A recent Centers for Disease Control public opinion study found “only 43 percent of U.S. adults believed that women should have the right to breastfeed in public places.” Theoretically, every time I go out with my baby, I can count every two people we pass and justifiably assume the next three people do not approve of my child breastfeeding there.
With this in mind, in my early public nursing days I felt too embarrassed to be seen struggling to breastfeed my little baby, especially with postpartum depression at a high, an anxiety disorder, and being the first among all my friends to become a mother.
I wanted so badly to live in a part of the world that was acclimated to the sight of normal infant feeding.
The sprawling, diverse metropolitan area where I live isn’t even a major hotspot for public breastfeeding oppression. That’s the frightening part. A quick Google search will guide you through countless stories of mothers across the nation being harassed, shamed, bullied, and discriminated against by strangers, coworkers, relatives, acquaintances, anyone with an opinion… because they breastfed their children in public.
With my first baby I started out nursing in my car. At the time, to me it felt pretty ‘public.’ I quickly realized this could only be a temporary solution to calm my nerves. Not only was it terribly inconvenient to retreat to my car for privacy multiple times per excursion, but it was also completely unnecessary. (And far from foolproof! Do you know where we were the first time I was harassed for nursing? Sitting in the front seat of my parked car minding our own business).
Out of the car and into actual buildings I emerged. I only felt at ease enough in low-crowd places and often found the corner of rooms to nurse so I could have privacy. Then I felt like a professional NIPer after working my way up to nursing on-the-go while babywearing.
Things became easier when I expanded my potential nursing spots to, well, anywhere we happened to be. I wore covers at first (I ditched them for good after that car harassment incident, and life got less complicated when I put those annoying things in storage).
It didn’t take long before I wasn’t giving a second thought to when and where I’d nurse my child because it was not an isolated event — it was just part of the flow of life, which doesn’t stop when you become a mother.
Four and a half years later, through babyhood, toddlerhood, another pregnancy, and tandeming, I don’t think a week has gone by that I haven’t nursed in public, and it’s been nearly that long that I’ve done so confidently.
Twenty helpful tips I learned along the way, in no particular order:
1). Start somewhere well-known to you.
Stick to quiet, especially family-friendly places first, like the library or a park. You can even use a nearby nursing room if there’s one close enough. (Just don’t nurse on a toilet, like ever — promise?).
2). Find a support person to join you (or to secure your solitude).
A support person can help you feel protected. They’ll chat with you as you nurse. They’ll help make it known that you’re still an active part of the atmosphere despite being half-occupied with your child. They’ll keep you company whether you nurse front row center atop a national monument, or in a secluded hideaway where no one can ever find you.
Unfortunately, you will have to get the hang of this on your own, too. Baby is going to get hungry when you least expect it, I assure you!
But do remember, there are thousands of women across the world pulling down their shirts or burkas or tunics or robes to nurse in public at the same time as you. You’re never truly alone.
On the contrary, a familiar face might serve as a detriment. For me personally, when I first started to nurse in public I felt far more comfortable among strangers. Their opinions held little weight and I knew I’d never see them again.
When I needed to nurse among family or friends, ironically I felt a great deal of (largely imagined) pressure to ensure ‘nothing was showing,’ to avoid offending or disappointing anyone, to do everything I could to prevent a scene because otherwise I’d be perceived as ‘another attention-seeking new mother.’ Their opinions mattered to me.
If your idea of relaxation is ‘the less people, the better,’ don’t feel like you’re selling out for vocalizing that you need a few moments alone. The breastfeeding community is not going to judge you, and your company won’t write a mystery novel about your absence. I’ll admit I search for private spots to NIP sometimes too — it’s the perfect excuse to recenter with some alone(ish) time.
In this case, maybe your support person is available to you in a more intangible way? Someone you can count on to answer your texts while you NIP. Someone who will walk ahead to scout a suitable NIP location at your request. Someone who’s willingly responsible for answering any needs that come up (could you use a refill of water? A chair? A pillow? A burp cloth?) — all expressed through text, or the crack of a door, or whatever you want of course, you shy thing you. 😉
3). Process your fears.
I get it, you’re nervous to get out there and do this. But why?
Any and all reasons you have are completely valid, but it’s worth exploring triggers for these unpleasant worries.
Who is involved in the belief that you’re not capable of breastfeeding in public with confidence? Which emotions color this experience?
When peeling back the layers, you may find the issues causing the most trouble have little or nothing to do with the act of public breastfeeding to begin with.
4). Nurse in front of someone you don’t see every day, but who is trusted and familiar.
