Seeing a woman breastfeed in public makes some people uncomfortable, and the usual (sometimes snarky) response from breastfeeding supporters is “Just look away.” There are many people who are kind, thoughtful, respectful, and wouldn’t say a negative word to a breastfeeding mom, yet, nevertheless, still struggle with knowing how to behave during an awkward breastfeeding encounter. For those people, I think a more nuanced discussion is warranted. If you are a judgmental ass#*!$ who spews negativity and is just looking for an excuse to publicly call women bitches and whores, don’t waste your time reading any further or commenting – this article isn’t for you. But if you are a kind, thoughtful, respectful person who still gets unnerved in the presence of a stranger nursing her baby, here are nine Do’s and one big Don’t for you. I hope they help you find a more comfortable, positive approach in a situation that doesn’t have to be awkward at all.
- Know the law.
Almost every state has a law that protects women’s right to breastfeed in public. Regardless of your personal thoughts on the matter and how much of her skin is showing, the law is on her side.
- Yes, look away.
Looking away creates personal space for both of you. While you might feel that looking away in discomfort is a negative reaction, she probably perceives it as a respectful way to give her space. That is, unless it’s done with a sneer of disgust. Then it becomes judgment, which we’ll touch on later.
- Or, look at her the same way you would look at any stranger you cross paths with.
There’s nothing inappropriate about looking at a person you don’t know for a few seconds. Notice the color of her hair. Notice the expression on her face – is she happy, sad, tired, relaxed, stressed? Notice what you normally notice when looking at another person. Again, her perception of your glance will most likely be that you are behaving normally.
- Alternatively, look her in the eye and smile.
When you look someone in the eye, it’s hard to see anything below the collar because it is outside your main field of vision. By looking her in the eye and smiling, you place your focus and attention on seeing her as a whole person, not just a breast or nipple. And smiling brightens your day and hers!
- Get hold of your emotions.
It’s possible that you feel uncomfortable because thoughts of breastfeeding, in American culture, are closely tied with sex, sin, and shame. Shame sets off a physical reaction; the fight or flight instinct which makes your skin flush and your heart race. You can calm yourself down from that reactive state by using reason to reassure yourself that you are not in any danger. How do you do that? You…
- Flip the script.
You can change your inner script about public breastfeeding from one that creates discomfort by focusing on the positive aspects of it. First, you can consciously unlink thoughts of infant feeding from thoughts of sexuality. Next, you can focus on positive aspects, such as the fact that it provides optimal nutrition for the baby, protects the baby and the mother from illness and disease, stimulates infant development, facilitates mother/baby bonding, and even saves public healthcare dollars. Finally, you can change your public conversation about breastfeeding. Get in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and public health experts, whose guidelines suggest breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of life and continuing to nurse throughout the first year of life and beyond. Remind yourself that when you see a mother breastfeeding, she’s not trying to be a seductive vixen Jezebel, she’s making her best effort to keep her baby healthy and happy.
- Learn to be comfortable with discomfort.
It’s a part of life to see things in the world that make you uncomfortable. If you saw a veteran with an artificial limb exposed, a person in a wheelchair, or a person with a developmental disability, you wouldn’t reasonably expect them to hide themselves away and limit their life so their difference doesn’t set off alarm bells in you. That was done in the past, but times change, and treating people that way is no longer socially acceptable. Whatever method you use to deal with these situations is probably the right method to use to deal when you see a breastfeeding mom and baby.
- Inconvenience yourself before you even think about inconveniencing her.
Rather than asking for a breastfeeding mom to cover herself or move to a more private location to feed her baby, move yourself so you don’t have to have her in your line of sight, or remove yourself from the situation. Your discomfort is not her problem; it’s yours. Have you heard the phrase, “Check your privilege?” It’s a pretty ballsy thing to use your power or social position to force a mother caring for her child to move for your emotional comfort. Similarly, policing the behavior on someone else’s behalf is a no-no. If you think you are protecting the young children around you from seeing something inappropriate, you might be surprised by how little they notice or care about it, and how readily they accept breastfeeding if the grown-ups around them tell them it is normal and don’t act weird about it. Lots of families today actually want their children to see breastfeeding in public so they can model respectful behavior around this normal, acceptable activity.
- Self-reflect on why it bothers you.
We’re going deep on this one. In addition to our cultural connection between breastfeeding and sex, the question of “who can do what and where” hits at the heart of issues of social justice. Breastfeeding is a time-intensive activity done multiple times a day, and by restricting the places and the manner in which it is “socially acceptable,” women are restricted physically, socially, and economically. Think about the very real ways that social restrictions on breastfeeding affect women, babies, and families; they keep them isolated, limit their social interactions, affect physical and mental health, and have financial consequences by limiting work options, encourage the use of costly artificial infant formula, and increase chance of illness. Since it is an activity only done by women, restrictions can easily cross over the line into patriarchy and sexism. Is that where you want to align yourself? Who made these social rules anyway, and why did they make them? Who benefits from them? Ponder that.
- Don’t be the Breastfeeding Police.
Do not, under any circumstance, take it upon yourself to tell a breastfeeding woman (especially one you don’t know) about how she shouldn’t be breastfeeding in public. There is no positive message that 1) you have the authority to give and 2) she will be happy to hear from a stranger who is embarrassing, shaming, or scaring her. No one appreciates someone who has appointed themselves police, judge, and jury of another’s behavior. Confronting a breastfeeding woman and her baby, who are considered to be vulnerable people in a vulnerable position, makes you the aggressor. Making negative comments to breastfeeding moms is still a common practice, but as the science and the laws supporting breastfeeding in public are changing public opinion, it’s becoming more likely that the complainer will be the one who ends up getting shamed for their actions. Just ask this woman who complained in Starbucks and was corrected by a teenaged barrista, or this guy who got kicked out of Target and whose behavior has been seen all around the world by over 30 million people.
The world needs conscientious, confident mothers to raise healthy, well-adjusted children. Breastfeeding is a time-consuming, long-term activity that sometimes has to be done in public spaces in order for families to function. Women who breastfeed in public put themselves and their children into a vulnerable position, and they feel the intensity of that. They do it, not to draw attention to themselves, but to care to for another human being. Rather than teaching her a lesson about manners or morals, you may end up being the reason a breastfeeding mother stops breastfeeding altogether, in public or in private, and may negatively affect her sense of self as a mother, her relationship with her baby, and their health. Jessie Maher, the mom in the Target video above, has received messages from dozens of women who said they stopped breastfeeding because of similar incidents.
Brene Brown, a researcher and expert on vulnerability and shame, says, “Every day our choices have a huge impact on people…and I think people are responsible for the energy they put into the world. There are people who have amazing gifts who could make the world an incredibly better place, who won’t put their work out there for (fear of a negative response). And that’s a loss. And whether we know what that work was or not, we miss it and grieve it every day.”
You may feel vulnerable or uncomfortable witnessing someone breastfeeding in public. But, as a kind, thoughtful, respectful, nice person, what kind of energy do you want to put into the world? Use these tips to help you through the awkward moment in a way that is positive.
Michal Klau-Stevens is The Birth Lady. She is the creator of the Mastering Maternity™ system, a program that helps expectant parents confidently approach pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, early parenting, and navigating the maternity healthcare system. She is a maternity consultant, pregnancy coach, consumer advocate on maternity care issues, Past President of BirthNetwork National, Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and mother. Her website is TheBirthLady.INFO. Find her on Facebook at The Birth Lady page!
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