Breastfeeding in Public: A Basic Human Right

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Looking at my Facebook feed, it sometimes seems like there are two types of people in the world: people who would strongly prefer not to see, hear, or think about breastfeeding, and people who are apparently obsessed with breastfeeding, also known as new parents.

Before you have children, the whole thing seems so straightforward. I remember wondering why so many women bothered to spend time and effort talking about breastfeeding, especially breastfeeding in public. It seems like a reasonable choice that mothers should have, I recall thinking to myself, but there are so many more important issues in the world. Who cares?

Well, new parents care. A lot. So why is nursing in public such a big issue for us? I’ve just reached a milestone — one year of breastfeeding — and to celebrate, I want to explain why it’s such a big deal by responding to two very common questions.

1. Why not just put the milk in a bottle?


“If you see someone nursing in public, just treat it as what it is: no big deal. New moms are as sick of it being a big deal as you are. There’s no reason to stare, comment, or wonder why there’s no bottle or cover.”

If you are lucky enough to have everything work properly (many women are not), then in the best-case scenario, you have just the right amount of milk to give the baby when he or she is hungry. So, in order to pump milk for a bottle, you have to wait until the baby is hungry, and then convey to her that you are not going to feed her. Then, you have to put the cranky, hungry baby somewhere safe while you plug in a milk pump, attach yourself to it, and take ten to thirty minutes to pump. During that time, depending on his age, the baby will either try to crawl into the most dangerous crevice he can find, or he will lie helplessly on his back and cry for milk like a sad, overturned beetle.

Now when milk is fed directly to the baby, the temperature is perfect; if it’s pumped, it needs to be refrigerated like any other milk. So along with the 500,000 other items you need to take out with you and the cranky, hungry baby, you also have to carry something that will allow you to keep the bottle cold and clean.

The last step is to get to where you are going and find a place to give the baby the bottle. To bring it back to room temperature, you need a clean bowl of hot water, which are of course very easy to find in public places, especially when you are holding a baby, car seat, stroller, diaper bag, and makeshift cooler. Then you give the baby the bottle. If she is anything like my baby, she will take one look at it, scream, and try to rip off your shirt.

2. Why not just use a cover?

I wondered this myself every time I saw mothers advocating for the right to nurse in public. Looking back, I’m shocked at my own ignorance. Here are literally tens of thousands of women calling for awareness of the basic human right for babies to feed, and I thought that they just wanted to the right to go topless. Because right after your body is warped beyond recognition and when you haven’t had a proper night’s sleep in months, that seems like a good time to suddenly become an exhibitionist, right?

It turns out that after they are a few months old, babies react to covers much in the same way that larger humans would react to a blanket falling from the sky and covering their head while they are eating. Some people might stare in wonder; some might thrash about in order lift the blanket; some might scream or cry in frustration; others, like my baby, might do all three. What most people and many babies will not do is continue with their meal.

If you think it feels awkward and self-conscious to nurse in public (it does for me), then you do not want to try fumbling with your shirt while holding a thrashing baby who is screeching in protest, turning his head away, and trying to throw the cover on the floor.

Yet, we still need to go places sometimes. So the reason why many women will nurse in public is because it’s a better option than (a) putting milk in a bottle (b) using a cover or (c) not going out at all.

So please, if you see someone nursing in public, just treat it as what it is: no big deal. New moms are as sick of it being a big deal as you are. There’s no reason to stare, comment, or wonder why there’s no bottle or cover. It’s a baby eating. Babies are little people too. Maybe if you set a good example for them, by the time they grow up, this won’t be an issue we need to talk about anymore.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons Photographer Aurimas Mikalauskas/No changes made to original image