On the surface, nursing covers seem to be the perfect solution for moms who want to breastfeed but are uncomfortable doing so in public. Moms can nurse "discreetly," passers-by aren't made uncomfortable by seeing a woman's breasts in action, and babies can eat when they're hungry. Nursing covers are often marketed as breastfeeding helps. According to some of the most popular nursing cover sites, they "allow you to breastfeed anytime, anywhere." You can "nurse discreetly and in style."
Are there any potential downsides to nursing covers? In this post I explore how nursing covers may do a disservice. Here are some of the reasons why:
1. You need to see it to learn it
In order to breastfeed successfully, women need to watch other women nurse their babies. A lot. They need to see how to hold a newborn, how to help them latch on, how to deal with those pesky arms, how to adjust an uncomfortable latch. They need to see it again and again, until those actions become so ingrained that they become second nature.
As I argued in my presentation at the 2011 Lamaze Conference, breastfeeding in a modern, Western context is like learning a foreign language. We no longer speak breastfeeding fluently. In earlier times, it used to be our mother tongue, but now most of us are second-language speakers. Hiding breastfeeding underneath a blanket keeps us from gaining fluency in this language. It's the equivalent of trying to become in French by reading textbooks, but never hearing spoken French or going to a French-speaking country. It is nearly impossible to become fully conversant in a foreign language without interacting with native speakers.
2. Caution: Keep Out
Nursing covers ghettoize breastfeeding by creating an artificial divide between public & private breastfeeding, then labeling public breastfeeding as inappropriate unless carefully hidden. They perpetuate shame and guilt for an essential, life-giving act. The cultural mandate to hide breastfeeding extends into private spaces; some women use nursing covers even in designated mother's lounges! Covers draw attention to an act that would otherwise be easy to mistake for holding a sleeping baby.
3. One (unnecessary) degree of separation
Nursing covers make breastfeeding unnecessarily complicated by placing a layer of fabric between the mother and her baby. This layer keeps mothers and babies from making eye contact and visually interacting. Many covers have attempted to compensate for this by incorporating a rigid band of plastic or metal band that arches the fabric away from the mother's chest and allows her to peek at her baby. It's a solution to a "problem" that doesn't need to exist in the first place.
4. Hiding hooters & covering udders
Nursing covers reinforce women's status--and their breasts in particular--as objects of sexual desire. (Hooter Hiders, anyone?) By hiding breastfeeding, they send a message that nursing a baby is the equivalent of a sexual act.
The photos below, taken from the Udder Covers website, show women in sexually alluring makeup and poses. This first photo shows a heavily made-up woman with false eyelashes, bleached hair, and an inviting, seductive expression. You could easily transplant her head onto the body of a Victoria's Secret model selling lingerie or swimwear.
This next picture shows models with whitened teeth, false eyelashes, and carefully groomed hair. It sends the message that showing skin is acceptable, as long as it is not in the context of breastfeeding. Bare shoulders? Fine. Cleavage? No problem. Breasts in action? No way.
Sometimes nursing covers do not sexualize women; instead, they make them look entirely asexual.
I mean, who wants to wear an bib? That's so toddler. Even with a cute floral print.
5. The problem is cultural, not individual
Nursing covers hide the fact that disapproval of nursing in public is a cultural problem. Instead, the rhetoric of "covering up" frames breastfeeding as an individual person's issue that can be solved with the right product. (I'm not confident enough to nurse uncovered. I don't want to see women whip it out. Nursing is okay but I feel it should be discreet.) By keeping the focus on the individual, nursing covers keep us from seeing the issue as a cultural one.
6. Breastfeeding: The anti-porn
"But what if my 12-year-old boy sees it?" My response would be "Awesome! He'll have a healthier view of the female body by seeing breasts in their proper function." The pornographic view of breasts sees them as objects of male desire. A functional view of breasts--not hidden under a cover, not exposed with the intent to arouse sexual desire--sees them as objects that nourish and comfort.
Nursing covers ultimately aren't an aid to breastfeeding--they are a well-intentioned tool that inadvertently undermines breastfeeding. The solution to breastfeeding in public isn't to hide it under a bib; it's to make nursing so ubiquitous, so everyday, that the divide between nursing in private and nursing in public disappears. I long to live in a culture where there is no such thing as "nursing in public"--a place where breastfeeding is, simply, breastfeeding.
This photo is begging for some awesome captions. The best caption gets the official Stand & Deliver seal of approval.