Public breastfeeding, Nursing in Public (NIP) or my daughter’s favourite, ‘mama on the move’ is a controversial subject. Particularly in the US it seems, there is a constant stream of press and blog articles about whether it should be allowed at all, let alone discreetly. The lines seem clearly drawn: it is either, “Don’t shove it down my throat” or “my baby has the right to eat whenever and wherever he chooses”.
I have recently been asked some questions about this subject, so I thought I’d have a go at answering them here.
1.What is your opinion/experience on the public’s attitude towards nursing mums?
My own experience was pretty positive. First time round I was on such a high to finally be able to get out of the house with a successfully nursing baby that I was probably oblivious to any funny looks if there were any. I had muddled and struggled through pretty much on my own to surmount early difficulties feeding, so my first experience of public nursing was through necessity and I remember just feeling jublilant that he latched with no fuss and I’d managed to cover my blubbery midriff. After that, there was no stopping us and we nursed anywhere and everywhere we found ourselves. I do remember my Dad feeling a bit uncomfortable, but he never said anything and I appreciated that.
I also remember, on a number of occasions, old ladies coming up to me in the park, or sitting down next to me on the bus to admire the baby and only realising I was feeding when they were up REALLY close. Without exception, I was then treated to a longwinded homily on how lovely it was to see a mother feeding, interspersed with her own recollections of nursing in the blitz or at WI meetings or somesuch!
Second time, I had learnt so much about breastfeeding, and was starting my journey of learning to become a doula and breastfeeding counsellor that I remember almost wishing someone would say something so that I could come back with something from my new repertoire of witty responses. I was only approached once in over 4 years of feeding that nursling – in McDonalds, where I had hastily sat down with a screaming, red-faced daughter. A spotty ‘yoof’ asked me if I could ‘do that in the toilet’, to which I delightedly replied, “would you eat your dinner in the toilet?”, smiled politely and patted my guzzling daughter’s bottom. He scuttled off, as red-faced as my daughter had been minutes before.
You see, I had done a lot of thinking about this subject by then. I had realised that I had a debt to pay to my parents, who had brought me up not to be ashamed of my body. Despite the fact that neither myself or my brother had been breastfed, I grew up somehow understanding that nursing a baby is a normal part of being a mother, just as the pigs and sheep and cows fed their young on the farms my Agricultural Journalist father had taken me to as a child.
I had learnt that babies are born to nurse little and often. They have tiny tummies. They have a hard-wired, overarching need to suckle – for food, for drink, for reassurance, emotional stability and a 1000 and one other things.
I had also learnt about the culture we live in – one that is very different to many around the world. Did you know that the majority of cultures do not place any sexual or erogenous status on breasts? Most see breasts as feeding tools for babies. Full stop.
We live in a culture where breasts are big business. They titillate and excite. They sell cars. Lives and fortunes are built on them. Their primary function has been almost forgotten.
We live in a culture in which breastfeeding has begun to be seen as an ‘exchange of bodily fluids’ or likened to other functions where fluid exits the body – like urination. The magic that is a woman’s ability to totally sustain her child’s growth and development, whilst simultaneously shoring up his immature immune system, has been lost in the mists of time; a secret that seems kept safe only by the knowledge-keepers (scientists, public health professionals and lactation experts).
I also knew by then that there are many who benefit financially from keeping these secrets safe from ordinary mothers. It is in their interest to subtly endorse mothers’ understandable shyness or trepidation at the prospect of giving ‘Mama on the Move’. Maybe, if it means not offending people’s delicate sensibilities, or not having to wear a tent, or learning how to nurse without showing a milimetre of skin, it’s easier to pump and give a bottle when out? Perhaps it’s even easier to give a bottle of formula in public?
Mothers imbibe the notion that they must protect themselves from embarrassment and the easiest way to do that is to put money into the hands of bottle and formula manufacturers.
Many, especially young mothers, suspect that breastfeeding in public is somehow a slur on their moral standing. I’ve heard more than one teenage mother say that she’s not going to breastfeed because ‘getting my tits out will make me look like a slag’.
