Nursing in Public

Good Girls versus Bad Girls?

The question, "Brestfeeding moms, why can't you cover up?" (ed. note: post has been removed - see update). brought up lots of comments, tweets, and blogposts this week.  For this, I should thank the original authors even though the interesting ideas really came from the comments rather then the post, which is basically the title question followed by some light scolding. It brought up relevant issues, however, like personal modesty, public propriety, legal rights, and even whether it's okay for women to get angry at one another. 

I think it's pretty clear from the rest of my site what side I'm on in this issue and how I feel about frenemy-moms (I call them frenemoms) who soothingly, condescendingly dose out platitudes about judgement-free parenting and then turn around and oh-so-gently remind those who "want to breastfeed" to both respect and help perpetuate the uneducated view (or should I say food-industry educated view) that nursing a baby is a rather offensive thing to do.   

But the photo comparison really got me thinking about the whole issue in a new way.  The frenemoms ask "Why do this?" next to this picture of a mother and her baby.  To me, this scene looks a lot more like a classic madonna and child painting (any of the madonna lactans) than the "fashion don't" they're being portrayed as.  The mom here also seems appealingly worldly, strong and a tad rebellious, like a nursing Che Guevara:

breastfeeding mother

The "fashion do"-type photo (below) finishes the question with "When you could do this." 

This woman looks scary to me.  She's half-buried under a giant pastel swath of fabric, despite the fact that she seems to be sitting in her own home.  What's under there, anyway? Is she the Modern Ghost of Christmas Present, hiding Ignorance and Want under her giant cloak? Don't get me wrong, I've nursed in a sling or with a scarf or blanket, but I don't get the big tents. 

Even the very shy and modest breastfeeding moms among us would surely still prefer the Madonna mom to the draped menace, right?  What could the menace have over the Madonna? 

Then I realized - the drape looks safe. It's not only a breast cover, but a complete nursing cover.  The entire process is hidden including the baby.  Some moms probably feel a wave of relief as they look from the dangerous "exposed" mom to the safe "good girl" mom protected from scorn and controversy by her generous drapery.

I used to assume all women who "want to breastfeed" feel 100% right about their decision, but this article and the surrounding brouhaha have demonstrated that some moms who love nursing their babies and understand the health benefits are still bothered by the feeling they are doing something questionable or edgy.  

Or maybe lots of us feel like we're doing something edgy, and some are just more comfortable with that.  Can only the liberals, hippies, scientists, and lactivists (the ones who are fine with, even happy about, being viewed as "bad girls") pull it off?  Will the "good girls" always feel the need to hide in the breastfeeding closet, keeping "that" topic and activity under wraps? I hope not.

I hope we can work back toward a society in which breastfeeding is seen as an purely wholesome act, free from controversy.  I want a place where no stern aunts or opinionated neighbors feel the need and right to ask if you're STILL breastfeeding to poke at some inner guilt they know/hope is there - a place where a woman doesn't have to feel lucky that her frenemom "didn't make fun of her or tell her to quit" nursing her child.

Why can't we recognize the sight of a mother nursing her child as wholesome and reassuring anymore? I suspect it has a lot to do with formula marketing and the commodification of women's breasts, but that's fodder for another post. For now, I place my hope in the "bad-girls" - the liberals, hippies, scientists, and lactivists - to lead the way with Breastfeeding Pride and the fight for proper legislation.

Perhaps in time the "good girls," who don't want a battle and steer clear of controversy, will emerge from their tents as the stigma dies out. Then you won't have to be a public nursing ninja to get through the day taking care of your kids, you'll just have to be a mom.


Other interesting posts on this subject:

From PhD in Parenting

From Happy Mom Amy

If you of know more - please add them in the comments.


It seems the link to the original blog post "Breastfeeding Moms, Whay Can't You Cover Up?" is broken - because the post has been taken down. Too bad - I feel the post brought up a lot of relevant issues, and the comments section was full of different perspectives on nursing in public. 

How To Become A Public Nursing Ninja

Breastmilk consumed in a crowded mall won't improve your baby's health or IQ any more than usual.  There will come a time, however, that you will actually leave your house again.  When you do, however modest you may be, you won't want to trudge to your car in the cold or to some foodcourt bathroom to nurse.

