A child’s life is made up of moments. Children learn by observing and interacting with their world, and every moment adds up to form the basis for the values, beliefs, habits, and memories which will carry them into adulthood. This seems obvious, but what does it have to do with breastfeeding?
Well, what happens if children never witnesses breastfeeding? What if they spend their entire childhood seeing only bottle feeding, both in the media and among the people they interact with? What if a young girl or boy grows up surrounded by sexualized images of breasts but never, or only rarely, witnesses the normal, natural act of breastfeeding a baby? There are some fortunate children who witness their mother breastfeeding a younger sibling, but one look at the breastfeeding rates in the US today will tell you that they are likely not seeing the nursing relationship last for very long.
I am fortunate. My own experience with nursing in public has been wonderful, despite having never seen a woman breastfeed up close and in person until pregnant and attending an LLL meeting. My husband is supportive, I don’t work outside the home, and I have never been directly criticized or asked to cover up. My son is almost 18 months and still nurses quite frequently – some days more than when he was an infant! I nurse him in public anywhere and everywhere he wants to. I’ve noticed that as he’s growing older and finding his independence, he needs to come back to me when overwhelmed with his environment, to calm and center himself by nursing. This means that some days he tends to nurse in public more than he does at home. I can’t imagine what life would be like if I was uncomfortable with nursing in public. We have nursed at a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, birthday parties, on airplanes, trains, buses, subways, parks, playgrounds, museums, cafes, restaurants, even on amusement park rides. Everywhere I go, he goes, and so nursing goes.
Recently, we traveled to Scandinavia. In the three weeks we spent in Sweden and Denmark, I observed three women nursing babies, uncovered, at the table at restaurants, and many others nursing at parks and playgrounds. In my entire life living in the US, I can recall seeing only one woman nursing at a restaurant, and very few in other public places aside from breastfeeding gatherings and LLL meetings. The cultural contrast between Scandinavia and the US was incredible to take in, particularly in how I observed children reacting to the sight of breastfeeding. In Scandinavia, I never once saw a child or a child’s parents react with alarm, disgust, shame, or even slight concern when they witnessed myself or other women breastfeeding in public. On a train in Denmark, a group of 15+ teenage boys boarded while I was nursing my son. One sat right next to me and offered a kind smile. Another boy noticed and looked for a second but didn’t behave awkwardly at all. The rest likely glanced my way at some point (they were only a few feet away from me), but none acted like it was a big deal – probably because in Denmark, as well as in Sweden, breastfeeding rates are much better than in the US, and the sexualization of breasts is much less profound.
In contrast, here in the Northeast US, I have had several experiences with nursing around groups of pre-teen and teenage boys. What has happened every time was this: one boy noticed, and immediately a storm of whispers, giggles, double-takes, stares and/or shyly averted eyes commenced. “Her boob is out! Pass it on!” While somewhat amusing, it’s terribly sad. The reason these boys are so giddy and awkward around the sight of my nursing breast is likely because women’s breasts are viewed as almost strictly sexual in the United States. Nipples are powerful enough to trigger massive media uproar and federal investigation when exposed in a “family setting.” Yet we flaunt breasts during primetime television broadcasts. Breasts sell products and ideas, and are widely fetishized. I take no issue with breasts being sexual, but they also need to be seen as nurturing. I believe the view of breasts as solely sexual is one of the primary reasons that so many people seem to think breastfeeding should be done in private, and are against nursing in public, especially uncovered. Breasts are too powerful and too sexualized for many people – that view can trigger a sort of cognitive dissonance when witnessing a sex object being used by a child for nurturance and sustenance. When breasts are seen only in a sexual way, it’s no surprise that it could be confusing and disturbing to see a baby’s (or worse: a young child’s) head in the way of an observer’s mental sexual objectification. It’s time that our society re-conceptualizes breasts as both sexual and nurturing, and stops shaming women for using their breasts in either manner.
I believe that nursing in public is one of the best things a breastfeeding mother can do for society as a whole – not just to give her own child a healthy start, but to give other people’s children the opportunity to see mothering and nurturance at the breast as normal, healthy, and enjoyable. Nursing in public helps re-normalize breastfeeding as the biologically optimal means of feeding a baby, and of comforting and nurturing a toddler or young child who no longer needs breastmilk for nutrition. It is appalling to hear news stories or personal anecdotes about breastfeeding mothers being asked to cover up when they nurse around children not their own. The only real reason people ask a woman to hide breastfeeding when she’s around children is if the person doing the asking views breasts as sexual or the act of breastfeeding as too intimate for public view. Yet, breastfeeding is not at all sexual. Why do some people see breastfeeding in that light? Perhaps because they haven’t seen enoughbreastfeeding to internalize how normal and natural it is. To convey to children that they should not be witnessing breastfeeding makes it a taboo, a secret, something dirty or shameful that must be done in private – like using the bathroom or engaging in sexual activity, both of which are sometimes ignorantly equated with breastfeeding. Children who receive that message enough may grow up to be adults who don’t want to breastfeed, who have to overcome psychological hang-ups in order to breastfeed, who shame or scold women who do breastfeed, or who discourage friends and family members from breastfeeding. Those attitudes harm children and women and society as a whole.
One of the easiest ways to reach children is on an individual level, by simply being visible to them and engaging them, answering their questions if so presented. A young girl who saw me nursing my son when he was an infant looked on in pure astonishment and asked me “what are you doing to him?!” as though I was hurting my baby. I simply smiled and told her I was breastfeeding him, that this was how he ate. It seemed as though she had never before seen a woman nursing a baby prior to observing me. I hope that her interaction with me provided her with a positive memory, and hopefully a question or five to ask her parents. Imagine if she saw another woman nursing in public the next week and every week after that. Eventually, it would cease to be a source of astonishment for that little girl and would become just a simple fact of mothering.
To change our culture’s perception of nursing in public and improve social support of breastfeeding as a whole, we need to start with children. We need to make nursing in public so boring, so quotidian, that it garners no more of a glance or second thought than seeing someone drinking a coffee or hugging a friend in public. We need to allow and encourage children of all ages to regularly and repeatedly witness the beautiful and natural act of breastfeeding, so they will grow up thinking nothing much of it, simply expecting it to be a part of their own parenting lives.
“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” – Albert Einstein