Saturday, February 07, 2009

Public breastfeeding: why more is better

So often in discussions about nursing in public, breastfeeding advocates tend to frame their replies in one of the following ways:
  • breasts aren't inherently sexual; they're for feeding a baby
  • nursing in public is actually fairly discreet most of the time; often you can't even tell the baby is nursing unless you look closely
Both of those types of responses imply that nursing in public shouldn't really be noticed, either because it is just a baby eating or because it's really not that obvious anyway. But on the other hand, perhaps nursing in public needs to be noticed more. One of the biggest challenges of modern-day breastfeeding is that women usually have to reinvent the wheel by themselves, in isolation, only with some books or websites to help out. Public nursing can play a vital educational role, but only if women actually have the opportunity to see it in action.

Last month, TopHat related her experience with someone wanting to look over her shoulder to figure out how to nurse correctly:
A lady at church yesterday came up to me and apologized for watching me breastfeed...she was afraid that her watching made me uncomfortable. I don't even remember this, so that'll tell you how uncomfortable I was. :) She had been struggling with breastfeeding and was at the end of her ropes and going to switch to formula that day or the next. She wanted to see a good latch and watch someone who has done it. She did go to a lactation consultant the next day (or soon after that) and her baby is now 100% breastfed. Yay for her!

I think this exemplifies a lot of the problems we have in our culture with breasts and breastfeeding. We just never see breastfeeding--we don't know what it looks like and we don't know how to do it. We really have to go out of our way to see it. I went to 5 months of LLL meetings while pregnant to learn what a good latch is--and I'll even admit to trying to see a latch over someone's shoulder. I remember even contemplating, "Should I just ask her if I can watch her latch the baby on?" about a woman in our playgroup.
It doesn't help that, with our overly sexualized culture, videos of women latching babies on--such as one that I posted on Youtube when Zari was a few weeks old--are removed for their supposed "pornography or sexually explicit content." This particular video showed a real-life attempt at getting a newborn to latch on: it included a demostration of a cross-cradle hold while my other hand supported my breast, little hands that kept waving around and poking in her mouth and getting in the way, and multiple attempts at getting her mouth to open and her hands out of the way before the magic opportunity presented itself. These are things you can't see or understand from reading a book. You need to see them in action.

Jack Newman, a leading expert in breastfeeding, is fond of saying "Babies learn to breastfeed by breastfeeding. Mothers learn to breastfeed by breastfeeding." I suggest that we add: "Mothers learn to breastfeed by watching other mothers breastfeeding."


  1. You make excellent points. I had to ask a good friend if I could watch her latch her baby (though by that point he was almost 6 months and could do it himself) because I thought there was something wrong with me - I just didn't understand how it was supposed to work. And I watched Dr Newman's videos over.and.over.and.over. We did eventually get it to work out (and it took 6 LC's) thankfully.

  2. i had some great 'latch' pics of jasper at a few weeks old on my flickr. I had to remove them as the hit rate had gone through the roof and all sorts of weirdos had favourited them. I knew they were weirdoes when i looked at their collection of favourites. totally agree but the symptom goes with our 'borderline' culture. Cant be sexual and functional. thats tooo challenging!

  3. It's sad, that breatfeeding has been so sexualized. There is no better nutrition for our babies than that. I couldn't peek anywhere to see a good latch during my pregnancy, but my midwife helped me at the beginning and my baby is just naturally a great latcher. At first I was shy breatfeeding in public, not because I cared if someone saw my breasts, but I didn't want to offend anyone. Now I have grown more confident and if someone would say something to me I would politely explain myself. I agree, though. The more people see breastfeeding in public, the better. People are just too removed from the basics nowadays.

