Navigating the Realities of Breastfeeding in Public

by Shari Criso, MSN, RN, CNM, IBCLC

In the days and weeks following your baby’s birth, you’ll likely find yourself staying close to home. Between finding a rhythm to nursing and sleeping – not to mention taking care of yourself – it may seem there’s not much time for anything else. But before long, the time will come to venture out and that likely means breastfeeding on the go.

Prepping to go places with your baby can be very overwhelming. Your baby may be small, but there is so much to bring to care for someone so dependent on you. And just when you think you’re ready to head out, your little one will need to feed again or require a diaper (or outfit!) change.

Often times, new mothers may have only just started feeling comfortable with nursing at home – or are even still working on mastering it – when the time comes to figure out how to do it in public. Luckily, you don’t need to panic.

Today, there are more public accommodations for nursing mothers, like lactation rooms or “pods” in malls, museums and airports. That said, there will be situations where you may choose or need to breastfeed in not-so-discreet spaces. For example, you may be sitting at a table in a restaurant, on a public park bench, in a dressing room at a retail store, waiting for your older child at a class, or other less-than-private locations. This is your choice and it is perfectly acceptable. Women should breastfeed their babies whenever their baby is hungry and wherever they feel comfortable.

While moms are now legally allowed to breastfeed in public in all 50 states – which only became a reality with Idaho and Utah passing legislation in July 2018 – you may encounter people who are not so accepting of your choice. These incidents often make headlines, like this recent story of a mother in Louisiana who organized a sit-in with fellow breastfeeding moms at a restaurant after being asked to cover up, or through viral posts on social media.

While it can be difficult to comprehend why someone would be opposed to breastfeeding in public, it’s a reality you are likely to face. Unfortunately, some people tend to sexualize the breast, overlooking its natural and original purpose. Those who had children in an era when breastfeeding was not the norm may not understand why moms are doing something in public that, to them, seems so intimate. In their minds, they’re thinking, “Why couldn’t she have just given her baby a bottle?”

The important thing to remember is that you are feeding your baby. You have no reason to change your location or apologize to others who may look at you with disapproval or, in rare cases, confront you. It’s your legal right to breastfeed in public.

You also get to decide the best method of feeding in public for you and your baby. While not necessary, some moms may want to use a nursing cover; others may choose to carry a blanket that can serve a dual purpose. If you prefer, you can situate yourself so you’re facing away from people where possible. The decisions are yours and yours alone. Do what makes you the most comfortable, and remember, the more you do it, the more at ease you will be both physically and emotionally.

When it comes to pumping in public, you may face even more unwanted opinions from others. People know what you’re doing when you nurse a baby but breaking out a piece of equipment some have never seen with flanges, tubing and noises and hooking it up to your breasts may trigger a few curious stares.

While you’re navigating the waters of breastfeeding and pumping in public, remember that you don’t have to figure things out on your own. Be sure to ask local moms in any online groups you’re part of; they will have great tips to share from experience. Make plans to go out with other new moms, and together help each other get used to tending to your baby’s needs in public.

Soon enough, you will become the go-to expert on finding comfortable spots to feed your baby. When you’re out and about and you see a new mom nursing or pumping, sharing a few words of encouragement can go a long way in making her feel normal. Try saying something like “I’m also nursing my baby – isn’t it great?”. It could be the extra reassurance she needs to remind her that she has a right to be there.

Finally, always remember that if someone takes issue with your breastfeeding or pumping in public, that it’s their problem, not yours.

Shari Criso is an RN, certified nurse midwife, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and nationally recognized parenting educator. Byram Healthcare recently partnered with Criso to raise awareness of breastfeeding benefits under the Affordable Care Act. Learn more about Criso and take her online breastfeeding class at www.SimplyBreastfeeding.com

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