Going Public

This is a photo of me breastfeeding Julian in public. We had just finished a visit to the local indoor farmers market we frequent, and while the little guy slept the whole time we were shopping, he woke and got fussy soon after we stepped outside to wait for our bus home. He was hungry. Knowing that once we got on our bus, it would be at least another half hour before we arrived home, I decided to step back inside, find a quiet spot, and feed my son.

I also handed Mike my iPhone and asked him to take a photo, because I knew that at some point, I was going to want to talk about the subject of breastfeeding in public, my experiences with it, and the controversy surrounding the issue, here. I also wanted to see what someone might see as they walked by us sitting on this bench for a feeding. Not much, apparently.

This was not the first time I had to feed him in public; in fact, I sometimes joke that I went through a bit of a “breastfeeding boot camp” in our early weeks. We were out and about a lot during Julian’s first weeks of life, and since newborns need to eat so often, I found myself nursing him in public on numerous occasions. It was often not easy or comfortable, especially since Julian and I were both still learning the ropes, but when faced with a hungry baby, I did what I had to do for him. We figured it out, and it got a lot easier. There are still times I need to feed him in public, but it’s not as stressful as it used to be.

I learned how to dress with the expectation that I might need to nurse in public during any given outing – for me this involves a system of layers, nursing bra plus tank plus a shirt with some give to it plus a scarf or cardigan for extra coverage. I learned how to hold and maneuver the baby to get him onto my breast for a feeding and then off again quickly and with a minimum of exposure. I learned how to nurse him while wearing him in both the Moby Wrap and the Baby Bjorn.

I’ve nursed Julian on a bench in a remote hallway of an IKEA store (3 times in one visit!). I’ve nursed him in cars, and on an Amtrak train that was delayed for 2 and a half hours due to mechanical problems. I’ve nursed him on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, and near the cliff walk in Newport. I’ve nursed him while standing in a restaurant bathroom, and while sitting on the front stoop outside of our apartment building, waiting for emergency repairs to be made. None of these experiences were as comfortable or as pleasant for either of us as nursing him in the privacy of our home, but when my son needs to eat, wherever we may be, I will feed him.

It is my legal right to do so.

More importantly, it is his right to be fed when he is hungry.

Reading about Simone dos Santos’s recent experience outside a DC courtroom, and more specifically, reading the comments generated by the article, made me livid. These are a just a few gems from Facebook:

Diane Dizacomo: “No one is saying for you to starve your baby. that excuse is getting mighty old. Gee how did we all live before woman began breast feeding in public?? oh yeah that’s right a thing called BOTTLES!!! there’s this thing called pumps? and feeding your child before you leave the house?, a car? go home??? any of these solutions work. it’s not like you don’t have choices. No one is keeping you from sitting in your car or taking the “starving” child home. Pump your milk and put it in a damn bottle.”

Elizabeth Dunne: “the fact that this is news proves women who breastfeed in public are militant, attention seeking idiots.”

I have lived in Michigan, Massachusetts, New York City, and Rhode Island. I have seen a lot of things that I thought were better suited to a more private venue (clipping your nails on the subway, anyone?), but I have yet to see a breastfeeding woman, anywhere, parading around with her boobs out. I won’t even address those comments that equate nursing a child in public to taking a dump or jerking off in public, or the commenters who live in some magical fairytale land where 70% of public restrooms are clean and nice and have couches where a nursing mother can (and should! they say) sit to feed their child.

It’s shocking and sad to me that the act of feeding a child can generate such vitriol.

Many commenters bring up breast pumps. Breast pumps are a wonderful thing. They enable nursing moms to supply their baby with breast milk for times when they are not physically present. But they are a supplement to, not a substitute for breastfeeding. They can be difficult to use, especially at first. They are not nearly as effective or efficient at expressing milk as a hungry baby is. And they are expensive – in some cases, buying or renting a pump may be cost-prohibitive. Expecting that every breastfeeding mother has the means to obtain a pump and bottles and all the accompanying paraphernalia is ridiculous.

Forty-five states, plus the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. ANY public or private location, regardless of how you as an observer might feel about it.

Breastfeeding in public is a legally protected right.

I am not militant, nor am I seeking attention when I nurse my child in a public space. In fact, the last thing I want to do in that instance is to call attention to myself or my boobs. I suspect that the vast majority of nursing moms feel the same. I just want to feed and soothe my kid, to tend to his needs as quickly as possible.

No mother should be called out or shamed for that.

To those people who are uncomfortable with public breastfeeding, I say this: it’s not about you.

It’s not about nudity or “indecency” or sexuality.

It’s about feeding a child.

I will exercise my legally protected right to do so, and I will stand in support of any other woman who does the same, just as you can exercise your right to look away and move on.

26 responses to “Going Public

  1. Absolutely spot on. Go, Mom…

  2. That first comment you quote makes me crazy. What did people do BEFORE BOTTLES? Oh yeah, they breastfed!

    Great post, and I love the picture.