  4. Rixa,

    I had the tremendous benefit of having breastfeeding being normal in my church when I was growing up. I never realized how great a benefit it was, until I read stories like this -- of women who want to breastfeed or intend to breastfeed, but have never seen anyone else do it. That's sad! I never had any problems with b/f, and I think that one of the big reasons is that I had unconsciously as a child and teenager picked up on normal b/f positions, and used those automatically. For me, b/f was just completely normal; but I cringe for those women who have had difficult and painful times b/f.

    For those of you who have not seen women latching on, there is a good book that has recently been released called "Breastfeeding with Comfort and Joy: A Photographic Guide for Mom and Those who Help Her" -- I highly recommend it. It is available at (the author is self-published, so it's not on Amazon or anything like that). It would be a wonderful baby shower gift for any pregnant woman!


  5. Thank you for this post! I completely agree.

  6. (More public breastfeeding wouldn't benefit only other mothers.)

    Today my 17 yo brother was complaining about the immodesty of some girls on BYU's campus. (Really, it's a miracle I survived 4 years there!). Apparently someone wrote a letter to the DU editor about women wearing their bags on their backs, with the strap tight between their breasts, which is just sooo provocative.

    Whenever I hear things like this or read posts, etc, I want to run out and have a 4th kid and spend her entire first year doing public nurse-ins. And I'd start at BYU.

    Imagine if boys and men saw breasts being used for breastfeeding? If we could replace the hyper-sexualized images that they're bombarded with, with the natural, normal, God-given, life-giving activity of breastfeeding?

  7. Good point! I always try to feed my babes out in public whenever and wherever I can. I want to normalize breastfeeding. If just one mom-to-be or future mom sees me just nursing, with no cover and no hiding in the corner, maybe she will think, "That's not so gross after all. I can do that."

    It's like that in Europe from what I hear. Breastfeeding is just so NORMAL that no one bothers to get kerfuffled over it, because they see it all the time!

    I may not have daughters to pass on my womanly wisdom to, but I can pass on something to my sons: that birth and breastfeeding is not gross, scary, shameful, or weird. I look forward to seeing what open-minded men they grow up to be!

  8. I really like this post. I was lucky enough to grow up around women who breastfed openly, and then to have my first baby in the UK, where breastfeeding really is more accepted than here in the US. I'm sure the combination of those experiences went a long way to my having no trouble whatsoever getting started breastfeeding my children.

    I admit that I have a hard time breastfeeding openly in the US because I feel like there is so much criticism here. Ironically, the friend I have who is most tolerant of the fact that I tend not to use a cover-up while feeding my children is the one friend who bottle-fed her own children.

    Your post does make me feel like I need to get over my fear of ruffling feathers for the sake of my children and their future children...

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  10. Have you read the book where they talked about the new gorilla mother who was having a hard time nursing her baby? The local LLL near that zoo got volunteers to go and sit at the bench by the gorilla enclosure and nurse their own babies. The gorilla mother started watching them and totally picked up on it and started nursing her own baby.

    Watching other moms is TOTALLY helpful. I wouldn't mind at all! I breastfeed wherever and whenever and so many times I've latched one of my kids on to have another mother sit down and say, "oh good - someone else is nursing. my baby was hungry but i felt kind of weird..." I think public breastfeeding is a great lesson to everyone everywhere.

  11. One of the things I miss most now that I'm done childbearing is the opportunity to nurse in public. My little #4 spent most of her baby and toddlerhood being dragged to her siblings activities and so nursed everywhere - baseball games, swim meets, band concerts, academic meets, teacher conferences. And since I have such a crazy job, I took every chance to have her with me, so she nursed in department meetings, medical staff meetings, and in the sling while I rounded on my patients. I practice in the small community I live in and I see my clients everywhere - church, school, shopping, kids' activities. One of the nice side effects of all that nursing in public was I had more than one client tell me that seeing me nurse in public gave them confidence to nurse in public, too. One client, in particular, sat down next to me in church one day (her babe was about 6 mos younger than mine) and whispered that she was sitting by me to give her confidence to just nurse when the baby needed to. Now, I have to content myself with just talking about our nursing relationship and working it into normal conversation whenever I can!

