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Public Displays Of Breastfeeding
About once a week I come across an article online about a breastfeeding mother who has been talked down to or publicly shamed for not disappearing while she fed her child. After reading said article, I almost always find myself immersed in the comments section, fuming at some of the misconceptions and misguided comments by some of the other readers. "Women who breastfeed in public want attention." "How would she like it if I just whipped it out and peed next to her?" I have to wonder whether or not these people actually believe these things that they are saying, or is they are just trying to illicit a defensive reaction from people on a topic that many feel strongly about (trolls?). Either way it always get me thinking, and although I rarely respond, I find myself here today with a lot of experience on the subject, and something to say. Hopefully I can help others see things from the perspective of a breastfeeding mother, and dispel some of these misinterpretations about why we feel so strongly on the subject.
We Are Not Exhibitionists
Breastfeeding is about providing nutrition to the nursing child, period. Yes there are some other factors at play, such as bonding and saving money, but when you get right down to it, the majority of breastfeeding mothers breastfeed because at some point they were told that human breast milk offers the best nutrition for their babies. Breastfeeding is natural, breastfeeding is normal, and exclusive breastfeeding is recommended by both the AAP (American Association of Pediatrics) and the WHO (World Health Organization) for the first 6 months of life, with the additional recommendation of continued breastfeeding to a year or more.
I did NOT decide to breastfeed my children as an excuse to publicly flash my mammaries all over the place! In fact, to begin with the thought of ever nursing one of my children in public was terrifying to me. This is because I had been on the other end of this equation. I had been the gawker, and the whisperer. I've also been the avoider. You know the kind, the person who will completely avoid eye contact with someone whose presence makes them uncomfortable. I knew that as soon as a passerby realized what I was doing there would probably be a double, maybe even a triple, take.
In an effort to circumvent any awkward looks or exchanges, after my first child was born, I tried to always have at least one bottle of expressed milk available. By pumping beforehand I could offer my baby an alternative if he got hungry in a place that I may not have felt completely comfortable nursing him. This setup worked great for us, until it didn't anymore. You see, one night when my firstborn was about 5 months old, we went out for dinner. I pumped on the way to the restaurant, while the baby slept away in his carseat. We were about halfway through our appetizer when the baby woke up. He was hungry, and he wanted to let everyone know it. I quickly grabbed the bottle and handed it to him, but he just kept screaming. I tried putting it in his mouth myself. He screamed louder! This clearly wasn't working, so I took him out to the car to feed him, leaving my husband alone in the restaurant. That was the end of the bottle for us, my little guy refused it from that point forward. I spent the rest of our nursing relationship excusing myself to the car or asking people if they had a spare room I could go to, in order to feed the baby. Although people were almost always accommodating, I hated feeling left out, and like I had to disappear to feed my child, while others could just give their babies a bottle whenever they wanted. Eventually though, he weaned, and normal life (with a 1 1/2 year old) resumed.
With my second child, things became more challenging. My second refused a bottle from birth. I tried pumping and bottle feeding him over and over, only to have to dump any expressed milk I had down the drain. So what is a mother with a young baby in this situation to do? Some people would argue, that the mother should stay at home. They feel that breastfeeding is a "restrictive lifestyle choice" and the mother should just have to deal with the consequences. I disagree with this. Although formula does exist, and it is certainly an adequate way to feed a baby, that doesn't make it ideal. I personally believe that if you have the ability and resources available to breastfeed, you should do it. I do realize that this many people choose formula for their own personal reasons, and I am not here to judge them, because that's what works best for them. For many breastfeeding mothers though, breastfeeding is not a choice, but rather just another one of the normal "duties" that comes along with motherhood. Believe it or not, I don't really enjoy breastfeeding. I do it because I like knowing what my children are eating are eating and where it came from. No one is going to recall my breast milk because it's somehow become contaminated with something like arsenic.
So, since my second child refused the bottle immediately, I had to adapt. I bought a nursing cover. It took some getting used to, but I was able to effectively conceal myself, and breastfeed my little guy wherever we were... until he was about 4 months old. Then the nursing cover became more of a plaything. It was something for him to pull on and move around while he nursed. It got so bad that I was drawing more attention to myself trying to keep covered up, than if I just fed him without it. So I stopped using it. Now let me be perfectly clear about this, I did NOT stop using a nursing cover or breastfeeding in public because I want people to see my breasts! In fact, that thought still makes me uncomfortable after months of doing it. I did it because my baby should be allowed to eat when he is hungry, and because I shouldn't have to go hide somewhere to feed him.
No, I Will Not Feed My Child In The Bathroom.
No breastfeeding debate would be complete without someone telling a breastfeeding mom that she should feed her infant in the bathroom. Sometimes these people take it a step further, and suggest that if a woman is allowed to breastfeed her child at the table in a restaurant, they should be allowed to urinate there. I still don't understand how people make the correlation between breast milk and urine. I've looked into it, and I can assure you that they are not similar at all. People argue that breast milk can carry disease, and for that reason shouldn't be allowed where people consume food. I will not dispute that some viruses may be present in the breast milk of an infected mother. I will dispute the idea that the act of breastfeeding causes breast milk to spew all over the area surrounding the breastfeeding mother, like some sort of angry geyser. I simply doesn't work like that, at least it didn't for me.
Let's get back to the issue with people saying it's unsanitary. If that is truly your argument, then you must be bothered by bottle feeding at the table as well. Why is this? Because you don't actually know what's in the bottle of the baby being fed at your table do you? Did you ask the mother before she started feeding her infant if the bottle contained breast milk or formula? Maybe you did ask and it is a bottle of formula. Was the water used boiled or sterile? How long ago was the bottle prepared? If proper care is not taken in preparing formula there could be harmful bacteria in that bottle. If you're offended by breastfeeding because it's "unsanitary" yet you've never considered any of these options, I have to ask: Are you really concerned with the cleanliness of the milk itself that bothers you, or the act of breastfeeding in your presence?
The most important thing about this whole breastfeeding debate, is that people need to learn how to support each other and the decisions they make about the best way to feed their children. Mothers should not have to hide in cars and closets and (God forbid) bathrooms, to feed their infants. I would never walk up to a person with a bottle of infant formula and criticize them, because: A) It's insensitive and I don't know their situation. and B) It's obviously what works for them, and as long as their baby is happy and well nourished, I don't have a problem with it.
If you truly can't handle seeing a naked breast for the fraction of a minute it takes for her baby to latch on, don't look. No nursing woman is walking up to strangers (or friends) and shoving their leaking breast in their face. It's just not happening. Most breastfeeding mothers just want to be able to do their thing, without drawing attention to themselves. They want to be treated just like any bottle feeding mother would be, if they were feeding their baby in public.