The first time I nursed my son in public, he was one month old. It was a few minutes before his baptism ceremony, and even though I’d fed him before we left for church, he began to fuss in a way that said, “Give me milk or you’ll regret it.”
So there was nothing for it. I shrugged inwardly, pulled down the panel on my nursing top, and lifted him to my breast. And there, in the back of the church, I nursed in front of God and everybody. Well, maybe in front of God and behind everybody else.
That was the first time, but it was far from the last. Will was an enthusiastic nurser through infancy and beyond, and he wanted to nurse anytime, anywhere. I’ve nursed on airplanes, in parked cars, in the public library, in an art museum, in a pharmacy waiting area and in countless restaurants.
And then there was the time he worked himself into a lather in the security line at Midway Airport. It was a fit that only nursing would cure; so I found the nearest bench and nursed him, all in view of hundreds of passengers and a crew of TSA officers. What can you do, right?
In my year or so of nursing in public, I never had to deal with dirty looks or intrusive comments. But other moms aren’t so lucky. It seems everyone has an opinion about public breastfeeding: whether it should be allowed (whaaa?!), whether women should go to a private room, whether they should wear a nursing cover.
Here’s my stance: I’ll do what’s best for my baby and myself, thank you. As a matter of fact, here’s whose opinion I value on the subject, in order: my baby; myself; my husband; my family; and then waaaaaaaaaaaaaay down at the bottom of the list are random strangers. If the Electoral College got to decide how I handled nursing in public, those random strangers would be like South Dakota, while my son would be California.
And while we’re talking about opinionated random strangers, by the way: Can we stop talking about moms who “whip it out”? The phrase is never used respectfully, for starters. It gives me a mental image of a woman waving her breast like a flag, and I have never, ever seen a nursing mom do that. You may think that breasts should not be seen in public, but let’s get the imagery right. We’re talking about breasts quietly doing their job, not jiggling around like Mardi Gras beads.
The issue of nursing discreetly is a hot-button. Some moms will tell you that they are feeding their baby in a natural way and they have no obligation to hide anything, ever. Others will say that breasts never be seen in public, ever, and that moms are responsible for finding a private place to nurse where no one will see them at all.
Me, I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m not comfortable with baring my breasts entirely; as a large-busted woman, I have a hard enough time keeping my breasts out of the spotlight when they’re covered. But I also didn’t want to have to hide what I was doing. Finally my breasts were doing what they were made to do, and I had no intention of feeling ashamed about it. So I tried to find secluded places to nurse, but if none were available, oh well. I was as discreet as I could reasonably be, but I was more focused on feeding my child than on whether someone caught a glimpse of my nipple.
But here’s the thing: That’s what worked for me. Every mom is different. You are not a traitor to feminism or lactivism or attachment parenting or whatever if you prefer to use a cover or find a private place to nurse, just as you’re not an exhibitionist if you prefer to nurse without a cover. The most important thing is to feed the baby. Even random strangers should be able to agree on that.
Nursing in public can be intimidating the first few times, but these tips may make it easier.
Practice at home first
Unfortunately, newborns nurse most frequently at the beginning, when you and they are still figuring it out. So there’s lots of adjusting and shifting while you get the latch right and position your arms just so, and you’ll feel like everyone is watching you. (Chances are, they’re not.) If you’re not comfortable nursing at home, you won’t be comfortable in public, either. Try nursing at home without any of your usual props (Boppy, armchair, nursing stool, etc.) and see how you feel. If you’re concerned about showing skin, practice in front of a mirror. Nurse at home a few times as you aim to in public, and then when you’re in public for real, the only thing that’ll be different is the location.
Dress for easy access
No matter how comfortable you are with nursing in public, no one wants to have to completely undress to do it. So be strategic when choosing your clothes. Nursing-specific clothes will have openings at the chest. They can be pricey, but they’re pretty much the only way you’ll get to wear a dress for a while. If you prefer non-nursing clothes, aim for shirts that you can pull up, such as T-shirts or loose sweaters (button-up blouses are an absolute no). Nursing tanks are great for extra coverage; you only uncover your breast, so your belly stays covered. Layer them under another top; when you pull the top shirt up to nurse, it will cover the top of your breast and your baby’s head will cover the nipple. (Standard nursing tanks never fit me, but I loved my shirt from Undercover Mama. It’s a strapless tank that you attach to the clips of your own nursing bra.)
Cover, or don’t – you decide
I used a cover for the first few weeks, and then I realized I was more conspicuous with it than without. My son used a nipple shield for his first few months, which makes latching on tricky. So I needed to see his face and mouth, and that was tough if he was underneath a panel of fabric. And I’m a minimalist at heart, so eventually I just ditched the thing. But you may have a different experience. Not all covers are created equal; I was always intrigued by the ones with a wire at the top (like this one), which give you a clearer view of your baby. If you want to use a cover, get two or three; keep one in the diaper bag and one in the car, so you always have a spare. But as your baby gets older, you may find that she wants to see what’s going on outside the cover. Don’t be surprised if she sits up and moves the fabric aside!
Wear your baby
I was never able to try this, because my son hated being worn. But I have friends who swear that when they wear their baby, they can nurse and absolutely no one knows. And the major bonus is that you can get things done while you nurse. Run errands, supervise your older children at the park, eat dinner — the whole world opens up.
Relax, smile and focus on your baby
There’s a saying I use often in a work context: “Assume positive intent.” I applied it to nursing as well. I knew I wasn’t doing anything shameful by nursing in public, and I acted as if everyone else would of course know that as well. I made eye contact with people walking by me, and nodded at them and smiled if it seemed appropriate. I acted as if I had every right to be nursing (because, of course, I did). And then I chilled out and focused on my son.
Know your rights
We’ve all read the stories about mothers being asked to cover up, or nurse in the bathroom, or leave the premises. None of these requests is legal. In South Carolina and most other states, mothers are allowed to nurse their babies anywhere it’s OK for them to be. Additional laws protect women who are nursing on federal property (including national parks such as Congaree National Park). For more on breastfeeding and the law, visit breastfeedinglaw.com.
Were you comfortable nursing in public? Tell us about it in the comments.