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Breastfeeding in Public

By MadelinePetersen |

courtesy of Happy Day Imagery

I am sure public breastfeeding has been talked about a ton on baby’s first year, but I’ve just started doing it and I really want to reflect on my specific experience.

While I am on maternity leave, my husband and I are doing the farmers market circuit selling Alaskan salmon (my husband’s family business). Doing this has been such an adventure and even more than that a family affair. Both Steve and I are working hard on the project and Tate is always with us. I love that we are able to spend so much time together as a family while trying to make a living. However, it does brings up interesting challenges, for example, I have to entertain, diaper, and feed Tate while trying to work. I get to do all this in a 10×10 outdoor booth, generally with an audience.

I honestly don’t mind doing it. I have a nifty nursing cover that my mom made for me, and I have gotten the hang of getting Tate to latch in a jiff. The trouble is that unless I position myself in the back of the tent, making the fact that I am feeding Tate inconspicuous, I scare business away.

Men especially seem to walk by and when they notice I am nursing my son they immediately pretend that the tree next to the booth has suddenly become the most interesting tree on the planet.

It’s such an interesting paradox. We are continuously reminded that breast feeding has the best health benefits for our children, but no one wants us to do it anywhere near them. I hate the thought of being tied to my house or a retail store changing room because other people are uncomfortable with the thought of me nursing (I am using a nursing cover after all). It’s not that I have had anyone vocally share their disapproval, but the looks I get sometimes are just as obvious as a verbal beating.

Maybe it’s that I’m in a conservative state (Utah), or maybe it’s that I’m more sensitive to it as a new mother, but it seems unfortunate to me that breastfeeding in public is pretty much taboo.

Tell me if you have felt the judgement of others breastfeeding in public or how you feel about the whole issue honestly….I’m interested.

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About MadelinePetersen



Madeline blogs and tweets about budget-friendly clothes, modest apparel, sales, her obsession with pop culture, and her pudgy little baby, Tate, on her personal blog, Uber Chic for Cheap. A former Babble contributor, she currently resides in Corpus Christi, Texas.

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29 thoughts on “Breastfeeding in Public

  1. Roni says:

    For me it was a HUGE step. I posted about it here a few weeks back. Fist I started withe a cover and then I finally took a leap and started nursing without it.

    I’ve gotten a few looks but overall I’ve been surprised that most people don’t really notice. Depending on where I am I’ll still duck into a corner or feed him in the car before I go in but for the most part, places like the mall and the park are fair game for me.

    I hope that by doing it I inspire others to as well. I don’t think I ever saw a women nursing until I was an adult. Hopefully, our culture will slowly shift so it’s more the norm and not the exception.

  2. vicki says:

    The first month of Abraham’s life I was scared to leave the house for fear he’d need to nurse. It was such an ordeal and he was nursing so much. When we got the latch down well I felt more confident about leaving. I went to “safe” places first, places where I felt comfortable nursing. Now he is six months and I nurse him everywhere – the bowling alley, gas station parking lot curb, restaurants, the airplane. But it is stange, like you say, that breastfeeding is both promoted and seen as taboo. And nursing a toddler…forget it!

  3. Amanda says:

    It’s taken a while but I am just becoming comfortable with nursing without a cover in public. I get a lot of obvious avoidance of gaze but no real disapproval. It has been really liberating and I find that it’s probably even less noticeable because I don’t have a huge cover-flag saying “hey guess what I’m doing under here….my boobies are out and I am feeding my baby! Be ashamed that you know that.” I feel like without a cover and maybe not even a blanket I feel more confident and that makes people more comfortable for some reason. :) enjoy the adventure!

  4. Holly says:

    I think as long as you have the respect for other people and cover up while doing it, then other people need to have respect for you and your hungry child and mind their own business! I understand men being a little uncomfortable about it but Ive never had anyone make me feel bad about doing it personally. I do it all the time! Now if you arent using a cover, you are just asking for stares and strange comments.

  5. BC says:

    It was definitely a huge step for me, too, to breastfeed (WITH A COVER, NO LESS) in public. The very first day I decided to BF in public I did it 6 times- and the first of those six times I was told to feed my baby in the bathroom. Can you believe that?

    I actually have learned to NOT LOOK AROUND at anyone while doing this. I do NOT want to see anyone judging me, making a face or whatever. They can think it if they want but if I see them do it I’ll be hurt/embarassed and I’m liable to flip them the bird…. and that doesn’t look nice when you’re holding a baby, yaknow?