Don't schlep or hide for fear of harassment or exposure!  Embrace your inner ninja.  Remember your rights, and remember that people who see you nursing your baby will be encouraged to do the same (or support it) when the time comes.  If you're nervous, start small - use a subtle cover and bring a friend (who is ballsy and supportive or large and male, or both).  

A nursing tent is not a subtle cover, and makes you look like you're hiding in a clothy tank preparing to attack (in a very un-ninjalike fashion).  A small blanket bunched artfully between your baby's head an the public can work - although I've found a scarf draped from your shoulder can be the most versatile way to make it difficult for anyone who doesn't desperately want to be to be offended to see much actual boob - or even to notice you are nursing.  You can also easily nurse in most slings with minimal exposure.  

Once you've gotten some practice, you can move on to a great nursing shirt alone - the best are fitted and open in a folded flap across the chest.  I love the Boob Design shirts I used to buy at the Upper Breast Side in Manhattan (basic black long sleeve).  They clearly show that you are nursing, and yet show little breast or nipple.

One thing other thing - when in hostile territory, don't forget your game face! This is the look that says :

"I am really busy and doing something important.  Spare yourself the withering iciness of my annoyed glare and the very sarcastic way I will say 'really' if you dare confront me about this - not to mention the frosty but longwinded lecture you (and your manger, if applicable) will get from me if you dare press it further than that." 

Once you get your confidence up, it's time to post pics on facebook, attend a nurse-in, or get brave like these ladies from the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, described hilariously in New York Times blogger Samantha Story's piece excerpted below.


"While I struggled to manipulate my son’s head to cover as much of my breast as possible, these women took their comfort with nakedness to a whole new height.

One woman had her shirt completely unbuttoned, her pretty pink, lacey maternity bra on display. Another had one breast lopped over the top of her tank top. The third had twins. She wasn’t wearing a shirt — or a bra for that matter — just a hoodie sweatshirt unzipped with a baby at each breast. She walked around the restaurant with them in her arms, her body swaying in a comforting dance.

If only I was a 14-year-old boy! I admired their lack of self-consciousness but had to admit I was uncomfortable — it was as if I had landed in a private living room, and it felt as if I were privy to their intimacy unbeknownst to them.

But open and comfortable breast-feeding is quintessential daytime Park Slope. Moms are just as relaxed nursing at the local pizza parlor as they are in each other’s homes. "


Awesome.  But if that's not your style, just find the level that suits you're inner public nursing ninja - and don't forget your game face. 

Your Right to Nurse in Public


 "I'm sorry, you can't do that here."


Amid all of the things you have to worry about - namely taking care of your hungry, upset baby - you do not want to hear this loaded and accusing phrase designed to fill you with shame and send you away from the "decent" people.  Many women don't realize that, unless this is your mother-in-law talking in her own, private residence (a situation deserving of it's own, separate post), this person is likely 100% wrong! 

Anyone who tells you this in a public place (including employees of stores and restaurants) is not only nosy and out-of-line, but is also legally incorrect in all but two US states.  Except in Nebraska and Idaho (where public nursing is still not illegal, just not protected yet), you can nurse your baby freely in public - not in a bothroom, not in a "special" hidden room far away, but anywhere you are allowed to be. 

See the map posted here with lots more helpful information by the Centers for Disease Control to learn more about your rights, state-by-state.  The La Leche Leage is also a great reference for breastfeeding rights.  Another informative listing updated in the fall of 2009 is provided by the National Conference of State Legislators.

*Update:   A great article from Mothering magazine provides lots of current inforamtion and detail: Lactation and the Law

One great thing to have in your wallet or diaper bag is a breastfeeding rights card or "license to nurse."  These can be found online for most states.  I am providing links to a couple below as examples. 

South Carolina License to Nurse

Washington D.C. License to Nurse

Printed material can be nice to have, but whether you have it or not, don't be bullied!  You might also consider wearing the shirt depicted above which I found at cafe press (throw this onsie on your kid and you're good to go).  It will probably cause that manger at Applebees or Toys R Us to think twice before approaching... 

More posts to come on this, including other important legislation that has and has not yet been passed to support breastfeeding families, and what you can do to help.

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