Beyond the Nursery: Nursing with confidence

by Barbara L. Behrmann, Ph.D.

Niesha, a young mother in Arizona, was nursing her three-week-old son in the baby department of a large discount store when the manager politely asked her to nurse in the bathroom because there were male customers who were their with their wives.

Amy, enjoying a lunch out with her mother, discreetly nursed her daughter under her shirt. The waiter avoided eye contact with her and asked her mother, instead of her, for her lunch order.

Patti, a modest woman in Washington, used to nurse in public bathrooms. She would put a lot of toilet seat covers on the seat and nurse on the toilet completely dressed.

This kind of judgment, however, is not universal. Originally from Jamaica, Opal compares nursing in the US to her experiences overseas: I remember going to Mexico when Shola was a baby and sitting on the side of the road, nursing. I didn't cover my breast and nobody said anything to me. Nor did anyone say anything to me in Jamaica and St. Croix.

In a culture that encourages us to show cleavage, but god forbid, our nipples, we typically try to be as discrete as possible. Ironically this means that the less visible we become and the more we hide the early work of mothering, the more approval we earn. We sling blankets over our shoulders, purchase special nursing tops, turn our backs to others, and ultimately try to disguise what we are doing. These, of course, may be good personal solutions, but they don't help us change the culture.

The challenge we face is to nurse discreetly, but not invisibly. This way, we not only meet our babies' all-important needs, but we also help each other; that is, the more others see mothers nursing publicly, the easier it will be for the next nursing mom.

Increase Your Confidence

Chances are, nobody will give you a hard time about nursing in public. But just in case, here are a few things to remember to boost your confidence.

  • You may start out feeling awkward and insecure, but over time you are likely to develop confidence and become more assertive. This is what happened with Stephanie. A first-time mother in Pennsylvania, she practiced nursing discreetly in front of mirrors and her husband. I wanted to go places and do things but was so nervous that someone might get a glimpse of my bra as I opened it or, god forbid, a flash of skin, she recalls. Her attitude changed after a few weeks and she became resentful and angry. I never intended to fully disrobe in the mall but I hated the fact that I couldn't focus on my daughter's needs -- I had to focus on whether somebody might be seeing more than they should. Stephanie became increasingly defiant and after a few months would actually seek out places that might ruffle a few feathers.
  • The law is on your side! In fact over 20 states have enacted legislation to clarify that women have the right to nurse in public without being accused of indecent exposure, lewd behavior or obscenity. So...if anyone suggests you move to the bathroom to nurse, simply ask them if they'd like to eat their meal in a toilet stall and share with them this link: www.llli.org//Law/LawMain.html
  • Don't feel pressured to feed your baby expressed milk in a bottle. Not only is a pump less effective than a baby at removing milk from the breast, but lactation works on the principle of supply and demand. In some cases, pumping, instead of nursing, can diminish your milk supply. Besides, if your baby is nursing for comfort -- or any other "non-nutritional" reason, he or she doesn't want a bottle when your warm body is right there!
  • If you're nursling is past the babe-in-arms stage, he or she won't care if you're at home or in a shopping mall. You may want to nurse ahead of time and eventually you may be able to explain to your child that there are places where it's ok to nurse and places where you have to wait. But again, know that you have the legal right to breastfeed. And international health organizations recommend nursing a child for at least two years. So if someone gives you a hard time, gently inform them that nurslings suckle for reasons beyond the milk. It calms them, comforts them, and meets their emotional needs. Humor may help. You can be pretty sure that by the time your child starts college he or she will be off the breast. In short, there is no reason to feel embarrassed for meeting your child's nutritional and emotional needs.
  • Generally, the more comfortable you are, the less likely others will challenge you. Remember the words of Nina, a first-time mother in upstate New York. I love nursing in public and I don't put a ton of effort into hiding it, she admits. I'm not saying breastfeeding should be about shock value, but I feel strongly about nursing and am proud of it. I don't look down, I don't feel embarrassed, and I look people right in the eye.

Remember, be discreet, but not invisible, confident but not aggressive. Use a blanket as a cover up, if you like, but if your baby won't tolerate warm flannel over his head, who can blame him? Remember that nursing in public not only meets your baby's needs, but does a public service.

Barbara L. Behrmann, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and author of The Breastfeeding Café: Mothers Share the Joys, Secrets & Challenges of Nursing, University of Michigan Press, 2005. She is a frequent speaker around the country and is available for talks, readings, and conducting birthing and breastfeeding writing circles. The mother of two formerly breastfed children, Barbara lives in upstate New York. Visit her website at www.breastfeedingcafe.com.

Copyright © Barbara L Behrmann. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.