  6. Emily says:

    A few months ago a sibling of mine told me a story about a lunch date she had with a friend who has a newborn. They were at the restaurant sitting in a booth, and when it was time to feed the baby, her friend dropped the strap on her top and whipped out her breast at the table. No cover, nothing. While listening to this story I was trying to think of what my reaction, as a mother who breastfed, would be. Maybe it is just my own modesty issues, or that I do my best to refrain from making others uncomfortable, but I would never BF in public. If you’re using a cover, and making an effort not to flash people on the street, I don’t think there is a problem with that but I would 100% expect that others (especially men) would avoid a nursing mother. It’s probably a backward way of thinking, but I feel like nursing your child is a private, intimate thing that is best done in privacy. While exposing your breasts for nursing is not considered indecent exposure, I have a hard time not being distracted or uncomfortable if a woman is blatantly exposing herself to me in public. That being said, I applaud you for being dedicated to breastfeeding and for overcoming the challenges you face with working.

  7. Voice Of Reason says:

    “It’s such an interesting paradox. We are continuously reminded that breast feeding has the best health benefits for our children, but no one wants us to do it anywhere near them.” Beautifully put! I couldn’t agree more.

    If I am honest, the whole nursing cover things makes me really uncomfortable. It seems like breastfeeding for awkward high schoolers, instead of confident, educated women who know they’ve made a fantastic choice.

    I fully understand why some women feel happier using covers and wouldn’t take that away from them, but their existence puts us that much further away from re-normalising breastfeeding and perpetuates adolescent-type attitudes towards nursing. This saddens me.

    From Kathleen Kendall-Tackett; “Consider how mothers throughout human history managed to breastfeed without all of the information we have now. When breastfeeding was the norm, girls learned about breastfeeding as they were growing up by seeing women actually doing it. Dr. Peter Hartmann, a well-known breastfeeding researcher, makes this point well. He asked a young Australian Aboriginal mothers, ‘When did you learn about breastfeeding?’ She answered, ‘I have always known how to breastfeed.’

    I would love to get our culture back to this point and I think phasing out covers would be a good starting point.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Madeline.

  8. sophie says:

    As far as “keeping covered and respecting other people” goes….it seems silly when all you’re doing is feeding your baby. Now, I wouldn’t whip my whole chest out for the world to see, as I don’t think many mothers would, but it still seems a bit condescending to be told to be respectful of others. What’s so offensive and disrespectful about feeding a child? And being told to nurse in the restroom? Would that person want to eat in a bathroom? Crazy, some people!

  9. Amanda says:

    I’ve been very blessed, from the sounds of it, that I’ve not received many weird glances while breastfeeding. I nursed my oldest daughter on a busy street corner in NYC and on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty (and back) without so much as a weird glance. I’ve also nursed at the zoo in my fairly conservative town, walking around while only using a blanket to cover and didn’t receive any awkward glances. I think that’s key, really. Use whatever cover makes you feel comfortable but those that aren’t as obvious seem to make it less likely that others will stare. I use a very lightweight blanket (Aden + Anais swaddle blankets) to nurse in public this time around whereas when I first started nursing in public with my oldest, I used a Bebe Au Lait cover which is pretty obvious. With my youngest (only 5 weeks), I still feel nervous, mostly because we sometimes have a hard time getting a good latch at home let alone in a noisy restaurant but I’ve nursed anywhere we’ve gone and we’ve gone a lot of places already. Know that you’re doing the right thing for you and your baby and let others have their opinions. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll become with it. My goal with my youngest is to learn to nurse while wearing her in a Moby wrap – I’m thinking that’ll make it even easier to subtly nurse in public. :)

  10. mamaesq says:

    Before having a baby, I did think that breastfeeding was a private affair. Now, I just see it as feeding the baby…and I do it when the baby needs to be fed, because I care more about a properly fed baby than an uncomfortable waitress (you know who you are, Tahoe waitress!). I don’t “whip it out,” and can’t stand the implied carelessness of that phrase. We usually cover with a light cashmere scarf, or I stick her under a billowy blouse. And it did take a few tries to get comfortable. All that said, I empathize with the difficulty of trying to feed while working. It’s a different situation for you, and I wish the best with finding a solution that works. You are doing a great thing for your baby (breastfeeding), family (working) and community (stuffing them with delicious, delicious salmon). Godspeed!

  11. Korinthia Klein says:

    I think people are just trying to be polite. There is something private about nursing, even if you do it in public (and I’ve breast fed everywhere from Target to the Bronx Zoo). It just doesn’t lend itself to strangers feeling free to engage you directly while you are doing it. I would probably give you a bit of space in that circumstance too, not out of any sense of taboo, but of not wanting to intrude.
    I suppose if you were really interested in counteracting this, you could make eye contact with people and draw them in yourself, to let them know they are not interrupting.

