6 “Helpful” Things You Should Stop Saying to Moms Who are Nursing in Public

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We all know the deserved reaction to harsh comments about breastfeeding in public. Someone who says “That’s gross!” might benefit from being handed a therapist’s business card. Someone who insists “No one wants to SEE that!” could use a reminder that it takes only 30 degrees of movement to make a publicly breastfeeding pair disappear from peripheral view, if so necessary. Whoever snidely laughs, “Stop trying so hard to prove a point!” may be appropriately received with literature on biology and survival (preferably a hardback cover straight to the face), the “point” of ensuring that our children stay alive and happy.

What concerns me more than the pitifully ignorant and sadly classless ones are the well-intentioned ones who occasionally say the wrong thing too, and risk causing as much harm as the jerks. For especially sensitive women (read: virtually all postpartum mothers), certain phrases, questions, statements can be taken the wrong way.

Did hubby offer to take out the trash, then you burst into tears, wailing, “I know I’ve let the house go and I’ve failed, oh my, how I’ve failed!”? Did someone ask if you want dinner while nursing the baby, but you flipped out and snapped, “How the hell am I supposed to EAT DINNER while I’m BUSY trying to do THIS?!” Me-ow, mama! If everything feels like a criticism these days, you can probably chalk it up to the super vulnerable anxiety center in your brain that’s been lit up like a Rastafarian hut since the day you conceived. It might not seem like it has anything to do with mothering or breastfeeding, but it totally does.

It’s okay. Relax. You know you don’t mean it (I can’t speak for your hormones though), and your well-intentioned loved ones don’t mean to criticize either. But are they aware of your triggers and boundaries during this tentative transition period of mothering a new child? Do they know what you need when you nurse in private, and how you feel about nursing in public? If they’re not asking, you need to tell them.

Well-intentioned people, this part is for you. Here are six things that actually have potential to offend, hurt, or shame a publicly-breastfeeding mother, said by well-intentioned folks like yourself who want to support Nursaholics. As for suggestions for verbal edits — don’t mind if I do!

1. “Should I leave?”

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WHY THIS KINDA SUCKS:

I heard this often in the same room as someone who hadn’t seen me nurse before. I understand that most of the time, it’s intended to be polite. But what I hear is, “This is, like, private, right? You probably want to be alone and not bothered by me right now, because I don’t want to see this. I’m totally weirded out so you must be too.”

Sigh. New motherhood comes with its own inherent isolation factors — finding out which family supports you, which friends still care about you, where you feel safe and comfortable venturing with a newborn to consider now, feeling parts of your pre-baby identity and care for personal needs splinter away slowly day after day.

If I wanted to have peace and distraction-free quiet — which is at times helpful to seek when attempting to nurse a wriggling mini-octopus — I would seek it. I cannot think of any situation where I was forced against my will to socially engage others while feeding my son. Take it as a hint: if a mama puts herself in a public, social setting with her child, she’s not hoping everyone will ignore her. Whenever I thought it was better for my son to nurse away from chatter and people, I retreated to our cozy bedroom, found a quiet dressing room, or moved away from hard-backed restaurant chairs into a more comfortable booth away from the cacophony.

So, should you leave?

No, but she can leave, at HER behest.

By asking if you should leave, you are in effect just leaving the mother on her own. She may feel abandoned. Exclusion is for the virally contagious, not mothers feeding babies. If you’d prefer to give the nursing pair extra space, feel free to take that upon yourself. There is often no need, and little to be welcomed, in asking whether you “should.”

WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:

It would have been awesome to hear, “Do you mind if I keep you company while your son eats?”, or better yet, if she takes you up on the offer, “I’m honored that you are so cool about letting me sit with you while you care for your baby.” This lets a mother know that she has the power to decide who will be around her while she feeds her baby, not the other way around. It also reinforces the wavering confidence she might have by letting her know that you’re proud to be with her in this awesome moment (it may seem “whatever” to you, but to her it’s unspeakably special and perhaps even triumphant — so feel free to acknowledge that!).

Then actually sit with her. Talk to her about her baby, motherhood, or don’t break your conversation at all. It might cross your mind, but don’t force the “option” to hide and be left out. She will let you know if she prefers to be alone in a nursing room for “quiet time.”

2. “Can I grab you a cover?”

