Although I’d always been too uncomfortable to do it, the moment I let go of my anxiety about breastfeeding in public happened shortly after I moved to a new city. I was taking a long walk with my child who was then a bit past her first birthday. We got pretty far from home and were walking along a busy street. All of a sudden, she wanted to nurse. Maybe she was tired and seeking comfort; or she was hungry; or her new teeth were coming in and she wanted natural pain relief. I didn’t know. I panicked; there was nowhere private and we were too far from anywhere I felt “comfortable.” No restaurants. No options.
Most of my mom friends in my old city, if they’d nursed their babies at all past the newborn stage, had weaned long before a year. Still, intellectually, I knew that the World Health Organization recommends nursing at least two years for any mom who can (even in developed countries like the U.S.)—and longer if both mom and baby want to continue. There’s plenty of evidence for health and developmental benefits for the child.
I still worried that my child was “too old” to be nursing at all, much less doing so in public.
Public or not, it soon became obvious that it had to happen. So, I sat down on a bench along the sidewalk, doing my very best to be discreet. Suddenly, a man who looked to be about 85 years old started walking our direction. Thinking how many people prefer to cover up breastfeeding, I rearranged my daughter’s large sunhat to cover us both as much as possible. He walked past us and didn’t seem to see us. I breathed a sigh of relief. A few moments later, though, he turned back to us and then (gasp!) walked back our way. Ever so humbly and respectfully, he said, “You know, I have no idea why people get so upset about mothers nursing their children. You’re just doing the most natural thing in the world.” Then he turned around and kept walking away.
From that moment on, it didn’t matter what anyone might say if they saw us breastfeeding in public. I let his words become my inner voice, not only for nurturing my child as I had been during the moment he saw us, but also for gentle parenting overall.
One of the most common concerns I hear about breastfeeding in public is lack of support from others.
One of the toughest concerns many of us manage is the lack of support we feel for the way we’re raising our children—particularly if we opt for public breastfeeding. Still, feeding our babies or comforting them in one of the most natural ways imaginable does raise some eyebrows. Surrounded by naysayers, we often not only fear, but also hear, that we’re doing it wrong:
“You’re coddling her.”
“You’ll make him a mama’s boy.”
“She doesn’t need it. Give her real food.”
Babies are babies. Feeding them, or nursing an older toddler or child, is your business. If you’re in a position to educate someone who’s acting judgmental, one of my best tips is to cite the experts and share the law: “Public breastfeeding is legal. It holds numerous health benefits not only for my child, but also for me—including being tied to lower rates of cancer. Additionally, there was a major study that positively correlated the length of breastfeeding to intelligence, time spent in education, and earning potential. I’d be happy to tell you more if you’re interested.”
Breastfeed your baby with confidence—and with plenty of evidence to back you up.
Tips for breastfeeding in public
Nursing in public doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. You have every right to feed your baby when he or she is hungry, newborn or beyond. Some mothers are comfortable nursing anywhere; breastfeeding for them is as natural as caring for their children in any other way. Eventually, I became one of those mothers. But I certainly didn’t start there with my daughter.
Before you worry about whether feeding your baby in public is legal, know that it’s allowed in all 50 states in the U.S. Further, breastfeeding in public is also legal for women in many countries around the world. Please know your rights and check local laws before you travel and, out of respect for different cultures, observe the norms there. You may want to email yourself a copy of the local law if anyone at your destination questions you.
No matter where you are, these tips can help you feed your baby when and wherever he or she is hungry, or needs the comfort that only mothers can provide.
- Wear your baby while breastfeeding in public. Many carriers and slings are so cozy and discreet for both mother and baby that no one would even guess what’s happening in there. It makes for easy care for your breastfed baby (and it’s a heck of a lot easier than pumping and lugging around a bottle of milk). A baby snuggled close is a usually a content baby.
- Own your breastfeeding journey with confidence. Personally, my advice is to normalize it without a cover. Why is breastfeeding this way important? It’s empowering to the woman whose life is consumed by baby care in this time of her life. As women, we need to see other women who are walking along the path we’ve chosen. With all the Judging Judies who make snarky comments out there, we need solidarity for that which is perfectly healthy and normal.
- Use a nursing cover if you prefer (afflink). Now, do you have to cover up while breastfeeding in public? Of course not. It’s entirely up to you. If you do choose a cover, take a seat in a comfortable place. Ensure baby’s head is in the right position to eat (it’s hard for us to see under our own covers when they’re blocking our view of baby). Stay put and nurse comfortably wherever you are.
Additional reminders about women breastfeeding in public (or anywhere)
Babies crave nursing for many reasons: nourishment, comfort, health (they often nurse more when fighting an illness because of the antibodies it provides), and otherwise. I subscribe to the idea that every need is valid and that even if it’s “just” for comfort, that’s just as valid as any physical need.
All that said, there are plenty of women who don’t choose breastfeeding. Formula works for them, and I respect that. Still, just as many wanted to choose breastfeeding, but for medical or other reasons, couldn’t. Moms everywhere just do the best they can. What matters most is that we support each other along our unique parenting journeys.