Bad Attitudes About Breastfeeding Hurt Babies

Even when breastfeeding is not tough, it is difficult in the United States. That’s why I have a great deal of respect and gratitude for my lactivist friends.

Today, I had the opportunity to chat with two other nursing mothers. One was also on her second child and the other was on her third. I was saddened to hear both say that they planned on stopping much earlier with their current baby than they did with their previous child.

Both said that it was not due to mastitis or supply problems. Both mothers believed the choice they were making to breastfeed was the right one for their families.

However both felt that breastfeeding in public makes other people uncomfortable. For this reason, they felt they had to breastfeed before leaving the house and had to be back home within two hours. They were, understandably, tired of “planning their lives around breastfeeding”.

With the first baby, they were willing to put up with this personal inconvenience so they could both fulfill the needs of the baby while not offending others around them. However, now that they each had older children, it was increasingly difficult to schedule their day around a baby’s feedings and still meet the needs of their other children.

How sad. A mother who wants to breastfeed her child and is successful in doing so will stop before she or the baby is ready to stop because other people give dirty looks or say nasty things. Because as women we have been socialized to feel the greater fault is to make another uncomfortable, especially if that other is an older male, even one we do not know.

When I engage with people online about this issue, I often hear from opponents of breastfeeding in public that they are not opposed to breastfeeding–they just want mothers to go somewhere else to do it, to respect the feelings of others. This sounds rational (perhaps to others, not to me) until you realize they are asking mothers to place a stranger’s discomfort over a normal, everyday, social activity (to feed your baby when and where he is hungry) over a baby’s right to eat. And it may sound reasonable (again, to others) until you realize the chilling effect it has on breastfeeding rates.

I am all for a society where we are respectful of others. I’ll turn down my music, teach my kids to say “excuse me” if they burp, and hold doors open for people carrying packages–but don’t ask a mother to go somewhere else to feed a hungry child.

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  1. Great post Candace! I don’t think people realize what an inconvenience it is to breastfeed, but not do it in public, especially if you have older children that you need to care for. When my daughter was born, I couldn’t just leave my son unattended at the playground to go and nurse my daughter in the car and dragging him away from the playground every time I needed to nurse would only cause unnecessary battles and tantrums.

  2. Erin Michaud says:

    Excellent post. I see this all the time and it’s sad. Another thing I see is moms introducing bottles in the early weeks before breastfeeding is well-established because they don’t want to nurse in public or in front of guests in their own home. The result can be a cascade of problems that leads to early weaning.

    This is such an important point to educate the public about. Poor attitudes about nursing in public do hurt mothers and babies.

  3. GypsyMomma says:

    So true! Or you see new mothers suffering sore nipples, engorgment and/or low supply from trying to latch under blankets etc, worrying too much about others seeing some skin that may make them uncomfortable instead of rightfully worrying about getting a good deep latch.

  4. Michelle says:

    It’s for this reason we started keeping a list of nursing rooms around town… that eventually grew and grew and we started a wesbite where you can search for nursing rooms near you.

    I don’t think anyone should ever be ASKED to go anywhere to nurse — but I also felt a whole lot more comfortable nursing in a nice, quiet room! When I wasn’t stressing out, trying to get the baby to latch on and stop looking all around, nursing went so much smoother… so I started making planned stops at conveniently located nursing rooms around town when I was out!

    We recently launched, and it’s free to use… if you want to check it out. (filter nursing/breastfeeding rooms)

  5. Thank you for the comments! I think part of what made me so sad was that these were moms who had successfully breastfed at least one other baby but were finding that the accommodations they felt they needed to make for others were making it onerous to breastfeed a new baby when they already had an active child.

    @Michelle – I, too, prefer a cool, quiet place. And I do not have a problem with a woman preferring to use a separate area. However, I do think that these rooms can send the wrong message if not done carefully.

    And these two moms both said that they were not uncomfortable in terms of their own level of modesty–after having 2 or 3 children it hardly seemed to matter–but rather their concern that others would be offended. A concern born out by remarks people made to them or nasty looks they saw people giving other nursing moms.

    Also, in this case, we are talking about women with other children–so they would have to pack up all their things and take their older children away from “the action” of the playground or whatever else in order to nurse the baby.

    It is this having to alter their day around the nursing baby that they were willing to do with the first child–but became too challenging once they had older children to care for as well.

  6. Toni says:

    We shouldn’t need nursing rooms. They perpetuate the issue. It is just as difficult to interrupt the meals or playtime of older children to go to a nursing room as it is to go to a restroom or out to the car. Women in the 1930s were able to breastfeed in mixed company without a problem. Why can’t we?

    Why must we choose between the high costs, inconvenience and lesser nutrition of formula or being glared at in public when we want to feed our children?

  7. Mama Goose says:

    This makes me feel sad. I have never been made to feel uncomfortable by strangers when nursing in public, and I am 37 weeks pregnant with a nursing 18 month old.

    I support the right of all mothers to nurse whenever and where ever is best for the baby.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I count as a lactivist and I am against nursing with a blanket or in a separate room on principle (though I understand from others that it is the only way to keep their distractable babies on task – never had that problem – lol)

    I think treating breastfeeding like it is something to be ashamed of perpetuates the feeling that it is something to be ashamed of. I hated having breasts until I got to use them for their intended purpose. I don’t sit around outside with my top off but I don’t mind showing a bit of boob in a good cause.

