2:11pm
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