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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! Who’s idea was it to take this train anyway? I rubbed my forehead trying to think of what I could do. Try the pacifier… Yeah …maybe that will work. He spit it out as fast as I put it in his angry little mouth. My baby’s cries began to grow louder and more urgent. He was twisting and moving in my arms, his eyes pleading with me, "FEED ME! FEED ME!" The confined space that I shared with strangers seemed to be shrinking.

I looked towards the rest of my family. The boys were chatting happily, unaware of my stress. My husband’s eyes locked with mine. He knew that cry and he, like me, knew that we had several more stops before we needed to get off. I looked around at the other passengers trying to decide what would be less offensive, allowing my baby to cry for the next 15 minutes or breast feeding in public.

My eyes nervously shifted to the people around me. I tried to figure out who would be appalled if I fed my son and who would just be happy that he had stopped crying. I was sitting next to a woman with a young daughter next to her. She was a mother. She would understand, wouldn’t she? The man across from me had his eyes shut and was listening to an IPOD. He was probably drowning out the noise and might not even notice. The scruffy man next to him sat with a glassy look in his eyes, as he held a plastic A&W root beer bottle that contained a golden colored foamy substance. He took drinks now and then of the liquid that I doubt was actually root beer.

As I continued to look around, I felt uncomfortable. I did not want to feed my baby in these surroundings, a dirty train. I have never been comfortable with breastfeeding around others. I knew from experience that the more nervous that I was, the harder it was to feed my son.

It was a long ride for everyone that day and I was relieved when we finally arrived at our stop. Once at our destination, that stressful ride was almost forgotten as I cradled my little boy, ready to feed him. (THANK YOU Arizona Science Center, for having a family restroom that has a private nursing room!) He looked into my eyes and smiled, with little streams of warm milk running down the corners of his mouth. He was so happy to be eating at last and he, like me, was happy that it was just the two of us.

Add a Comment25 Comments

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

As more people read this, I wonder: If you are a person who would rather not see a woman breastfeeding in public, what is it exactly that is offending?

Is it that you or someone else might see an uncovered breast for a few seconds? (Of course you would have to be watching her to do so.)

Is it the thought of the baby being fed from the breast?

Is it that you think there's a sexual component to it instead of a simple feeding behavior?

Is it that you have children yourself and are hesitant about answering their questions?

Or is it something else? I'm truly curious.

Susan, I feel your predicament. My sister raised four children, all breast-fed. I cannot tell you how many times she went and sat in her mini-van to breast-feed her baby just to escape situations like this, and to provide a peaceful setting for her nursing child.

April 20, 2009 - 9:30am
EmpowHER Guest

I have two children, and breastfed both, and I know exactly where Susan is coming from. You can be 100% comfortable with your decision to breastfeed while still not feeling 100% comfortable doing it in every situation.

I had many experiences where people would stare at me when I was nursing my child in public, and my child was well covered by a blanket. It can be one of those things where people know they shouldn't look or pay attention, but they do. I applause Susan for being honest. And if your baby is older and squirms around a lot when nursing, it can be difficult to remain covered or discreet.

April 20, 2009 - 8:25am

It looks like I have struck quite a nerve with readers. It has become clear to me that the opinions are split and whatever decision I made would have been wrong in someone's eyes. I am impressed that my article has created such a discussion.

April 19, 2009 - 3:05pm
EmpowHER Guest

This essay was most definitely not "empowher"ing. Breastfeed wherever you want. More...

April 19, 2009 - 2:22pm
EmpowHER Guest

Interesting to hear a story from the perspective of someone who is trying to do the right thing while dealing with their own issues, but I found it amazing and disturbing that your entire concern was for what would be least offensive to a bunch of strangers. Your baby was hungry and should have been fed. If the train was too dirty to nurse in, it would have been too dirty to take your family on. Your entire dilemma made no real sense to me. The answer was to ignore all these issues of yours and put the baby's needs first. I understand you had, and have, some trepidation about nursing, but it's really a simple choice. You chose to let the baby wait, and feed him in the nursing room in a public bathroom, so you wouldn't feel embarassed. Personally, I think the train would have been better all around. Next time, I hope you make a better choice.

April 19, 2009 - 10:10am
EmpowHER Guest

"Breastfeeding makes people feel uncomfortable and awkward." From the majority of comments here I'd say you should speak for yourself. Breastfeeding may make you uncomfortable and awkward but I think most mature adults handle it just fine.

April 18, 2009 - 6:41pm
EmpowHER Guest

I am not a Mother but I have seen several women breast feed in public and it is only offensive if you see the whole chest area. Most women I see are pretty discreet about feeding time and unless your looking hard enough, you cannot see what she is really doing.

There is no time or place when a child is hungry and the women most certainly cannot control the food flow, so I think that breast feeding in public is fine. In reality, it is the way of life. We all cannot expect women to stay in their homes until they are done breast feeding just so they wouldn't have to do it in public, right?

Women can be discreet and the people that are offended could look the other way. I think there are more disturbing things on television that people can be offended by, not the joys of motherhood.

April 18, 2009 - 10:58am
EmpowHER Guest

What I understand less than the offense people take to feeding in public is the absolute FIT women throw when it comes to breastfeeding in a restroom. Your baby won't know the difference nor will the baby get sick. Restrooms even provide you access to water and paper towels for easy clean up after the meal. If a woman has a choice between breastfeeding in front of a group of people of mixed company and breastfeeding 10 feet away in a restroom, I would expect her to have the decency and respect for others to go to the restroom. Breastfeeding makes people feel uncomfortable and awkward, and it isn't the job of the masses to accommodate your irrational fear of restrooms when it is a completely reasonable option to take. Honestly, it sounds like a lot of whining for no other reason than "I'm a woman--I am entitled and you can't tell me what to do!" When I have kids, I'll choose the restroom whenever possible.

Now if you're stuck on a train or a similar situation, I can understand completely as would most others.

April 18, 2009 - 10:22am
EmpowHER Guest

I am a man & I have seen women breastfeed. I don’t get offended. The only people who might be offended are SOME OF the religious conservatives, but as Newsweek has reported, they are declining. People who get offended need to go in a time machine back to Puritan days. Some people might watch a little but remember people look at anything different.
It is your choice but I think a crying baby is more irritating then a happy baby.

April 18, 2009 - 7:40am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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