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WHY THIS KINDA SUCKS:

Unless it’s a cover of one of my favorite 90s songs, then no, you can’t. You can grab me some water (with a straw, do NOT forget the straw! Nursing means limited range for motor functions), or a magazine, or offer to stick a pillow in the crook of my arm, or hell, even offer to prop up the baby himself! (Mamas get tired… so very tired).

If a nursing mom isn’t already fiddling with a cover, or doesn’t ASK for help to attach one, do not suggest she wear one. Maybe if it’s winter in Siberia and her baby’s mouth is latched into a frozen death grip, maybe then a fur stole cover would do. (Faux, of course).

WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:

If she’s preparing to latch on and there’s no cover in sight, it’s easy — say nothing! Not her thing, yo! But if she seems worried and mentions that she forgot her cover, don’t ignore her. Think about what you have on hand. A shawl, jacket, blanket maybe? Find something she might like. Say, “Here you go, does this work?” then comment about how cute they look bundled up in the gingham picnic blanket you found still in your car from last summer’s camping trip.

She asked, you helped, baby’s eating, all’s good.

3. “It seems like the baby’s just sucking for comfort. Can I get a pacifier for you?”

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WHY THIS KINDA SUCKS:

Don’t assume she uses pacifiers. Don’t assume to know how her baby feeds, what his hunger cues look like, whether or not a pacifier will even be healthy for her particular baby’s mouth. Did you know that pacifiers and successful breastfeeding don’t always play nice together?

Don’t tempt a nursing mom with a plastic pacifier, because surely there are times when she’s super fed-up and wants nothing more than to inconspicuously replace her boob-paci with just about anything that’ll take. If she needs a plastic stand-in, she’ll ask you and everyone else in a half-mile radius if necessary, without pause.

WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:

Comfort nursing in public is nothing to write home about, so just wrap your head around that first. If her baby is putting on quite a show of pulling his mother’s hair, kicking, pulling on her bra straps and such, the answer isn’t to offer a pacifier. You can present her with a toy to help the baby focus, or offer to hold her baby for a while when they’re done nursing.

If you babysit the child and are curious about reading hunger cues, how about asking: “What happens if you’re not around and your baby wants to comfort nurse? What do you suggest would be best to give your baby in your absence?” I’m sure she has plenty of her own ideas without your assumptions.

4. “Wouldn’t it be easier to feed with a bottle here?”

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“Bottle? Here? Oh hellll no!”

WHY THIS KINDA SUCKS:

You think you sound smart, but really this sounds kinda unappreciative of the hard work that comes with bottle feeding breast milk. A bottle-feeding mother has quite a few items to rotate on her daily To Do list: clean bottles, pack them up, tote them around, not to mention pumping milk, labeling storage containers, and keeping the milk fresh while out and about.

This comment suggests that it would be easier to pump milk for a bottle, transport the milk with proper storage and handling, prepare the bottle, then feed baby from the bottle while he lays in mom’s arms…mere inches away from the original food source.

Think of it this way: Would it be more or less difficult to pump gas into your car’s fuel tank by sticking the hose in directly, or if you filled up several gas cans first, parked the car within a workable distance from the pump, then proceeded to fumble around getting those cans drained into the tank?

WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:

So you see a woman really struggling to breastfeed and you’re all like, “Why doesn’t she just give a bottle?” Well, if you’re so curious, find out! Start with this: “What a sweet baby! You two are precious. I know babies are a handful sometimes though! Can I help you with anything?”

If you’re not well-acquainted, consider how she’d want to be approached if you were her. She might already be self-conscious that they look like a crazy circus act as it is. Remind her that breastfeeding is always beautiful, not only when the baby is at peace, behaving, and otherwise at ease.

5. “Should you be eating/drinking that if you’re breastfeeding?”

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WHY THIS KINDA SUCKS:

Chances are, you’re probably that person who also polices what pregnant women consume, just in case they don’t already know that Frappuccinos aren’t as healthy as fruit salads. If it’s not appropriate to comment on a non-pregnant or non-nursing woman’s diet, it’s not appropriate to comment on the eating and drinking habits of a mom with a baby on the boob or in the womb.

Let’s back up a sec and look at the whole picture. Here’s the whole picture: Unless the nursing mom is balancing a mug of fresh-brewed, piping hot coffee directly over the baby, then yes, she should be eating or drinking whatever she’s currently enjoying. She should feel free to nourish herself as she pleases while nourishing her child, and it’s none of your damn business what she chooses to nourish herself with.

WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:

Find a way to lighten up. Find it in yourself to trust a mother who has already made a great decision for the sake of her baby’s health by choosing to breastfeed. It’s not her responsibility to educate you, or to earn your trust in her to care for her own baby.

Try this, “Thank you for breastfeeding your baby. I know it’s hard to balance your needs and baby’s, but you’re doing a great job trying to keep your baby healthy.” Yep, even if she celebrated her breastfeeding baby’s first birthday with champagne (sometimes a proper toast is a need, okay?).

6. “Whoa, you look great! Your boobs are huge!”

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“Does this baby make my boob look big?”

WHY THIS KINDA SUCKS:

Acknowledging (out loud) the current state of appeal underneath any woman’s shirt, but most especially that of a newly postpartum woman — daring move, friend. Though a new mom may not make a Facebook status about it, know that her headspace spends a lot of time dealing with the many physical changes that have recently happened to her, and continue to happen. She might even feel like she’s trapped inside a maze of funhouse mirrors for a while.

She’s aware that she looks different — because goddamn does she feel different — and she doesn’t need you to announce your observations. Such comments as “Your new rack looks great!” or “You’ve got cleavage now!” can inspire the thought that, by default, she didn’t look so great before. These non-compliment “compliments” remind her that you consider the parts of her body as objects, separate from her, subjects that exist for your assessment and ownership by way of expressed opinion.

She wants to embrace the power and beauty of her changing body in womanhood, but too frequently she sees or hears that her new body is broken and unacceptable. Getting back into one’s “normal” shape (even though this is her “normal” now) is just something all mothers must put on their To Do lists, right?

Understand she is still coming to terms with the fact that her breasts have important functions beyond decorative capability. A simple observation that she “looks better now” can be received with open arms, but it can backfire so you must tread carefully. Maybe she PREFERS her previously smaller chest (uh, that’d be me!), so it’s rude to make assumptions and voice them unless asked.

WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD:

If you wouldn’t talk about the shape and appeal of her breasts when she’s not a breastfeeding woman, don’t talk about them now that she is. She may not be totally comfortable with anyone seeing parts of her breasts in public, or she may not be acclimated to her new body yet, so focusing on it can make her even more self-conscious.

If you want to compliment her and let her know how amazing you think her body is, say what she probably really wishes someone would validate for her. (Hint: It’s safest to try these out when she’s breastfeeding, or mothering in some way, not when she’s slipped into a deep v-neck cocktail dress).

“I can’t believe you’re able to feed your child with nothing but your body!” or “You look like a goddess!” or “It’s amazing to see the power of mother nature in action within you!” How about, “Motherhood looks good on you!” If you’re angling for romance, how about the simple but tried-and-true, “You’re quite a woman!”

If it seems like she’s really diggin’ her naturally enhanced assets, encourage her pride! If you want to support her as she celebrates finally having something to “support,” tell her you’re so happy for her that she’s so comfortable with herself, or that she’s an awesome self-esteem role model. Try not to get specific when swept into a conversation about her new curves if you don’t know her that well; you can never be sure of a person’s underlying demotivating triggers.

From elsewhere on the web, also check out the Top 10 Things Breastfeeding Advocates Should STOP Saying and here, 10 Things Breastfeeding Advocates SHOULD Say.

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2 thoughts on “6 “Helpful” Things You Should Stop Saying to Moms Who are Nursing in Public

  1. Love the gas can analogy!! My mom is the only person I really remember giving me a hard time for breastfeeding in public–so sad. We were at a wedding, that we had flown with a baby to attend, and she thought I should go feed my Sweetie Pie in the bathroom (barf). Finally my poor dad had heard enough from my mom and asked if I thought I “should be doing That in here?’ I asked if he thought God would be mad. They both shut up and I got to see my beautiful cousin get married all while my sweet baby (who would NOT HAVE BEEN SWEET if I’d made her wait for lunch) nursed.
    I’m a Labor and Delivery Nurse and I teach our hospital based Childbirth class. I always tell that story, and now I’ll be adding the one about the gas cans vs. gas pumps. Every time we nurse in public, no matter how many adults we may upset, we are teaching all the kids who see us what normal looks like. (that jewel is from a good friends husband–bless him)

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