Breastfeeding in Public Spaces

Diane Wiessinger, MS, IBCLC

Originally published November 2015,  and republished with the express permission of the author.
Photo: Karsyn Shalae Photography

Thirty-five years ago, when my first baby was about six weeks old, I found myself in a doctor’s waiting room, waiting for my partner. There was one other person in the room—an old man, who sat facing me, just a few chair lengths away—and my baby was getting hungry. I took a deep breath, turned a bit to the side, lifted, shifted, and settled my shirt to meet the top edge of his body. Amazing! The expression on the old man’s face hadn’t changed! He didn’t have a clue what I was doing! Well, of course not. He must have been in his eighties, and I’m sure the dining requirements of a six-week-old were not on his mind.

They weren’t on most people’s minds, it turned out. I once chose a “secluded” place to feed my baby in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and found myself suddenly facing the boarding queue. At least a hundred passengers filed s-l-o-w-l-y past me, and not one of them seemed to notice.

Over my years of being out and about with two breastfed children, some people did notice. A few mothers came up to me and told me how they’d wanted to breastfeed but hadn’t had enough milk, a few came up to tell me how much they missed their breastfeeding days. No one ever once appeared shocked or even mildly irritated or reproachful. I’m sure the vast majority of the people around me simply never noticed the telltale shirt wrinkles above my baby’s head. One older woman actually lifted a corner of my shirt to see the baby’s face, and jumped back as if she’d been burned when she saw what that face was busy doing. “Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry!” she said. “That’s all right,” I reassured her, “We’ve all been there, haven’t we?” “Yes,” she said, and smiled broadly, “we have.”

I wasn’t conspicuous. There was very little specially designed clothing 35 years ago; I just wore something loose enough to lift from the bottom. When I was nursing in public I’d also pull up the other side of my shirt an inch or two. That way, if there was a wet spot, when I settled my clothes it would end up below my nipple, at about diaper level when I held my baby, instead of creating a bull’s eye around my nipple. And I thought how sad it was that an apparent urine stain was so much more acceptable in public than an apparent milk stain. I’d casually press my forearm against the “off side” nipple during milk releases to reduce any leaks. And I confess that when I went shopping for a new top, I’d rub a bit of saliva on the hem to see what happened when the fabric was wet. If it didn’t pass the “spit test,” I’d move on. But for the most part, I fed my babies where they wanted to be fed, which was indoors, outdoors, public, private. And no one ever objected.

My friends all went through the same “trial by fire,” a generation ago, breastfeeding for the first time in public out of sheer desperation and discovering that it was neither terribly difficult nor terribly obvious. But what we thought of as “public” and what we thought of as “obvious” varied.

Once, I went to a La Leche League meeting of maybe 15 women, most of whom were busy feeding their babies. Halfway through the meeting there was a break for refreshments, and 13 women left the room — all but a young foreign student and me. She put her baby to her breast for the first time since the meeting had started, then smiled shyly at me, and said in halting English, “This my first time breastfeeding in public.” I was amazed. To this new mother very far from home, I was her trial by fire!

At another LLL meeting held in a community hall, a woman who had struggled throughout her first month of breastfeeding sat near the frequently opening door, calmly peeled off both shirt and bra, then looked up, said, “Oh!” and put her shirt back on. After four long weeks of never looking beyond her own breast and baby, it hadn’t occurred to her that there might be a wider world watching her totally topless approach. Her personal trial by fire had been simply learning to breastfeed. The public’s opinion? An afterthought.

Mothers in my generation learned ways to reduce the visibility of breastfeeding without the benefit of specialty clothing or equipment:

Lifting shirts from below was always less conspicuous than opening from above; a loose top and the baby’s body cover virtually all exposed skin. A mother’s bird’s eye view is always the clearest one—people looking at us instead of looking down on us have a very poor view of the proceedings. A cardigan sweater hangs vertically and drapes a mother’s sides completely, even when the shirt underneath is lifted in front. Mothers of twins might use a tank top, colored to go well with that day’s shirt, with two large and well-placed holes cut out. When they pull their shirt up, the tank top covers everything else. And though it can take some practice, nursing in a sling is virtually invisible.