  3. Tina V.

    I also find it interesting that they suggest pumping…. since I know if I had pumped in public you would have seen a whole lot more than if I just breastfeed the baby…
    Nursing clothes can be very helpful also…. I didn’t have a huge wardrobe of them but they were helpful. Easier for me than trying to layer.

  4. Completely in agreement. Excellent post, Jen.

  5. Adrianne

    The comments you showcased are infuriating! My daughter is 2 and I still nurse her and Ive had several occasions to nurse her in public even past a year old. Its like you said, people forget that we are not parading with our boobs out, its never comfortable to nurse outside the home and thats sad that society makes us feel that way.

    • Camille

      I have no issue with women breastfeeding their infants in public, as long as it’s done in a respectful (to the mother, child AND the public) manner. This includes breastfeeding at a table in a restaurant, as long as they cover themselves. However, it incenses me to see women breastfeed toddlers & older, who by that time are eating solid food. It’s a scientific fact that by the time a child is on solid food, they have had all the wonderful immunities they require from their mother’s milk. So, it’s these instances that I ask why the mother feels she needs to breastfeed? When the child can walk over & indicate they want to suck on the breast, I think it’s time to sever that apron string. There are so many other ways for a mother to continue to nurture & care for her child, the “bonding” of breastfeeding has already taken place!!

      • Heather

        Camille, please take a moment to do some research. It is a scientific FACT that there is no expiration date on a mother’s breast milk. It is a fact that breast milk is made by humans FOR humans and that includes toddlers AND preschoolers. The benefit does not magically disappear.
        Why would FEEDING a child at a place where other people are eating be inappropriate? It makes no sense.

        You are the one who should be ashamed- your ignorance is showing.

        • Camille

          Heather….I hesitated to reply because this is not the forum for verbal fistacuffs. But, you obviously did not read my words & I felt I must clarify some of my statements which you misunderstood.

          Firstly, I never said that there was an expiration date on breast milk, nor did I say that the benefit disappears. My question is why women feel it’s necessary to continue to breastfeed when their child can ask for the breast. I most certainly am not anti-breastfeeding, but the fact that some women can’t let go of that stage of their child’s life speaks volumes!

          Secondly, I also did not say that it was inappropriate for someone to nurse while others were eating, I merely stated that if they do so covered, it would be more accepted. To clarify, when I say covered, I do not mean a shroud over the mother & child, I mean a simple burp cloth would suffice. A woman should never be delegated to another room to nurse her child just because some think it’s inappropriate. But the reality is, people who were not raised in the era of open breastfeeding & by that I mean those in their 70’s & 80’s, are often taken aback with it. My experience has been that when the woman discreetly covers herself, it’s never a big deal.

          Lastly, I’d like to comment on your manners. To say that I should be ashamed for having my opinion, of which I stated without maliciousness, shows that you are the one who is ignorant.

          • I was just finishing breastfeeding my almost 17 month old as I read your posts about kids (like her) who should not be breastfed anymore because she eats table food. She finished nursing looked at me all happy and said “juice”- short for Mama Juice. Melts my heart every time. She loves breastfeeding, and the bond I had with her in the beginning breastfeeding keeps growing.
            Yet, I doubt what I wrote carries merit, so I would suggest you read The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers by Dr. Jack Newman. I think once you realized all of the benefits for breastfeeding past 6-12 months, you may change your response…But here is one interesting thing in response to your response about having all the immunities they require from Dr. Newman.
            ” In fact, some immune factors in breastmilk that protect the baby against infection are present in greater amounts in the second year of life than in the first. This is, of course as it should be, since children older than a year are generally exposed to more infection. Breastmilk still contains factors that help the immune system to mature, and which help the brain, gut, and other organs to develop and mature.”
            I hope this helps you to understand & respect women like me.

      • My son started walking at nine months. Since he was able to “walk over & indicate [he] want[ed] to suck on the breast,” should I have weaned him at that point?

        FYI, the World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding, “along with appropriate complimentary foods,” up to age two and beyond: http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/

        I am relatively certain they have done some research on the topic…

        • I think ultimately it’s a very personal decision. There are many ways to feed a child, and I don’t think there’s any one “right” or “wrong” answer. Mike and I are doing a lot of research into the whole “baby-led weaning” thing for Julian, which introduces solids at the child’s own pace while continuing breastmilk as the primary source of nutrition. If a mother chooses to transition from breastmilk to fortified cereals and purees, then yes, there may be no physical “need” to continue breastfeeding, but if one chooses to do so, then what’s the harm?

  6. Eve

    Agreed on all counts! I can’t imagine that the people who wrote those shockingly stupid comments have had children of their own (that they breastfed).

