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Breastfeeding Wars

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If breast vs. bottle is the Gettysburg of the mommy wars, then the fight between the out-loud-and-proud breastfeeders vs. the hide-in-the-corner types must be our own personal Bull Run.

woman breastfeeding

Jeanne Sager: If you think all breastfeeding is created equal, Mom, you are woefully misinformed. You have not yet met the mom who will make you feel like you're failing your child simply because you found a quiet room in which to offer your baby his lunch.

Let's call her what she is: a breastfeeding advocate who has gone off the deep end. She isn't just fighting for the right to breastfeed in public, she wants to demand that EVERY woman do it.

And that's where she goes too far.

The right to breastfeed in public is finally gaining traction here in the States. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 43 states plus the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands all have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. Twenty-eight states (plus D.C. and the Virgin Islands) also protect breastfeeding mothers from becoming the target of public-indecency claims.

That's as it should be, because breastfeeding is about giving children sustenance. It's not sexy. It's not lewd. It's the circle of life. It should be both protected and supported.

But while these laws allow women to breastfeed in public, nothing in their language says women "must" do so. The laws are there to give them the right, not to ram it down their throats. So why judge women who don't breastfeed in public?

Take the so-called "support" one mom got when she reached out for advice about breastfeeding on-the-go. "It's time to get over your breast issues and just feed discreetly in public," was one response on the bulletin board.

So much for acknowledging that every body is not created equal. We all have body issues -- and they're not always about sexuality or breasts.

The marks stretching across my stomach were an angry red, the skin already starting to sag from the sudden weight-loss that had occurred when I pushed my daughter into the world. I'd never worn a bikini pre-childbirth, and it was apparent that I'd be locking this tummy away for eternity now.

The thought of lifting my shirt in public was terrifying -- especially after years of struggling with eating disorders. And yet I was being told that I should do it anywhere at anytime. (If not, I apparently wasn't a "real" breastfeeder.)

In one blog, a mom blamed "those who are ashamed" for being "part of the problem of there being shame associated with something normal."

Perhaps. The more women who breastfeed in public, the less hassle those down the line will get as the behavior becomes the norm rather than the exception. 

But that's not reason enough to make private breastfeeding unacceptable. Pushing women to make an example of themselves for a cause? Who will that serve in the end? Not the "modest" mother -- who might very well give up breastfeeding entirely, purely because she's uncomfortable with the idea of having people see. And if that happens, the baby certainly won't benefit, either. 

A recent study found that 50 percent of Australian women were embarrassed to breastfeed in public. In America, the statistics show that more than half of us have introduced at least some formula by the time our babies are 6 months old. 

In other words, all this badgering isn't working. The way to encourage a mother to push past the six-month breastfeeding mark recommended so highly by groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics is to just let us be.

Of course, the North and the South met at Bull Run not once, but twice. I'm not expecting this war to be won in one battle, either.



next: Why I Hate Black History Month
26 comments so far | Post a comment now
b February 18, 2010, 5:58 AM

I think the best way to promote public nursing is to do it discreetly in public. With so many cute nursing covers now available, there is no need to go bare-boobed. As a mother, I am aware of and watching other mothers. I am always impressed with those who decide to be modest about their choice to breastfeed. There is a quiet dignity about it. It’s not in your face, it’s not propaganda, its not the mother looking down from her high station to judge all other mothers. It just says “I’ve got a baby to feed, a body with which I feed her, and it’s time to do it. Go about your business whilst I go about mine, thank you.” There’s something graceful about a mother who can do her mothering in public without it being a whole public scene; and that grace has nothing to do with the freedom to bare all in the name of baby-feeding. “Dignity” should be the prevailing attribute when considering appropriateness of public nursing.

Anonymous Mom February 18, 2010, 6:52 AM

I’m so sick of “Mommy wars” on how you should or shouldn’t do things. You breastfeed in private; others don’t. Some bottlefeed, some breastfeed, some TRY to breastfeed and end up bottlefeeding instead. What’s the big deal? Why are moms always trying to one-up one another or make each other feel inferior? We’re all taking care of our kids as best as we can, isn’t that ultimately the point? To think anyone gave you guff for wanting to breastfeed in private just makes my blood boil.