Maybe just as important as our clothing is whether and how and we hold our breast. There was no “cross-cradle hold” or specialized pillow a generation ago. The early weeks of breastfeeding might involve some precarious and awkward positions, but by the time we were ready to go out most of us had already fed our babies on sofas, on kitchen chairs, cross-legged on the floor, and walking around. We were ready to use whatever furnishings the public offered, from picnic tables to restaurant chairs, leaning, lifting, or shifting accordingly. We practiced at home, maybe with a mirror or an observer, and then we took that deep breath and … just did it.

Like changing a diaper or managing a car seat, breastfeeding in public was awkward and intimidating at first but straightforward from then on.

A few of us were given disapproving looks or were told we had to move, but I remember no editorials pro or con, no articles, no legislation protecting or prohibiting. The great majority of the women I knew were simply ignored.

Now, 35 years past my first public fumblings, breastfeeding rates continue to stagger determinedly upward, breastfeeding legislation protects more and more of us … and yet new mothers in many countries (my own included) may have more difficulty breastfeeding in public than we had a generation ago.

I’ve puzzled and puzzled over this, and have decided that I’m partly to blame. I showed mothers how to be totally discreet, as if nursing had to be hidden.  I didn’t object when expensive breastfeeding clothes implied that we needed to be wealthy in order to breastfeed in public. I didn’t raise a fuss when I saw ads for shawls and blankets that might as well have had “BABY BREASTFEEDING UNDER HERE” emblazoned across them. I didn’t protest the tents, hoops, gizmos, and gadgets intended to make money from—and perpetuate—a mother’s early uncertainties. I didn’t object to those big, bulky breastfeeding pillows, or the rigid, awkward, can’t-take-it-with-you positions that they promoted.  I didn’t question the “Breastfeeding Welcome Here” or “Breastfeeding Room” signs that implied, benignly or otherwise, that nursing couldn’t happen anywhere else.

Worst of all, I didn’t stop to share a smile and thumbs-up with every one of the publicly breastfeeding mothers that I noticed. I always wondered: would she rather think no one sees, or would she rather exchange a knowing glance with a former member of this exclusive club? After years of internal debate, I’ve decided most mothers would rather have that moment of solidarity and support, and I haven’t been giving it. I’m starting today.

Thirty-five years ago, breastfeeding was a minority decision. Today, most women begin by breastfeeding. Yet bottle-feeding is still so much the norm that occasionally I’ll work with a woman who used a pump and bottles to help dig herself out of a difficult beginning, who wants to continue using bottles in public.

“But after all your hard work, do you really want to be that kind of role model?” I’ll ask. “Do you want to give the impression that educated, intelligent women today choose formula? That your baby, after all your hard work, is formula fed?” “But my milk would be in the bottle,” she’ll say. And I remind her, “But how will any of the little girls—or boys—who see you figure that out? What they’re going to assume is that formula feeding is what real people really do.” It’s always something she hadn’t thought about.

A breastfeeding mother who wants to be truly invisible can think in advance of some private retreats in public places.  But that means missing out on something—the dinner, the conversation, the pleasant surroundings, life.  Instead, with a little practice and the right outfit a breastfeeding mother can make breastfeeding invisible in plain sight. I once gave a breastfeeding talk to an auditorium full of college students, wearing a doll in a sling and patting, stroking, and swaying with the doll, as I would have with a real baby. During my talk, I also “breastfed” three times, each time lifting my top and bringing the doll’s mouth to my bare breast within the sling. During one of these “breastfeeding” sessions, two girls in the second row giggled together. No one else reacted, and when I asked at the end of the talk, no one else had been aware of what I was doing. Even the two girls near the front had missed two of the three “feedings.” We mothers truly aren’t as obvious as we think.

Magicians know that distraction can create invisibility. At our local farmer’s market, a young woman sold vegetables to my mother and me, weighing the produce, talking to us, and making change, all while switching her toddler from one breast to the other several times. After we left her booth, I asked my mother if she had noticed that the toddler was breastfeeding. With all the hubbub of the marketplace, she hadn’t seen a thing!