  12. I completely agree with a need for more women to see nursing in order to help their understanding. I remember knowing that I would nurse my baby, but when I read "The Womenly Art of Breastfeeding" while pregnant, I got bogged down with descriptions of engorgment and painful latch. I ended up tossing the book aside and not using it again until problems arose. I really could have used another women showing me how she and her baby latched! The learning curve can be hard enough when all you have is a nurse shoving your nipple in your baby's mouth. I am so thankful for our two local lactation consultants, I think they have saved many of the area's mother/child nursing relationships.

  13. Thanks for the link! I totally agree with you. I have always tried to avoid the "you don't see anything anyway" approach because I don't feel that even if you could see something that would be wrong. It's not wrong.

    Jane @ WAM makes me feel like walking up to campus tomorrow and nursing. Unfortunately, I wonder if I'd end up in the DU's police beat... But I feel like doing it anyway- I need a good field trip. :)

    It's really nice to read posts like this. I feel like I get bogged down in all the negativity around NIP sometimes.

  14. was your video never put back up?

    Same thing happened when I posted my son's birthing video.

    I wrote a letter, and I'm not sure how many other people wrote letters too... but I do know they put it back up. Just with an 18 or older warning. ::rolls eyes::

  15. Unfortunately you are preaching to the choir. Those who read your blog, already agree. It is hard to try and change perspectives on breast feeding. I am a nurse and other nurses will say derogatory things about breast feeding in public. I think more folks need to breast feed toddlers. That way society will get broken in more to breast feeding in general.

    And yes, it is amazing that face book and other sites will take the breast feeding videos off but it is ok for women to prance around half naked. Context people!!!!

    What I do love is that more hospitals are having breast feeding support groups so that women can get together in groups and chat, support and demonstrate breast feeding and motherhood in general. My hospital has a group every day at noon. When my baby was a baby, I went to a breast feeding support group on Mondays at noon. I loved it. It helped so much.

  16. Do you still have your breastfeeding videos available? I would be interested in posting them on my blog for my business. I think that this is so important, it's a shame that the web overall doesn't support images of breastfeeding, as this is where so many Moms look for information.

  17. I haven't put it back up; I should do so and see if it gets pulled again or not.

  18. Have you seen this video segment of breastfeeding from Mr Roger's Neighborhood? It shows two different mothers latching on their babies. I guess youtube figured they couldn't pull something from a show that played on PBS every morning. Here's the link:

  19. And then there was this incident over breastfeeding at Dennys in Asheville, NC today:

  20. Before I gave birth in 2003, I had seen ONE woman breastfeeding in my entire life.


    It was at a store where we were both trying on shoes. I may have been newly pregnant by then (I can't remember) but I knew I would breastfeed, and I wanted so badly to watch her but felt uncomfortable for looking.

    Later, after my child was born, I spent some time online at breastfeeding and parenting forums, and I remember reading posts from women who talked bout being stared at for breastfeeding, and I always wanted to tell them... perhaps the staring isn't the result of hostility but of simple curiosity.

    (of course, I didn't -and don't- want to minimize the reality of hostile and judgmental looks and attitudes because I know those exist!)

    The best thing I did when my first was a newborn was attend a weekly drop-in group of new mothers. I definitely experienced my gorilla self! I just looked and looked at all those mothers... how did they hold their babies? What kind of bra did they wear? What did they do when their babies fussed? Where did they get that sling? Did their babies hiccup all the time, too? Etc. etc.

  21. thanks so much for this post, I am nursing my 2 week old and already feel the isolation. I was considering pumping when she's a bit older just so I don't make other people "uncomfortable"...

  22. Thank you for this.
    From Jasmine, who recently cleared out the benches at the conservatory by breastfeeding in public... Nothing clears a room like NIP.


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