  12. Nik says:

    I think using a cover just draws more attention to the fact that one is nursing. I found that a nursing cami underneath and another shirt on top provided plenty of cover to nurse easily and discreetly. People would often comment that they didn’t even realize I was nursing (especially once my babes got older and were able to latch on and stay on with little/no assistance.) Also re: the idea that breastfeeding is a private and special experience just between a mother and baby. Not always. Sometimes babies are just hungry and need to eat and they don’t care where they happen to be located at the moment. Breastfeeding IS beautiful and meaningful, but it is also a practical and healthy way to nourish a baby. We need to de-romanticize nursing and accept it as normal biological behavior that should be allowed and accepted anywhere. No one would think twice about a mother whipping out a bottle and feeding her baby at a restaurant– breastfeeding is the same behavior using different tools, tools that happen to be women’s breasts. This whole notion of discomfort with public breastfeeding is rooted squarely in institutional sexism.

  13. Amanda says:

    I wear my now 6 month old all the time. I have been wearing him since birth. That has made a big difference for me and nursing in public. I don’t use a cover, I think it draws more attention to the fact that you are nursing. I grocery shop, walk around the mall, etc while breastfeeding.

  14. M.G. says:

    @Nik-I agree that sometimes the covers draw more attention to BF than a shirt or something else. The covers tend to be large and awkwardly shaped. However, I can’t help but disagree on the biological behavior point. We go to the bathroom, change tampons, and have sex in private. I nursed my son exclusively for 6 months, and managed to get away without exposing myself in public. There is too much de-romanticizing going on in the world. Is nothing sacred? Having sex is one of the most instinctual and natural biological behavior on the planet- but we aren’t getting it on in the middle of TGI Friday’s. We are in a civilized society where we do our best to live together comfortably. I support nursing mothers, but I don’t want to see their exposed breasts while enjoying my lunch.

  15. Jessica says:

    My baby is really easily distracted as a nursery. Blame the fact that she is my first and its always quiet when we are nursing at home, but when I nurse her elsewhere she tends to pull off when someone speaks or she hears anything that interests her. For this reason, I have to use a cover. I think exposing nipple is too far and I can’t trust her to not expose mine. But if I could trust her to stay latched despite what’s happening around us, I would ditch the cover in a heartbeat. If baby stays on and you use an undershirt nursing without a cover can still be done with complete modesty and discretion. A mom should feel free to do what works for her.

  16. Jessica says:

    Distracted as a *nurser, not nursery.

  17. Meg says:

    @M.G.- are you seriously comparing sex in public with breastfeeding in public? Really?? And that, ladies and gentleman, is what is wrong with our society. I am about to have my 3rd child and I will nurse him in public just as I nursed my first two. I will do it wherever and whenever it’s necessary and I will not be forced somewhere “private” to do so. Why should my older children suffer (by having to go back to the car, or into the bathroom) just because their brother needs to eat? Am I discrete? Yes. Do I use a nursing cover or blanket? Sometimes. I have never had a strange look, I have never gotten the sense that people were uncomfortable. On the contrary, I have gotten accolades and encouragement, from women and from men. I have nursed both my daughters in a variety of settings, from white table clothed restaurants to parks and everywhere in between. If that bothers someone, don’t look. It’s that simple. I am not doing it to be in your face or to make a point. I am doing it to feed my child and to continue to live my life at the same time. Frankly this topic infuriates me because it should be a non issue. Period. Nurse your baby/child wherever you want and do it confidently. If that means you want to go to your car, then fine. If that means you want to do it in the middle of a crowded mall, that’s also fine.

  18. drkathleenfuller says:

    I love your article and the comments are touching. I nursed both of my daughters 35 years ago. Oh, may it seems like yesterday when I read your article. I have such loving memories and some red faced memories too. I am happy that more and more mothers are giving their child the best. Breast is best. A great resource for eating issues and prevention is the bestselling book- Not Your Mother’s Diet.

  19. cocoschmoco says:

    It’s my personal responsibility as a nursing mother to do it in public, without a cover, to help normalize breastfeeding.

    Is bottlefeeding a baby some sort of sacred, private ritual that can only be done behind closed doors, or under a cover? No? Neither is breastfeeding, they’re just different ways of feeding one’s baby. Demands that all women use covers, or that nursing is akin to having sex in public, is being part of the problem, and is no way encouraging or supportive of breastfeeding.