Shannon February 18, 2010, 7:41 AM

When I was pregnant I knew I wanted to breastfeed but thought I would only last for the 1st 6 months (fear I would dry up like some of my friends had or just out of fear that i would be lazy). 6 months came & went. The way I figured it whats another 6 months! My husband had a problem with me breastfeeding in public or even at friends houses. He eventually learned to get over it though. My son eventually weaned himself of the breast a lil after he turned a year old. I miss & it will always remain one of the happiest times of my life. I loved it!!! Plus it helped me drop all my baby weight & then some : )

Natalie @ Naddy's Blog February 18, 2010, 8:01 AM

I think there is a middle ground. I nurse in public, but I don’t pull my v neck top down to do so. I also don’t use a bib cover (is there any more obvious way of saying, hello, I’m breastfeeding? It made me uncomfortable.).

I use a nursing tank to cover belly and back, and frequently will nurse in either the moby wrap or ring sling. People don’t notice I’m nursing because they’re not used to people nursing while walking through the mall. ;)

Sometimes some moms will need to go nurse somewhere quiet, to deal with latch issues, distractable babies, or whatever… but there are ways of making it so that it is easy to nurse in public, and if we can make it easier for moms to nurse, I think we’ll see longer term breastfeeding.

I mean, it requires a larger amount of dedication to nurse if you feel like you have to go hide like a leper whenever you do it, right?

Stephanie February 18, 2010, 10:28 AM

I agree with you completely. Women need to encouraged to do what THEY feel comfortable doing, not what other people think they should be doing. Breastfeed or don’t. Do it at home or in public. Either or some of each SHOULD be fine. It’s a shame that there’s such militancy on every side of this issue.

Stephanie February 18, 2010, 10:29 AM

I agree with you completely. Women need to encouraged to do what THEY feel comfortable doing, not what other people think they should be doing. Breastfeed or don’t. Do it at home or in public. Either or some of each SHOULD be fine. It’s a shame that there’s such militancy on every side of this issue.

just sayin' February 18, 2010, 12:13 PM

Beautifuly said, B….you are right on the money.

@Artemnesia February 18, 2010, 1:56 PM

I’m very much in the breastfeeding/lactivism world and I don’t know anyone who criticizes mothers who prefer privacy when breastfeeding. The bottom line is that it’s up to the mother to decide how comfortable she is.

Athena February 18, 2010, 5:59 PM

I think most people who try to push nursing in public are really just trying to make it easier for breastfeeding moms to nurse in public if they want or need to. It’s not always easy to find a discreet place to nurse and you don’t want to make a hungry baby wait to eat just because you feel too ashamed to feed them in front of people! It happens, not just because people are embarrased to expose skin but because they feel like they are doing something wrong. I don’t think anybody really likes having to pay $100 for a coverup blanket which draws more attention to the mom and is no use once the baby gets old enough to push it away. I breastfeed proudly in public in hopes that people will see and know that it’s natural and normal. Of course sometimes I feel embarassed about exposing my stretch marks or flabby belly but I doubt people can see much anyway. I think that when public places provide nursing rooms that it is great, they are not only more private but more comfortable. But I also think that moms should be able to feel comfortable enough to nurse publiically when they need to, and I think it’s important for breastfeeding moms to do it as much as possible when they feel comfortable because it gets people used to seeing it so they will be less likely to be offended or make rude comments. And I’ve had a few.

egene February 18, 2010, 6:17 PM

What on earth could possibly be indecent about a mother breast feeding her child? Absolutely nothing unless you are in a religious fervor that wrongfully misinterprets its teachings to suggest breast feeding is immoral or indecent. Likewise you could be a member of some conservative group that thinks similarly, but either way you are misguided.

Pamala February 18, 2010, 9:58 PM

My friend impressed me the most with public breastfeeding. Apparently she impressed a bunch of us this day.

We were at the park. She had the baby in a sling and was chasing her then 2 year old around, helping her down slides, on the swings, etc.

Then she took the baby out of the sling and started to burp her. We asked, “Were you feeding her?” She said, “Yes” We were amazed. Not once did any of us think that the baby was feeding during that entire time.