Mothers can just … do it. This summer our local LLL Group walked in our town’s annual parade. Before the parade, I glanced along the road and saw a mother with one of those big, broad BABY BREASTFEEDING UNDER HERE gadgets. In the whole roadside full of people, she was the one who stood out. Contrast that with our parade group. One of the two-year-olds grew tired of walking, was scooped up by his mother, and fed in her arms as we walked. One person did notice and made a negative comment to a friend. But others either didn’t notice—I didn’t, although I was walking near her—or were able to add another non-event to their own experiences. And what about the many who couldn’t miss the BABY BREASTFEEDING UNDER HERE shawl arrangement? Did it contribute to an opinion that breastfeeding is, literally, best kept under wraps?

Mothers can stage their own small acts of rebellion. A friend of mine was feeding her baby in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Her father, a little uncomfortable himself, pointed out the presumed discomfort of another gentleman nearby. “Oh, is he uncomfortable?” asked my friend brightly. “Why, he’s certainly free to move. I’m very comfortable where I am.” After all, a simple flick of his eye would remove her from his view. So much easier than hefting baby, diaper bag, and baggage to move to another seat!

Breastfeeding mothers can educate others by responding politely. Leigh Anne is an LLL Leader in New York State, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and a mother of three. Not the person you want to confront if you don’t have your facts in order. She was sitting in her children’s school lobby, feeding her seven-month-old, when she heard a woman say, “She can’t do that here!”  Leigh Anne spoke up pleasantly. “Actually, New York State law says that I can.” “But there are children here!” “Yes, she said gently, “and they’re learning that we are mammals and that mammals feed their babies this way.” The woman’s eyes widened. “I am not a mammal.” “Breasts are mammary glands and that what makes us mammals,” my friend responded. “Well, if I have any more children I won’t be able to breastfeed anyway, because I’m a diabetic,” said the woman. “If you want to help your children avoid diabetes, you’ll breastfeed them, because not breastfeeding actually increases their risk for obesity and diabetes.” The woman opened her mouth again, then closed it. Finally, she smiled and said, “Well, you just shot me down didn’t you?” Leigh Anne smiled back. “Girlfriend, I just shot you up!” The woman came over, shook hands with her, introduced herself, and they became “lobby buddies” for the rest of the term.

If enough breastfeeding mothers are confident and casual, if we don’t look furtive or embarrassed, most people will begin to realize that what they saw wasn’t so earthshaking after all. My daughter-in-law reported stopping along a public path to breastfeed three-month-old Max, and several teenage boys walked past. “Did you see that lady?” she heard one of them say. “I think she was breastfeeding.” And that was all. The boys now had one small, neutral breastfeeding experience added to their view of How The World Works. Give them two dozen more, and they’ll probably stop noticing at all.

I think maybe the public just didn’t know what to make of us a generation ago, so it took its cue from us. And there we were, busy spitting on the hem, cutting holes in our tank tops, opting for shawls and baggy shirts and hiding places. It’s just a hunch, mind you. But 35 years ago we were careful to conceal, happy to hide, eager to evaporate. And look where we’ve ended up!

So here’s my thought for the next 35 years. Certainly we each have a learning curve. By all means, work your way through any of the options above and any others that make you comfortable. But as you gain confidence, I hope you’ll consider not being so inconspicuous! Let’s get people so accustomed to the sight of breastfeeding mothers that they just don’t notice us anymore. Let’s not put too much energy into “breastfeeding-friendly” logos that just serve to isolate us.   Instead, let’s assume that the whole world is breastfeeding-friendly, and plunk ourselves down in the grocery store aisle instead of the back of the store.

Here’s a thought:  Each month on the anniversary of your child’s birth, consider being a little more public than you usually are.   Breastfeed in a sidewalk café or a pew in church, or while you take a walk in the park.

If enough of us “birthday breastfeed” in public, all those gentle exposures to breastfeeding can acclimate the public to the sight of breastfeeding, in doses too small to create a scene, and not small enough to be invisible.

Maybe it’s the rebellious American in me; I love the idea of this little revolution.  And being able to feed our babies whenever and wherever they need to is surely a revolution whose time has come.

Breastfeeding & Discretion
Responding to Criticism

Diane Wiessinger, MS, IBCLC, has been a La Leche League Leader since 1985 and works as a lactation consultant in private practice in Ithaca, New York, USA. She is a very popular writer and speaker and one of the co-writers of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, 8th Edition.