  20. m.j. says:

    i say breastfeed in public if you want to. nurse with a cover if you want. nurse without a cover if you want. just do whatever you do confidently because NONE of those options are disgusting! if you feel like breastfeeding is an intimate, private ritual, then do it privately and confidently, but don’t asl other people to do it in private when they don’t agree with you. we’re talking about breastfeeding our children here, not having sex in public. and let’s be honest…has anyone ever seen a woman fully expose her breast before or after nursing and flaunt it around just to make people mad? i’m sure if anyone has seen nipple or otherwise it was accidental and it was most likely embarrassing for the mother. let’s just give each other the benefit of the doubt and let women feed their babies how they choose to!

  21. Meredith says:

    I have fed my babies everywhere. Sometimes I use a cover-more when I know the people around me-makes me more uncomfortable. But when I am out in public, I do what needs doing:) I always pull my shirt down right to the baby’s mouth so I am not flashing passers by, and when your baby gets older it is much easier to bf discreetly. But, if you feel like it drives away business, then that is something to take into consideration!

  22. M.G. says:

    @Meg, I was merely offering the point of view for those that are made uncomfortable by women exposing themselves in public. I am a mother who nursed as well! I live in a big city and have been flashed (accidentally most of the time) many times. It does make me uncomfortable, makes my husband uncomfortable. It’s almost like you want to look away- but there is a bare breast hanging free while a mother tries to get the newborn to open it’s mouth- and you just can’t. I don’t have an issue with nursing in public if proper precautions are made to avoid making others uncomfortable. Part of living in a civilized society is cohabitating peacefully and respectfully. Surely, there must be natural/necessary bio functions that make you uncomfortable? Urinating in public? (btw- we have to do that in private too- and schlep the kids there as well). A couple making out in front of children? Vulgar language? These are things as a society we’ve all taken one for the team and said “OK, I know it makes you uncomfortable to see my breasts, so I will cover up and you will not pee on that fence at the park.”. Whining and ranting about the oppressive conservatives who insist on covering up isn’t productive. I only meant to say to Madeline, that I would expect the looks and avoidance if I were her, and that it is a NATURAL reaction to be uncomfortable by another adults exposed breasts.

  23. Voice Of Reason says:

    I think you only need look at other cultures to extrapolate that it is NOT a “natural” reaction to be uncomfortable by another adult’s exposed breasts; it is very clearly a culturally imposed reaction.

    I’m not referring to sub-Saharan African tribes either. One only has to go to a western European beach to understand that it is (largely) North Americans who have such a puritanical view of uncovered breasts.

    This is excellent, because what can be culturally imposed can also be undone with enough discussion, education, etc.

  24. NormalAmericanMom says:

    Let’s not be selective here with our cultural labels. Americans can be “puritanical” about some things (exposing breasts in public, in my case), yet our teenagers lose their virginity at a much younger average age than other non-North American cultures. It’s not about conservative religious beliefs, or close-minded Western thinking, it’s about respecting others. Also, It is a big misconception that Europe is filled to the brim with nude beaches. There are really not as many as you think, and in any case, it is a silly point because you go to a nude or topless beach EXPECTING to be exposed to other human bodies. I don’t go to the mall and expect to see a woman whipping out her breast in front of me. And while we’re talking about the mall, are we all going to start trying clothes on in the open instead of going into opressive, puritanical dreassing rooms? I don’t care if someone bares their breasts to feed a starving infant, heal the sick, or just enjoy a free moment; cover up!

  25. Elissa says:

    Lots of you have said that exposed breasts make you feel uncomfortable, even when they are in use for their primary function (i.e. Nursing), and have cried, “oh, for shame!” at the thought of copping an eyeful of nipple. What you haven’t identified is just what exactly is offensive about a breast? I seriously want to know because I simply cannot fathom the reasoning behind all the hooplah, apart from the obvious religious body shaming, but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on here.

    A mother’s primary concern should always be the well being of her baby. If baby is hungry, thirsty, or in need of comfort, the breast should be made available to that baby, without any question as to whether that’s ok. Breastfeeding is awesome, but it’s not a sacred ritual that needs secreting behind draperies, nor is it a shameful act that is indecent for the public eye. Our children deserve to be treated with more respect!

  26. Voice Of Reason says:

    Not sure what your European experience is NormalAmericanMom but here’s mine: I backpacked through Europe for three months before eventually moving there and living/working for nearly fourteen years. I had a European holiday entitlement (4-6 weeks per year) so I’ve seen my fair share of beaches in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece and *plenty* of bare-breasted sunbathers. I don’t think the beaches are designated ‘topless beaches’ – I believe the term they use is ‘beaches’.

