I could never breastfeed my baby in public! It would just be too embarrassing, and someone might ask me to leave.
If this sounds like you, you aren’t alone. Fear of public embarrassment keeps many mothers confined at home, which leads to early abandonment of breastfeeding. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Breastfeeding Report Card, 77 percent of Missouri mothers begin breastfeeding, but by the time babies are 6 months old, only 39 percent continue. Considering the lifelong health benefits of breastfeeding for mother and baby, we should consider how society’s attitude influences breastfeeding.
In western cultures, most people know “breast is best”, but they prefer it be done privately rather than publicly. The inability to separate the feeding and sexual roles of breasts, and the lack of positive breastfeeding portrayals in media, have been identified as reasons for the attitude. In the UK, where breastfeeding rates are lower than the rest of Europe and public breastfeeding is unacceptable, many mothers feel restricted to their homes and stop breastfeeding. Even in Australia, where breastfeeding rates are high and 70 percent of the population considers breastfeeding in public acceptable, mothers report feeling vulnerable when feeding outside the home.
What about mothers in our community; do you feel supported or vulnerable when breastfeeding in public?
The Greater Ozarks Regional Breastfeeding Coalition asked local mothers about their experiences, and they nominated 25 local businesses for recognition. We celebrated World Breastfeeding Week (August 1–7) by awarding these heroes a “You’ve been Spotted” certificate and our thanks. Most recipients were surprised to be recognized for what they consider “reasonable customer service.”
So we have some support, but perhaps our citizens need to see breastfeeding in public for it to become normal. I asked mothers in our breastfeeding group for suggestions:
- Be confident! Practice at home in front of family or a mirror. Most people will take their cues from you; if you are confident they will feel less uncomfortable.
- Choose your clothes carefully; expensive nursing blouses or covers aren’t required. Try the two-shirt technique: simple tank tops (with holes cut to provide access to the breasts or the undershirt being a nursing spaghetti strap) plus button up shirt. The tank top and baby keep you covered while nursing.
- Buy a sling or baby carrier. Mothers in the group swear by the Ergo-Baby or Boba for great baby positioning and ease of breastfeeding. Most people won’t even know baby is eating!
- Scope out your location in advance and identify good places to breastfeed. If you or your baby need peace to eat, dressing rooms work great if you’re at a retailer.
- Go on about your business while nursing: eat, shop, pay for your purchases. Distraction can create invisibility.
- If someone challenges you, remember Missouri law (MSMo. 191.918) gives you the right to breastfeed in public anywhere you have a right to be, as long as you exercise “as much discretion as possible.”
Remember, breastfeeding outside the home is important to normalize breastfeeding in our culture. When you “take it on the road,” not only are you nourishing your baby, you’re helping to change the culture of our community.