I am an English teacher and a nursing mother. Recently, while teaching a collection of short fiction, I asked my class to discuss the adolescent narrator of one story. A female student in the class noted, I thought insightfully, that the narrator’s immaturity was revealed at a moment in the story when she expressed disgust at seeing a woman breastfeed and in her discomfort with the adult female body. Before I could reply, another student asked, “Well, who does want to see someone breastfeed in public?” I have graded enough exams in my life to know that this was one test I failed. Feeling overcome by the assumptions of a society that sees breastfeeding as a private, taboo, even sexualized act, I felt that I could not identify myself as a nursing mother or take a moment in class to educate my students about the benefits of nursing and the rights of nursing mothers.
The truth is that I believe, and generally live by, the standard that it is appropriate to breastfeed a child anywhere that it is appropriate to bottle-feed. Why should a woman have to hide in corners, cars, or bathroom stalls, uncomfortable and isolated, for choosing to give her child the best possible nourishment? Certainly there may be moments when any nursing mother seeks a private, quiet space – for instance, when the baby is sleepy, in need of comfort, or just highly distractible. But no one should feel forced to hide when breastfeeding. It is legal, and easy to do discreetly.
First, the common conception that breastfeeding constitutes “indecent exposure” is not true. Mothers have a right to breastfeed in public, and many states are enacting legislation to make this right explicit. Of course, the legality of an action doesn’t always mean it is widely socially acceptable-and this may be the greater inhibitor for nursing mothers. But breastfeeding in public can be done discreetly, especially with the help of a few props.
Try to nurse your baby comfortably and casually, as you would at home. This sends the important message that nursing anywhere is normal. The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable others will be.
If your child is nestled behind a blanket drawn over your shoulder, probably very few people will even realize that you are nursing. For mothers who are more nervous about sudden exposure, catalogues and stores sell nursing shawls that create a sort of tent around the child. While these certainly conceal you, they also may draw more attention to the act of nursing because they look more unusual than a blanket. Many mothers swear by a baby sling, not only as a great way to carry and cuddle a baby but also as a discreet and easy way to nurse in public, even while walking.
The right clothes also can make a big difference for comfortable nursing. Choose clothing that will facilitate easy breastfeeding, such as cropped or button-front tops. Maternity stores carry some nursing clothing, and more styles are available through catalogs that advertise in parenting magazines and publications. Or you can sew special tops for yourself. Nursing clothing usually has concealed slits or openings for nursing and is designed to provide coverage, as well as access. Having just one or two nursing tops for events that take you into crowds may make you feel more comfortable.
Many nursing mothers realize that it can actually be simpler to go into public with a nursing baby than a bottle-fed one, because it requires no extra packing or preparation. We shouldn’t let ignorance keep us from taking advantage of this ease.