40 years on, why is breastfeeding in public still a problem?

40 years on, why is breastfeeding in public still a problem?

Source: Best for Babes

A few years ago, while staffing a hospital breastfeeding warm line, I spoke on the phone with a nursing mom who had called to ask for advice on weaning.

She was young (maybe 18) and Latina, and from the start breastfeeding had gone beautifully for her.  No pain, no concerns about milk supply, healthy baby, and she was enjoying it.

So why did she want to wean?  “Because I want to be able to go to the mall,” she said, “and I heard that people will stare at you and give you a hard time.”

breast-feeding-momCelebrities like Beyonce and Salma Hayek do it.  Angelina Jolie does it on the cover of a national magazine.  Most states have laws (albeit weak) protecting the rights of moms to do it.

So why do we regularly hear about women kicked out of restaurants, swimming pools, courthouses, theme parks, day cares, buses, even off a plane, for breastfeeding in public?

Nearly 40 years after breastfeeding rates began to rise, we still regularly hear about women being told that nursing in public is inappropriate, and that it should happen only out of public view.

There is no national data documenting how common this is, but Best for Babes’ Nursing in Public Hotline (1-855-NIP-FREE) has taken nearly 300 calls since it began a little over a year ago, according to the hotline director Michelle Hickman. Calls have come from mothers who have had trouble in restaurants, stores, schools, day cares, and churches.  A notable 62 incidents were reported by moms who had trouble at YMCAs.  And of course these are calls from mothers who happened to know about the hotline and wanted to report it.  The true number, judging from the frequency in which problems are reported in the media, is clearly far higher.

Some dismiss these problems as inconsequential.  And it’s of course true that many women nurse in public without incident, or even with positive responses.

But as the Surgeon General notes:

Such situations make women feel embarrassed and fearful of being stigmatized by people around them when they breastfeed.  Embarrassment remains a formidable barrier to breastfeeding in the United States and is closely related to disapproval of breastfeeding in public. [emphasis added]

In fact, a recent poll conducted for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation found that “being in public” was the most common breastfeeding challenge cited by respondents.  And attitudes are especially prohibitive in regions where, understandably, breastfeeding rates are low.

To make matters worse, cultural attitudes pose a particularly potent barrier to some of the communities with low breastfeeding rates – the same ones at higher risk of infant mortality and childhood obesity.  Remember the young mom of color I mentioned at the top?

Underlying the discomfort the public has with breastfeeding in public is the notion that breasts are purely sexual in nature – an idea constantly promoted by the media.  It’s this idea that turns an act of feeding and tenderness into something obscene.  It gets photos banned from Facebook and results in mothers being told that they can’t get their photos developed because they violate nudity policies.

It goes beyond the fear that mothers will expose themselves, to the very idea of breastfeeding, evidenced by the fact that many women who are told to leave public places are wearing nursing covers.  Nursing mothers’ rooms are a nice amenity for women who are uncomfortable nursing in public, but to some mothers feel like a form of quarantine.  And the solution couldn’t possibly be a nursing mothers room in every single public accommodation in the world, could it?

It’s been said many times before, but the answer is the normalization of breastfeeding, so that mothers who are feeding at the breast in public receive no more or less attention than mothers who are feeding by bottle.

Changing attitudes is at the core of Best for Babes’ mission.  Through Best for Babes’ work to give breastfeeding a makeover, we aim to create permanent culture change that embraces, celebrates and supports breastfeeding and moms.

It’s our hope that someday breastfeeding will be, as Best for Babes Champion Jenna Elfman says, “a natural part of our life as a society.”

By Tanya Lieberman, IBCLC

  • Rowan Trezise
    Posted at 16:30h, 02 July Reply

    I had my first two children in New Zealand, and a lot of malls there (many under the Aussie brand name “Westfield”) have excellent parent & child facilities, not just changing tables and toddler toilets; but a gated play area to put older children in while you breastfeed in an armchair in an alcove with optional curtain for privacy! However, I felt just as comfortable in that country breastfeeding anywhere – cafes, restaurants, the beach, parks, wherever we happened to be at the time. Generally I got the impression it was considered normal and natural and not really a big issue either way over there.

    While visiting the USA a few times while breastfeeding I noticed a number of Westfields; along with seeing similar rooms in other malls; although apart from making use of these rooms, I didn’t really have much occasion to attempt breastfeeding in public so can’t comment on all the media about it in that country.

    I had my third baby while living in the Bahamas and can honestly say didn’t feel comfortable feeding him in public anywhere there! I think I did it once in a hidden away corner beside the children’s pool in Atlantis.

    We moved back to the UK when he was 4 months old and I’ve found a couple of shopping malls with Westfield-standard baby rooms; one local to me with a more basic attempt at a feeding room (mainly bottle-feeding facilities but with a plastic chair or a small uncomfortable sofa in the corner). I have breastfed in public, and witnessed others doing so without incident; and during a seasonal job over Christmas working with children, one family came through Santa’s grotto with a newborn, and staff present couldn’t do enough to help the mother breastfeed the stirring baby, creating a makeshift private corner for her while the children played and waited to see Santa. However, I’ve noticed far more women in this country, either talking with me or in conversations overheard, are bypassing attempting to breastfeed, or switching to formula very early on (maybe after a couple of weeks!), or generally speaking disparagingly of the experience.
    My youngest is now 22 months and still occasionally breastfeeding for comfort, but mainly at bedtime. These days instead of pulling at my top saying ‘milk?’, he taps it and says ‘milk gone, so I think we’re nearing the end of this particular journey.

    Comparing the 4 countries from my own experience, NZ tops my comfort level for public BF.

    Also, speaking as a frequent traveler and serial emigrator; Air NZ definitely the most comfortable airline for breastfeeding on, too. One Hostie approached me during take off and asked if I’d like a drink of water. When I accepted, expecting one of those little individual bottles, she brought a big 2liter one all to myself!

    A lot of media I’ve read relating to breastfeeding in public seems to mainly, or only, refer to the situation in the USA. It’s useful to remember that all countries and cultures are as different in their approach to breastfeeding in general, whether in private or in public; as they are to pregnancy, childbirth and parenting issues.

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