This could be a lactation consultant, midwife, pediatrician, or an experienced breastfeeding friend or relative. It can help your confidence to schedule your first ‘public’ breastfeeding experience with a cheerleading (or commiserating) party. They’ll assist you with troubleshooting any issues before releasing you to the wild, so to say.
Of course, doing this can also help encourage you to NIP even if you’re still fighting unresolved issues. Maybe you’re trapped in a vicious cycle with a nipple shield; maybe you need to pump every two hours; maybe you depend on an SNS; maybe you’re practicing setting boundaries with an older nursling while trying to satisfy your youngest; or perhaps you need to remove nipple jewelry before every feed.
If you practice your NIP game with a lactation-knowledgeable person, you can feel reassured that what you’re doing is totally within the wide, wide range of normal.
5). Work on positioning.
Breastfeed in front of a mirror at home. This way you can determine your default NIP positions ahead of time, sparing you the awkwardness of figuring it out on a crowded subway.
It can also help reassure that you don’t in fact look like a fool and the vision of you breastfeeding isn’t as dramatic as you imagined.
6). Prepare what you’ll do if you’re harassed.
Chances are no one will bother you. The vast majority will keep any negative opinions to themselves. Anticipating a showdown every time you leave the house with your nursling is a serious waste of energy!
But let’s say you do have the misfortune to cross paths with an individual representative of the 57% of the nation who don’t believe mothers should have the right to NIP. How do you react?
Do you tell the person off? (Let’s call him Bob, because it’s like Boob and he would find that fact terribly upsetting). Do you attempt to educate Bob instead? Do you appeal to Bob’s compassionate side that’s apparently being smothered by ignorance? Do you stand your ground and recite your state’s breastfeeding laws? Do you call the Breastfeeding Harassment Hotline? Do you avoid further confrontation with crazy Bob by seeking a safer spot with your baby?
In all likelihood, your reaction may depend a combination of factors: your relationship to Bob, whether a management or security type figure is nearby to support you, the type of harassment (verbal or physical bullying, shaming, or discrimination), and your current tolerance level for rudeness.
Store a few tricks up your sleeve so you’re not caught off guard, but always remember your baby’s safety is your priority. If an individual appears irrationally angry that you’re breastfeeding in public (it does happen), it’s probably best to remove yourself and baby from the situation and find a third party to handle it on your behalf. Crazy Bob is not worth a righteous spiel unless you and your baby will personally benefit from it.
See #10 for quick comeback material. I also love this piece, which makes for useful ammo: “Every Argument Against [Nursing in Public] Debunked” by Elsinora.
7). Prepare what you’ll do if you’re commended.
How will you react if someone advances upon you while NIP and they’re so smiley and enthusiastic to see you they’re practically gushing sympathy milk out their ears?
They may compliment your baby, give you kudos for breastfeeding in public (or breastfeeding at all), or strike up a conversation about their own memories of nursing.
I’ve found myself in these situations many times. My reactions have ranged from bursting into a geyser of tears; feeling annoyed, vulnerable, and desperate for a way out of the interaction; feeling proud, empowered, humbled; and utterly happy when it results in making new friends.
If you’re looking forward to positive attention:
Keep your expectations realistic. Don’t expect everyone to care that you’re breastfeeding. No one can possibly feel the same affection about your breastfeeding relationship as you and your baby do!
If you garner applause for your efforts to normalize breastfeeding, awesome stuff. But don’t get disappointed if you don’t receive as much well-deserved appreciation as you’d hoped. It just proves you’re doing an excellent job blending in and normalizing!
If the thought of positive attention makes your stomach turn:
Positive attention can cause embarrassment, too. An unsolicited popularity award isn’t everyone’s bag. Sometimes you just want to be left alone and avoid the scrutiny that inevitably comes with being the caregiver of a cute baby in public.
Have heart, that baby-loving breastfeeding supporter means well. You may appear to be handling things like a boss, and they haven’t considered the other aspects of your situation.
Though to them you’re ‘just nursing’ and therefore capable of engaging in impassioned rapport spotlighting your baby’s feeding habits, this perception is often untrue. You’re also planning in your head, walking, taking a time-out and resting, keeping an eye on or entertaining baby’s older sibling, gritting your teeth through an episode of nursing aversion, shopping/checking out/on the phone/eating/literally anything someone would do in public.
If someone goes out of their way to commend your mothering style, a simple and honest thank you is a perfectly sufficient response. They’ll likely understand why you don’t feel like making a big to-do about feeding your child right now.
8). Choose clothing you feel comfortable in.