  7. I agree too. The sad thing is that so many new mothers feel very uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public, and end up getting confined to the house, which makes you crazy. When my daughter was tiny, I spent plenty of time taking her to malls (especially with a Nordstrom’s — every Nordies has a fantastic “mother’s room” with couches and a changing table) but I also did my share of feeding her in public. It was important to both of us to get out of the house. She never would take formula and having pumped for 8 months after I went back to work, I wouldn’t wish unnecessary pumping on anyone.

  8. Lulu

    Many people have no problem with breast feeding mothers, however some mothers do seem to lack the awareness that in certain situations the sight of a woman popping out her breast during a meal for example can make others feel uncomfortable. The best outcome between those anti public feeding and those pro would be to find an understanding as to where is appropriate to breast feed without being off putting to other members of the general public who do not wish to see your breasts. For example choosing to move to a more private spot, or somewhere out of the way is similar to those who wish to smoke. They don’t smoke in private spaces and are now, on the whole conscientious of non smokers. Can we not ask the same consideration of mothers? (I add I intend to breast feed conscientiously but maybe that’s because I have small breasts.)

    • Amy

      You can’t credibly compare public smoking to public breast feeding. I can’t help but breathe the air in my public space, but if I’m uncomfortable seeing a mother feeding her child, I can look away. In fact, knowing that many mothers are a little self conscious nursing in public, I do my best to look away even though I’m completely comfortable with breast feeding.

      I lived in breast-feeding-friendly Bloomington, Indiana and even attended La Leche meetings with another Jen when her kids were little. I can’t remember ever seeing a mother (and this was La Leche in Bloomington – we’re talking borderline militant breast feeders) just whip a boob out for public view. I’ve seen a lot of women use layers and blankets and specially made privacy “bibs.”

      I have seen a lot of people gawk and stare at something that is healthy and natural.

      Get over it and remember this: you could be dealing with a screaming baby in your public space instead of some quiet (and almost always) discrete nursing.

      • Courtney

        We have a woman in my playgroup who I have seen every bit of her breast. From areola tip to chest. Not intentionally, but because mid-conversation, she would pull out her breast, and then grab the baby. I have had the experience of lots of woman breastfeeding in public, and it doesn’t bother me. We even had 2 other woman who were breastfeeding in our playgroup at the same time, and I have not seen their entire breast. When certain woman just “whip it out” as this one did, it is uncomfortable.

        I think most women are very decent when breastfeeding, even those that don’t use a cover or anything. But it’s the few who are either completely unaware, or decide they don’t care that make it uncomfortable for the public. And usually those are the ones who get all the attention.

  9. Tamar

    Good for you! I nursed both my kids, my daughter for 6 months, my son for 15 months. I did it out of CHOICE – because it was the right thing for me and them. I was very uncomfortable nursing my daughter in public, but outgrew this completely with my son – I was not trying to expose myself, I did exactly all the things you describe. But I fed him whenever he was hungry or cranky, and felt great about that. I remember clearly going to lunch with a colleague who has no kids when my son was a few months old, and asking him if he would be uncomfortable if I had to feed. He answer: “lets see. My choice is between a fussy baby and nervous mom, or a quiet and fun lunch. I say you feed whenever needed”.

  10. Jennine

    Great post. Completely agree, so well said.

  11. I don’t understand how seeing a woman breast feeding makes people uncomfortable, but seeing a woman with a super revealing shirt is still acceptable? I just think we live in a weird highly sexualized culture, where breasts are only meant for attraction. Perhaps what is making people uncomfortable is they are not used to seeing breasts used for their actual function?

  12. Lauren

    I just weaned my 18 month old son, and I’ve done my fair share of public nursing. Even after he started solids. Jen, has anyone made you feel uncomfortable? Approached you? Made comments to you or about you while nursing? I fully support your and every other mom’s decision to nurse, either publicly or privately for as long as they want. Although I will admit to being judgey when it comes to things like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6rFsxpqNBE

    • Lauren – I have never been confronted, which is good because as you know I can be damn mouthy ;). But I have on a few occasions had to deal with leering creeps while nursing Julian in public, and it was maddening. On the one hand, I wanted to call them out for being creepy jerks; but on the other hand, I didn’t want my anger to upset the baby. Particularly annoying was when I was stuck on that Amtrak train. I had to fill out some paperwork at my office before my leave was over, so I took the baby up to Boston to meet everyone. We had a great trip, he had been in a great mood and I fed him at my office before we headed back out for home, but by the time we got back on the train he was tired. We would have been fine had the train not been delayed, but it was, so I nursed him in my seat while wearing him in the Bjorn – as much to comfort him as to feed him. I had my trench coat on and a big pashmina draped over us both, but the dudes in the row behind mine must have known what was up, because they kept standing in the aisle right behind/above me. Really annoying.

  13. kathy k.

    I’ve often wondered if those people who complain about nursing in public would prefer a screaming baby, which is generally the alternative…

  14. Pingback: Did you know… « Feeding Julian


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