From One Side of the World to the Other

Johanna Rhys-Davies

Originally published August 2012, updated January 2016 and now republished with the express permission of the author.

My breastfeeding journey has so far included nursing in public from one side of the world to the other and back. Closer to home, I have nursed in public around much of Yorkshire in England and for the most part it has been an incredibly positive experience.

Getting started

It can be daunting nursing in public for the first time. Backed up by some valuable support from my husband and friends, I was determined to give it a go. I remember anxiously trying to latch my week-old son on to my breast in the middle of Betty’s teashop, petrified that at any moment a conservative gentleman opposite me was going to splutter into his cake and have me thrown out.

In the end, he didn’t seem to notice at all. All the members of staff serving were fantastic about breastfeeding, and several older ladies sitting close by caught my eye, nodded, and smiled their approval.

Reactions from others and growing in confidence

Such positivity has been present during many of the occasions on which I have nursed my son in cafés and tourist locations throughout West Yorkshire. It was generally my relatives (and I have since heard similar tales from friends) who had the most worries about my feeding in public, anxious that a tired and sensitive new mum might be exposed to a row or criticism. In many places, however, such ignorant complaints thankfully seem rare.

Most cafés and tourist attractions are desperate to be seen as open to all, and I found that confronting people head on, and asking, “Are you breastfeeding friendly?” when I first walked in, worked extremely well.

It really does make a difference when you go out and about with friends and family who are entirely supportive of you nursing in public. It saddens me that some of the most confident women I know have felt very self-conscious nursing in public, particularly on the first few occasions, concerned about the reaction from their friends, the public, and business owners alike. This is just one of the consequences of our current culture’s over sexualization of breasts and the normalization of bottle-feeding (whether the bottle contains expressed breast milk or formula).

The Equalities Act 2010 in the UK creates a clear protection for breastfeeding women, in that service providers (including all public services, as well as restaurants and cafés) cannot refuse to provide an equal service to a breastfeeding woman, and this applies no matter what the age of the child. Depressingly, however, it appears that there are still in some places a shameful few proprietors and members of the public who see it as their business to pass judgment on how a mother chooses to feed her child: giving contemptuous looks, making negative remarks, or even, most ignorant of all, complaints. This is particularly infuriating to me as most mothers breastfeeding their children in public do so with complete discretion and with an absolute minimum of noise or fuss. Other customers would of course prefer not to have a hungry baby screaming the place down, and usually they would have to strain/leer/stare very hard indeed to view the tiny amount of breast tissue that may be visible while any child is nursing!

Fashionable and nursing?

Being creative with your own clothing, wearing layers, and beautiful scarves (very on trend), can help those nursing in public to feel less exposed, which then helps with confidence and ease if your usual preference is not to draw attention to your figure. My experience and the general consensus of friends is that specialist nursing clothes are a well-deserved treat but certainly not essential. Tops with low necks, buttons, and zips work fine, as does wearing a vest under any high neck top if you prefer to pull your top up rather than down.

Once they have established their own rhythm and preferences for nursing, many nursing mothers continue to enjoy wearing their favorite styles of clothes from their usual stores without anyone ever noticing that they are nursing, although some, like me, might need a bigger size for their nice newly expanded chest!

The ripple effect

It is wonderful to think that those mothers who already feel confident to do so (and no mother should feel any pressure to feed her child in public) will continue to find their own preferred degree of comfort and discretion and breastfeed their children in public whenever and wherever it is right for them. This increases public awareness and acceptance of breastfeeding, and contributes to the ongoing normalization of breastfeeding in everyday life.

In the long term, I would hope that this might produce a countrywide attitude of acceptance and support for breastfeeding in the UK as seen in other countries such as Sweden and New Zealand, to pick just two examples.

Nursing abroad

When Ioan was four months we took him traveling around New Zealand for six weeks. This entailed breastfeeding during two lots of 26-hour flights and around various places in the North Island. As a rule the Kiwis were extremely encouraging and supportive of my breastfeeding. I was impressed with how well promoted and welcomed breastfeeding was anywhere we went. From shopping malls, where there were specific seating areas for breastfeeding, to the huge posters displayed all over the main cities depicting all manner of women breastfeeding their babies. We encountered midwives, vets, other new mums, grandparents, waitresses, and many other people all of whom would smile, give you a thumbs up, and say, “Good on you.” It was wonderful and did give me pause for thought as to how lovely it would be if the same attitude to breastfeeding were prevalent everywhere.

Equally in Sweden there is no cultural issue at all with breastfeeding in public. It is accepted in restaurants and stores and expected in public spaces with lovely areas provided for nursing mothers and their families.

Ongoing challenges

Certain of my friends have also had positive comments offered to them when nursing older toddlers in public and this is of great reassurance to me as I enter a new phase in my life as a nursing mother. Despite my previous confidence about nursing in public, more recently, I have reverted to feeling anxious at the reaction of others. I am no longer breastfeeding a cute little baby, but a 21-month-old walking, talking, little boy, who is roughly the size of a three-year-old.

While nursing out and about is as convenient as ever before (both for his sustenance and as a calming/reassuring mothering aid), I am well aware that statistically I represent a very small number of mothers who choose to nurse for this long. To those people already unaccustomed to seeing breastfeeding in public, a nursing toddler is quite a different sight from a nursing baby and I have been concerned about negative reactions. Fortunately, to date, my fears have been unfounded.

For one, Ioan is now capable of nursing with many of those around me remaining completely unaware that he is doing any more than just snuggling up to his mother. With friends and family who have little or no experience of long-term nursing, I have taken to saying, “I hope you don’t mind, but I am just going to nurse Ioan. I can go into a different room if you prefer?” Not only has no one asked me to but, more significantly, many have wanted to ask lots of questions, which have paved the way for an open and informative dialogue about breastfeeding in general. My great hope is that such discussions (and perhaps other ones originating from other mothers who nurse in public) are having a ripple effect; disseminating accurate and helpful information about breastfeeding to an increasing number of people, and creating wider approval and an ever-greater welcome for breastfeeding in public.

I am going to continue nursing Ioan in public for as long as he wants to, as well as doing all that I can to give support and encouragement to other breastfeeding mothers who choose to nurse when they are out and about.

To anyone who is considering breastfeeding in public but is worried about the reaction, I would say, “Go for it!” Try to have supportive people with you and to wear clothes and accessories that enable you to nurse in comfort. Ignorant negative reactions are very infrequent nowadays, many people won’t notice at all, and you can be sure that there will be a few others who offer you a very wide and supportive smile.

Once you get comfortable and confident with your own way of nursing in public it will become incredibly easy and convenient to be out and about anywhere with your child (even up hill and down dale on a Yorkshire country walk). What’s more, you will be part of a very special legacy, contributing to an ever more positive reaction to public breastfeeding for those mothers who will nurse their babies in the future.

Breastfeeding in Public Spaces
Breastfeeding & Discretion
Responding to Criticism