Three words: easy access bra! (Or braless… okay so, five words). Consider nursing-friendly tops and layers to lend more coverage, if that’s what you want.
Let’s talk about covers for a sec. Usually the big tent-like nursing bibs end up drawing more attention to you and babies toss them off anyway. But if you keep a cover in your bag ‘just in case,’ you may feel better just knowing it’s an option if you unexpectedly find yourself in an especially intimidating situation. Tent bib alternatives: a scarf or pashmina, a burp cloth, a hat on baby, use a stroller as a barrier, etc.
Remember, you don’t have to use a cover — ever! — and many mothers don’t bother with them. But if the possibility of your skin showing is keeping you from nursing in public, wear whatever you like if it’ll help you tend to your baby without panicking.
9). Learn how to nurse on-the-go in a carrier, sling or wrap.
This is **so important**! If you can successfully nurse hands-free, you don’t need to take a time-out for feedings. You’ll also worry less about how you look while nursing if you’re on the move! Here in a second, gone in a (nipple) flash…
10). Recite your mantras.
I know, it sounds a little cheesy. But repeating these mantras in your head while you NIP is an easy way to train confidence into your subconscious:
“Nursing on demand is best.”
“I’m a fearless, confident mother.”
“My baby comes first.”
“I don’t owe anyone an apology or explanation.”
“My baby deserves to eat.”
“My baby deserves comfort.”
“We have every right to be here.”
“I’ll always respond to my baby.”
“I’m doing a great job at this!”
11). Stay busy.
Nursing can get boring sometimes. Yes, it’s magical and it’s quality time and it’s hard work, but sometimes it’s more like “Meh, are we done yet, kid? I’ve got ants in these Mom jeans and I’m over this whole taking-a-time-out-to-nurse thing right about now.”
If idle-mode invites an opportunity for your self-consciousness to creep back, work on something else while you NIP. Check email, walk in circles, feed ducks, brunch, knit, I don’t know, I’m sure you’ve got some better ideas! 😛
(By the way, this is when that carrier comes especially in handy).
12). Watch other moms.
Study the other moms at a La Leche League meeting. There I first saw a toddler shove his little hand down his mother’s shirt and grope around. She appeared unphased as she held him and his younger sister on her lap. Oh, okay — so this is normal? Cool, cool.
Search YouTube for breastfeeding videos uploaded by real moms. Maybe you have a friend or relative who breastfed recently; I’m sure she’d be happy to regale you with her NIP stories.
You’ll find everyone has their own style. Whose style speaks to you? Replicate that!
13). Pretend you’re at home nursing your baby.
The aim is to get your baby fed (or to comfort him the same way he’d expect at home). Make this a goal-oriented activity if you must: Feed. Comfort. Boom. Done.
Everything else is background noise. Focus on your child, have your moment together, and move on.
Don’t test your triggers by peeking around to see who’s looking or by counting all the ways you feel self-conscious.
You’re the Milk Queen at home; you’ve not been demoted just because you’re in public. You are Expert Level Breastfeeder (however you do it) and you maintain that status wherever you are.
You’ve done this nursing thing a thousand times. You know what to do.
14). Experiment with eye contact.
If you normally interact with strangers in public, it’s perfectly fine to continue doing so while nursing, Miss Social Butterfly.
Make eye contact with double-taking passersby and break the ice with a smile: Hello! Nothing threatening to see here! It’s an easy way to remind others that public breastfeeding is a family-friendly, wholesome activity.
On the other hand, if you’re sweating bullets and nervous out of your mind when your baby cries for milk in public, you don’t need to suddenly morph into some daring lactation advocate or an extrovert to prove you mean no harm. It’s not your job to go out of your way to make others feel agreeable to NIP.
15). Nurse your baby before you go out.
Despite what some people ignorantly assert, nursing prior to leaving the house won’t prevent him from getting hungry when you’re out and about!
It can take the edge off his hunger though, so when he does nurse he’ll be calmer, quieter, and more easily satisfied, which draws less attention to you both.
So learn your little one’s cues and don’t let him get overly hungry or you’re headed down the trajectory to a meltdown. This precipitates anxiety, stress, and can make the NIP experience a traumatic one.
16). Practice makes perfect. The more you do it, the easier it’ll get.
NIP enough and it’ll become your second nature. It may feel like uncharted territory the first few times, but soon you’ll be casually reciting a Dr. Seussian version of your NIP travails: On a plane, in a coffee shop, at the library, in a house, with a mouse…
17). Hazard-proof the little details.
So maybe you don’t feel embarrassed in public as much as you feel downright irritated. If your baby’s public nursing behavior drives you nuts and brings out the worst in you, make a shortlist of items that would make your NIP life easier.