    According to the US Surgeon General, if 90 percent of U.S. families followed guidelines to breastfeed exclusively for six months, the United States would save $13 billion annually from reduced direct medical and indirect costs and the cost of premature death. If 80 percent of U.S. families complied, $10.5 billion per year would be saved.

    What if just 10% or 20% of the group of non-breastfeeders opted out of doing so because they were sensitive about doing so in public and didn’t want to stay home for six months? Would that change some perspectives? Breastfeeding exclusively means breastfeeding on demand and sometimes it’s hard find an ‘appropriate’ place to nurse a howling infant. More people are irritated by a screaming baby than they are accidentally seeing part of an exposed breast, *should* the baby have difficulty latching on or popping off mid-feed. I’ve never used a cover but I would imagine its benefits are limited. If a baby pops off, surely it would potentially need to be lifted or shifted to get the baby latched again? Isn’t it easier for people to just get over themselves?

    In short, I agree with Elissa: we need to be showing a lot more respect for our babies. Let’s all do as much as we can to accommodate/encourage/support nursing mothers. It’s just common sense.

    Urinating in public is unhygenic and benefits no one except perhaps the short term benefit of the person relieving him or herself. Having sex is inherantly intimate and doing so in public benefits no one unless the partakers are exhibitionists. Again a short term, limited benefit to say the very least. In contrast, breastfeeding benefits *everyone* in economic terms and, in the longterm, the health of babies and mothers. It reduces the incidence of SIDS, diabetes and obesity, amongst other things. This is according to the US Surgeon General as well as the World Health Organization and other sources.)

    Unless new mothers are seriously expected not leave the house with their infants, they are unable to feed on demand unless we loosen up our silly attitudes to public nursing. It’s a very, very small price to pay.

    If breastfeeding offends you, there’s a simple solution: put a blanket over *your* head. Or, if you don’t feel like carrying around a blanket with all the other stuff you need to cart around, it’s easy: look away.

  27. Sara says:

    I am horrified to see breastfeeding compared to going to the bathroom and sex…really???!!! I am pregnant with my first child and fully intend to breastfeed in public. I feel that people are uncomfortable with it because they aren’t used to it. As it becomes more common I think this will be a non-issue. I still don’t understand why someone can’t look away if a mother is breastfeeding and they don’t want to risk seeing her exposed.

  28. Kellan says:

    Madeline, you do what’s best for you and Tate. I’ve BF’d once in actual public (I was inside a Ruby Tuesdays), and I didn’t get the first weird stare. However, my waitress did avoid looking directly at me; I think she was trying to show me respect by trying not to stare. I was using a nursing cover, so it’s not as if anyone copped an accidental eye-full. I’m more comfy covering up, even though I wish I were comfy without it. My daughter constantly pops off while nursing, as she has to have a comfortable, working latch in order to keep suckling. Often, she pops off because of a burp bubble or she’s fighting sleep as well. So for me, not using a cover means whoever looks my way will certainly get more of a view than they bargained for, if I don’t use a cover!

    I agree with both sides of the cover up/don’t bother issue – our babies need to be shown more respect, and others need to get over themselves – it’s just feeding a hungry, otherwise annoying (the howling part, people) baby. On the flip side, we do live in close quarters with other human beings, and, as such, we should make every reasonable effort to not offend them. Although, I think dressing immodestly should be “worse” than BFing in public – but, apparently, that’s not the case in America.

    Back to the restaurant: When I sat my daughter up (still under the cover) to burp, her head poked out the top, and the people from the table in front of me complimented me on her tiny, beautiful cuteness! This happened twice, as the first party left and another took their place.

    Bottom line: You’re Tate’s mom. Do what is best for both you and him, while keeping hubby in mind too, and you won’t go wrong. I applaud you for BFing! I hope you find a solution soon. :)

  29. Brenda says:

    My opinion is not going to be a popular one here but I have to tell you that I am going to agree with the person who said they don’t want to see it when they are eating their lunch. I am ok with the whole idea of BFing but not in public. I am a mother of 3 children myself and I never would begin to expose myself like some women do and they think that it is perfectly alright. I’m sorry but there is a time and place for things and out in the open view of other people and their impressionable children is not one of them.
    For my own opinion, it’s kind of like the people who think that their little girls mimicking bfing with their dolls is adorable, I think it is disturbing. It is innappropriate.
    I agree that there should be a nice location put in public places for this to be done because feeding a baby is necessary but have some courtesy for others. As for giving your children deserving more respect, why do yours deserve more respect than mine?

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