  9. Sheridan says:

    Hmm, It makes me sad too. However, I never cared about offending others. I carried a copy of my states law that said I had the right to breastfeed anywhere. I was ready to whip that out if anyone was upset about me whipping it out. ;)

    No one ever said anything and I breastfed everywhere and never with a blanket. I think that if more moms would have the courage to breastfeed in public it might help change the opinion. If nothing else it would expose kids to it so maybe there generation would be more supportive of BIP.

  10. Melodie says:

    That is sad. I wish more women felt more comfortable nursing in public, but I think it’s a harder road for many people, especially when one is indoctrinated with feeling the need to please others, like you said. I feel that need too, except when it comes to breastfeeding. Funny how that works. It’s just such a passion I guess, whereas I can be a total pushover at other time!

  11. Rebecca M. says:

    Great post! I agree with the others that nursing rooms perpetuate the problem. Are there special rooms to bottle-feed your baby? NO! Breastfeeding is NORMAL and should not be relegated to a special room. Unfortunately many un-informed people compare breastfeeding with urinating/defecating with IS done in a private room for hygiene reasons. But I think nursing rooms continue to further this association. Of course, if a mom WANTS to find a quiet, secluded space, that is fine, but as others said, it’s not really that useful if you have older children to think about, too.

    I do think it’s sad that people are so awful to women NIP — even if they don’t say anything, give them a dirty look, or have them thrown out of the store, I know some people are thinking rude, judgmental things, and it makes me ill. But I also think that your friends need to put the needs of their babies ahead of the preferences of strangers. Perhaps there are other feelings that are pushing them toward early weaning? Please provide them some info on the benefits of continued nursing and encourage them to do what’s right for their babies.

  12. LeahGG says:

    I nursed EVERYWHERE, but I always nursed with a “nursing apron.” Nobody should have to see my breasts/nipples. If they see my stomach or something, that’s not personal space, but I think it’s rude to have your breasts out there for all the world to see.

  13. @LeahGG

    You have every right to use a nursing cover if you wish but that is just not a good solution for every mother nor should a mother feel the need to use one.

    Both my kids would push it off and fuss and draw more attention to what we were doing.

    First, no one nurses with their breasts just hanging out there for all the world to see. They expose just as much of their breast as necessary to nurse and then latch on their baby.

    I can tell you that many times I have had people want to “look at the baby” and then look surprised when I told them, “When he’s done eating.” They didn’t realize I was nursing.

    Second, there is nothing rude (or obscene) about the breast being used to nurse.

    Third, no one has to see anything. They have the option to look elsewhere.

    People are re-learning (gradually) that breastfeeding is the normal way to feed a baby and that eating is a social activity.

  14. Suzanne says:

    I am always shocked at how many women who claim to be “100% supportive” of breastfeeding still feel it is something that should be hidden, either in a separate room or under a cover. I think this attitude of “privacy” is one of the reasons we still have such a social stigma about breastfeeding – tons of women do it but no one ever SEES them do it.

    I recently visited a large city and was THRILLED to see at least half a dozen nursing mothers at zoos, parks and restaurants. I happily fed my baby – cover free – on a crowded train and not a single passenger was bothered or disturbed. I like to think it’s a form of quite yet effective lactivism.

  15. LeahGG says:

    When my husband is walking by a woman and accidentally sees her nipple, he feels quite uncomfortable. If he sees a quiet baby who is close to his/her mother and probably eating, he doesn’t care.

    Imo, lactivism doesn’t give you the right to disrobe in public.

  16. @LeahGG I don’t think this has anything to do with disrobing in public. If you undress just to undress, that is governed by existing decency laws.

    And I have yet to see any woman expose more than she needs to in order to breastfeed.

    But understand that this post is about how attitudes can have a chilling effect on duration of breastfeeding.

    Lactivism is, IMO, simply asserting that a baby has a right to eat anywhere that baby has a right to be.

    Once you start adding qualifiers like…”discreetly” you start down a slippery slope. What is discreet to one person is not to another. And you cannot assume that the way your baby nurses is the way all babies nurse. Having had two very different children (with the same parents!) that we believe I parented very similarly, I understand that very well.

    If you say, “discreetly”, you plant the seed that there is a right and wrong way to breastfeed, that if you can’t be discreet enough by a vague and variable standard, then you will be viewed as pushy and inconsiderate or even obscene. And that sort of worry is what makes the moms like the ones I met stop breastfeeding before they or their babies would otherwise wish to stop.

    Unless you are on a topless beach or nudist colony, you do not have a right (in the US, at least) to take off your top for the heck of it. But you should be able to breastfeed without bringing along a cover-up that your baby might not even tolerate or fumbling with added accessories or hiding in a corner. That is why breastfeeding is exempted from many obscenity laws. Whether or not the female breasts are actually obscene, we could debate–but I strongly believe that using breasts to feed a baby is not.

    If your husband is uncomfortable with a tiny flash of nipple for the one second before a baby latches, there is nothing wrong with him feeling that discomfort and acknowledging it.

    But he needs to balance his adult, one second of minor discomfort with what is morally and legally right for a tiny, hungry baby.