- A toy or nursing necklace for him to hold instead of yanking on your clothes or jewelry.
- A burp cloth…or four. Because you know, sometimes you just don’t want to be covered in secondhand milk.
- A playlist of relaxing or catchy music (though you’re in public, no one will mind hearing it in place of agitated baby noises).
- A scrunchie or hair clip to remove a tiny hand’s temptation to death grip your mane.
- Learn a few games to entertain him as he eats. “This Little Piggy” and Christmas carols are my favorites for reigning in baby’s impulse to pop on and off the breast. I also blow on his forehead, lightly tickle his ears, and play Peek-a-Boo.
- If you’re struggling with aversion, keep your triggers at a minimum so you’re not extra stressed (for example, if aversion is prompted by dehydration, always-always-always have a bottle of water in your purse).
18). A visible nipple is not the end of the world.
Speaking of little details…
Guess who’s going to die if they see your areola?
No one. Not approximately, but exactly, precisely, with the strictest of promise — no one.
Not even you! You won’t die if your areola becomes unintentionally exposed. In fact, you’ll get right over it and continue to nurse your baby. You’ll learn soon enough that babies pop on and off throughout a feeding, or sometimes they’re slow to latch.
You’re going to have to free that nipple somehow if your baby’s going to eat, mama. Visible areola happens. Virtually everyone has a pair and they all look pretty much how you’d expect.
Yet for some reason, female areolas have become hypersexualized (though their primary purpose is distinctly non-erotic). Full female cleavage is considered acceptable (and even welcomed) almost anywhere, but areolas must be covered or censored.
It’s no wonder many mothers hold serious concerns about ‘exposing’ a portion of areola and thusly refuse to nurse in public.
I just want you to know, it’s really not a big deal. If another person feels troubled by the sight of your areola, they’re free to avert their eyes. If they’re bothered enough to make a stink about it, they were staring too hard to even notice your nipple in the first place.
19). Carry breastfeeding info cards with you.
If you catch a mother breastfeeding, dare yourself to slip a “Thank You For Breastfeeding In Public” card into her palm. There’s empowerment in solidarity!
Leave a “Breastfeeding Laws” info card in an accessible, visible location when you’re out and about (in a public bathroom, attached to the server’s copy of a restaurant receipt, wedged into items in a store’s baby section, etc). You know, just sprucing up the place a bit in preparation for your next NIP visit to this fine establishment…
Keep a stash of these cards in your purse, ready to distribute to the owner of a pointedly disapproving or disgusted look.
20). Fake it ’til you make it!
Latch your baby and act like you’ve done this a million times here even if it’s the first time. Pretend you’ve got the grace of a ballerina as you rearrange layers of clothing to find your nipple, even if you’re pretty sure you look like you lost a set of keys down there.
No one said you have to have everything together to earn the right to breastfeed in public.
Breastfeeding can be messy and disorganized much of the time. It’s not always (or ever?) sitting in a flower-perfumed field with flattering lighting, a flowy bohemian blouse, a freshly-cloth diapered baby who sits still and wouldn’t even dream of flapping that top arm around as he tenderly drinks the sweet life nectar.
If natural confidence is hard to come by, just fake it.
“Yep, this is what expert level breastfeeding looks like!”
21). Remember you’re a role model right now.
You’re inspiring. Really, when I see you unapologetically tending to your baby in public, I’m inspired. And I think you’re totally badass.
Imagine how a young girl would feel to catch a glimpse of you, or a young boy for that matter? Maybe they will walk away a little more educated or empathetic.
Breastfeeding in public (especially without a cover) also helps promote realistic, positive body image, which benefits everyone. Breastfeeding shows us bodies aren’t static and they’re also not purely decorative.
Think about it. Your breasts look different throughout the day: milk in, milk out, between two breasts, they’re hardly obedient to a specific size for very long. Much like non-nursing females whose breasts change size and shape throughout the month.
So with the simple act of nursing your baby in public, you positively influence the next generation of parents and spread that confidence karma forward one sip of breast milk at a time.
22). Most importantly, don’t forget you’re not doing anything wrong.
Even if ‘something was showing,’ however it looks when you breastfeed is 100% acceptable.
History is behind you; the law is on your side; breastfeeding is love and love always wins.
Both shy and social people breastfeed in public. Both newborns and kindergartners breastfeed in public. People breastfeed in public because they must and also sometimes just because they can.
Your decision to NIP instead of staying locked up at home is not going to ruin anyone’s day, but you know what — it might make someone’s day, and your baby will be pretty happy about it too.