Keeping Abreast: The Social Stigma of Breastfeeding in Public

For the record, I find myself firmly planted on the side of the debate wherein woman should be free to breastfeed in public. I find it bewildering that there’s a stigma attached to seeing a woman’s breast while she nurses her child, whereas the astonishing amount (number? pairs? sets?) of breasts we see in exploitative display in ads and other media is apparently totally acceptable. Despite all this, I confess, I have a weird discomfort about it sometimes.


Oscar: “Good grief, what’s the big deal?!”

I’m not talking about the legal side of it. If a woman wants or needs to breastfeed in the middle of store, no one should try to nor be able to prevent her – in fact, one might hope she would be supported. It irks me no end that some places actually try to ban breastfeeding or pressure the woman to go elsewhere, even to do it in the bathroom (the bathroom?! ‘Cause that’s where I want to eat my lunch…). No, what makes me uncomfortable is the social side of it.

I have this innate desire to be polite, to not offend, to not make others uncomfortable. And the fact that I have this internal hang-up frankly pisses me off sometimes, often making me want to compensate by being even more outspoken in my support of breastfeeding in public, like maybe if I advocate enough, I’ll rid myself of any lingering, irksome discomfort through bludgeoning repetition. Or osmosis. Or something.

But sometimes in touchy social situations, I admit it: I just give up without a fight. I hate that it’s even an issue. I hate that I feel like whether or not I nurse in public or whether or not I use a nursing cover seems politically fraught, like I’m either on one hand declaring my disregard for the feelings/comfort of those around me, or on the other hand not living up to my own convictions. If I cover up, I’m failing as a liberated mama, and if I stick to my guns (har har), I risk alienating people, often people that are dear to me and whom I want to see regularly.

I know a lot of my fabulous, heroic advocate/mamas are probably getting worked up right now—please do! I need your help!

Here’s the reasoning behind my politeness dilemma. First, I don’t want to see boobs all over ads and stuff, but no one ever thinks to ask my preference. I mean, hulu does ask if I’d prefer a car commercial to a vodka commercial, but there’s not a “no boobs” option. Secondly, I find that people are more accepting of new things when you try to bring them on board with the thought process first, rather than just pushing something unwanted on them. The best, most enduring change starts with a social shift, and social change is often at the pace of the lowest common denominator (not describing someone as “lower than” but someone whose values/beliefs are furthest from the desired goal). So if you want to de-stigmatize something, the real work lies in changing the hearts and minds of those who hold that stigma to be true. Third and most simple, I’m empathetic: if other people are uncomfortable, so am I. Meh.

As an example, I have a young person in my life who is very squeamish about the whole breastfeeding thing (along with myriad other things). So I [lamely] don’t do it around them. I don’t want my nursing our son to be a big deal when we get together or to potentially make them even less receptive to it. Then I feel bad because how else is the younger generation going get used to this beautiful, natural process? How can we de-stigmatize it if we don’t expose them to it? Really, I’m asking! I’m hoping you can help me out here.

In my immediate family (change begins at home, after all), I’ve handled the dilemma this way: I ask if everyone is comfortable with me breastfeeding;, more often than not, everyone says yes; and then I presume that to be my carte blanche for all future feedings. But can you do this with squeamish young people? I am betting the answer would be something along the lines of, “Ewww gross,” an outright “No,” or a hastily beaten retreat, none of which will have benefitted anyone.

So mamas, papas, and citizens of the world, what do you think? If you’re a parent, how have you handled it? If you’re a family member, friend, or member of “the public,” what is your experience? How have you handled (or mishandled) this tender issue? What would you do differently? Breakthroughs? Mistakes?

Leave a comment


  1. Valerie

     /  March 5, 2013

    Hi there. 🙂 First of all, “I’m empathetic: if other people are uncomfortable, so am I. Meh.” I think that makes you a lovely individual. Not that you should ONLY care about others’ needs, but the fact that it does matter to you is a GOOD thing, in my way of thinking.
    I am breastfeeding our third child currently. He will be 18 months old on Friday. That will bring my lifetime breastfeeding total to 48 months! 🙂
    Anyway, in all that time, I’ve had some experience with nursing while out & about. With my first, I only fed her at home. I was just too uncomfortable to do it anywhere else. With my second, I was a little more comfortable but only slightly.
    Seven years later I had our third. I am a lot more comfortable now, but my overall feeling hasn’t changed: I don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable, nor do I want to accidentally flash anyone 😉 , and finally, I want to be relaxed so my milk will let down and the whole experience will be enjoyable (as it should be).
    Normally, I will nurse in the car or somewhere else off out of the way, if possible. When at certain family members’ home, I will briefly excuse myself to another room because they wouldn’t be okay with it; while at other, more comfortable family members’ home, I can nurse right there on the couch with everyone in the room (as long as I can latch on discretely).
    As babies get older, though, it usually becomes necessary to go somewhere that isn’t distracting to the child, unless they are VERY hungry, otherwise they may bob off and on to see the action in the room!
    All that to say, I think it’s ok to find somewhere semi-seclusive to nurse your child if that is what works for you and those around you. Or right out in the open, if THAT works! 😀
    I have a breastfeeding page with info, resources and encouragement, if you’re interested:
    Have a great day!

    • Thanks – I will definitely check it out!
      48 months: WOW. Go mama!
      I’m so glad it’s not just me. And I can relate re: attempted discretion – I haven’t even tried to use a cover in months because Oscar doesn’t like being unable to see so he just pulls it off anyway, drawing even more attention – ha! And his one-year-old attention span definitely does not keep him in one place for long.
      You hit the nail on the head about it being comfortable and enjoyable though. That’s the goal…

      • Valerie

         /  March 5, 2013

        I never used a cover because it felt so unnatural and I have nearly always been able to find somewhere I was able to be discreet. Even when it’s meant having my husband stand in front of us while I sit and nurse Samuel, with our older daughter and son sitting on either sides of us to block the view (in the middle of a mall!), I am discreet! lol
        Your son is one? How many months? 🙂

      • He just turned one two weeks ago. 🙂 it’s flying by!

      • Valerie

         /  March 6, 2013

        Aww, Happy Birthday to him! 🙂 It really does go so fast. Btw, I love that his name is Oscar! Is that a family name or you guys just like it?

      • Thanks! We just liked it – in Gaelic it means “friend of the deer”. I love that. It also is cute, but when he’s old enough to not want cute, Oz sounds kinda tough *grin*

      • Valerie

         /  March 6, 2013

        Yeah! Oz sounds tough, or at least masculine. Not that Oscar doesn’t, mind you! 😉

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