That’s damn impressive to me. And I think that’s the best way to do it. It’s supposed to be a natural process, not a show.

Susan February 19, 2010, 2:46 PM

Sorry you have body image issues. You have every right to not want to NIP. That is your right. There are many ways to keep your belly, sides and back covered while nursing. I won’t bother telling you about them because you are not interested. Women should be supporting other women instead of helping to keep the divide and conquer system of instability in place to keep women from coming TOGETHER. I bet if it were illegal for you to feed your child in public you would be blogging about the oppressors that are trying to starve your baby.

apapachame February 19, 2010, 4:56 PM

I am not sure why you only mention the states, DC and the Virgin Islands, when Puerto Rico, a US territory, has possibly the strongest laws in the union regarding nursing in public (with criminal, civil, and monetary penalties for those who discriminate), but ALSO obligate all government and privately owned establishments to provide private nursing spaces on demand for any breastfeeding mother who requests it, that it be somewhere other than the bathroom and again will provide civil, criminal and monetary penalties for non compliance. So if I am at the DMV (as happened to me when my first child was two weeks old) and want a private space, all I have to do is ask, and I get a nice chair in a private room where nobody else has to gawk (my hangup at the time). Or if I am at the Walmart (as happened with my second child) walking around the store with a *PULLED DOWN VNECK TOP* and baby blatantly attached to the breast and the floor employee offers me a private space (this means they had it) but I say no thanks, we were all within our legal rights. I have been in both places and just don’t get who you are talking about forcing anyone to nurse in public. Totally the contrary. As a breastfeeding advocate, when a woman doesn’t feel comfortable breastfeeding in public, I let her know that it is her legal right and that she can let it all hang out if she likes, or ways that she can breastfeed in a more covered-up way (special tops, slings, bibs, etc), but I also let her know that if she still wants privacy, that the law is on her side, and totally support her. Perhaps the states, DC, and the Virgin Islands could benefit from more laws like ours, and then your imaginary scenario would be even more fictional.

Kim Lee February 20, 2010, 11:37 AM

Oh for heavens sake! Another thing for moms to fight and label each other over. Who is this mom who “makes” you feel inferior about being modest? She must be one powerful mother. Most moms actually do feel better with some modesty or privacy and that is great. Let’s stop fighting each other and help each other! Labeling this a “war” is irresponsible journalism. People have different standards of privacy. I see women and girls displaying their breasts all the time and not to feed their baby. Working out how to best feed your baby in public can be difficult but it is not a ” war”. Stop whining and take care of your child. Stop writing self indulgent divisive articles. Stand up for yourself but don’t attack other moms. Good Grief!

Kim Lee February 20, 2010, 11:44 AM

I just wanted to add that Athena is absolutely right and although you may have encountered someone whose different ideas made you uncomfortable, there is not a “war” going on. You made that up in order to write a sensational, attention seeking piece of op-ed.

Tiffany "Nurses in Public" Deering February 20, 2010, 11:49 AM

I agree with Apapachame. This scenario is at best fictional. I am friends with hundreds of lactivists, and not a single one has ever remotely suggested that women MUST breastfeed in public. While I whole-heartedly support the Indiscreet Breastfeeding Manifesto, I am all for personal choice and supporting mothers to nurse in whatever way is most comfortable for them, wherever they need to. By securing rights for the most extreme of us that have managed to overcome our body hang-ups (or become resourceful by using gizmos and gadgets to hide our belly fat), we are securing the rights of those that are the most discreet. It is never an issue of condescending to other parents, of forcing every mother to nurse in public and expose themselves. If you want to be discreet while you nurse, then please do so and I for one would never say anything to berate you for that choice. Encourage you, perhaps, belittle you, no. I am sorry, but if my ability to nurse in public makes you uncomfortable and feel these things you say, I can not help that, but I am pretty sure that the majority of “those women” don’t ever remotely come close to saying these things that you have accused them (us) of. We are the ones on the forefront, we are at the head of the battle line fighting for everyone else behind us with babies who have the right to eat in public. We are exposing ourselves, yes, and we are happy to do so, so that you’re rights will be won to nurse in public however you see fit.

dave October 14, 2010, 8:47 PM

good lookin out

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