Many big businesses benefit from keeping us ignorant – to such an extent that it has become necessary to pass legislation underscoring our right to nurse where our baby chooses.
2.What facilities or services are available for nursing mums?
What facilities do we actually need? A park bench? A comfy chair in a shop or cafe? A comfortable sling and a kindly ‘sling lady’ to teach us how to nurse on the go – hands free? Of course, in reality, many new mothers aren’t as ‘jolly hockey sticks’ as me about it all and want somewhere more private. Most places now will have many facilities available and a greater than expected number of supportive people who will move heaven and earth to make you feel comfortable.
Most maternity hospitals and community midwives these days will be sending you on your way with a list of local ‘breastfeeding friendly’ shops and cafes in your local area. Other, more experienced local mothers and breastfeeding supporters will have their local secrets – the cafe that will give you a free cup of tea and a more private table when you ask or the shop that has a swanky nursing room.
3.Do the negative/ignorant attitudes make it harder for mums to maintain breastfeeding and how do you encourage mums to overcome this?
Yes, I think they do. I have no doubt that a proportion of mothers decide in pregnancy not to even initiate breastfeeding because of fears that they will be stuck in the house all the time. They may give different reasons, but deep down, it’s fear and shame that motivates their choices. Other mothers do actually stay at home, or rush home to feed, causing suffering for mother and baby alike.
Like many fears, the reality is usually much easier than our imagined worries. I suggest that mothers come to a breastfeeding drop-in, or other supportive group, first so that they can nurse in public surrounded by others doing the same. By hanging out with other breastfeeding mums, we learn so much. Not least that our boobs are not the biggest/smallest/most droopy/odd-looking (insert your personal hang-up here) and we pick up tips on clothing solutions and other discreet-nursing ideas. With support and information, we may even begin to see our breasts as the marvellous, magical things they really are and lose some, or all, of our self-consciousness.
I also encourage mothers to nurse in front of the mirror at home before they go out. That way, they can learn how to adjust their clothing (a vest-top under a baggy t-shirt or bottoned top works well – one up, or open and one down, et Voila!) or how to artfully drape that muslin square or fashionable scarf. One doesn’t really need to spend hard-earned cash on specialist nursing tops or funny-looking aprons, but if you want to, well whatever works for you…
4. What changes do you think need to be made to make breastfeeding in public an easier experience for mums?
Well, I think the answer to this question answers a lot of others about breastfeeding in general. We need to look at what would make breastfeeding easier for mums, full stop. We need to normalise breastfeeding again – remember what makes motherhood easy. Babies are easy to care for when they are where they want to be – in their mother’s arms or at her breast. When their needs are responded to quickly and the whole community celebrates a mother who does so. When mothers are surrounded by supportive, informed and non-judgemental mentors and role models, everything else falls into place.
There is a tipping point coming, just as it came in Scandinavia – the more mothers who breastfeed on the go, the less it will seem wierd. The more children who grow up seeing breastfeeding all around them, the easier it will be for them to nurse or support their partners to nurse in their turn.
In the short term, we need to drop the baggage and the judgement. ALL mothers are just trying to do their best, armed with the best information they have at the time and within their own personal, family or cultural constraints. We need to give over judging each other and get on with just enjoying parenting, whatever way we know how.
We need proper, skilled support available to all – ideally started before the baby arrives, so that mums can work through their fears and concerns. Then mums need a friendly face, armed with practical help whenever they need it. By that I don’t mean a well-meaning but ignorant promotion of breastfeeding, but people who can really help when the stuff hits the fan.
Finally, we need real State support. Support to let us know we are appreciated for the wonderful job we’re doing. A clear message sent out to all, that idiotic ideas about the inappropriacy of public breastfeeding will not be tolerated and importantly, the breaks put on the the unethical marketing of substitute feeding options.
To end on a positive, a reassuring message – I’ve never had a client yet who hasn’t faced her fears and gone on to be an uninhibited ‘Mama on the Move’. Ring up your breastfeeding friend, local breastfeeding counsellor or advocate or take your doula by the arm and go enjoy that Hazelnut skinny latte while your baby sups his nork-juice. It won’t be as bad as you think. I promise.