Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Public breastfeeding

Recently a Calgary woman created a lot of press with a campaign intended to force the city of Calgary to clarify their stance on breastfeeding at and around public swimming pools.

I am not looking to discuss the swimming pool issue at this time, but, this issue brought into the limelight something which I consider a far bigger issue. Breastfeeding in public.

For various reasons (that could be a completely different blog entry), Spud was a formula fed baby. I fed him wherever we were. Unlike many formula fed babies, he was never on much of a schedule, so he was still demand fed. While I occasionally felt like I was judged for giving him formula, I never hesitated to pull out a bottle when that was what he needed.

When Sweetpea was born, I fought harder to breastfeed her, and after some challenges, was successful. If anything, Sweetpea has been fed whenever, wherever to an even larger extent. With Spud, I barely got out of the house for the first month. With Sweetpea, I had to get out for the sake of Spud, so she became well travelled from the very start.

Early on, I used a nursing cover to feed her under. I was more comfortable with it, and it helped me to get past the early stages of breastfeeding. Somewhere around the 3-4 month mark, I stopped using it. Like most babies, Sweetpea likes to look around and be aware of her world. The nursing cover became a bigger distraction as she would alternately try to play with it or get it off her head.

Now, at 7.5 months, the nursing cover is a distant memory. I require one hand to keep Sweetpea latched on, one hand to keep my breast in place for her and 1 (or 6) hands to keep Spud from running off, climbing inappropriate things, or taking other children's toys. If you've done the math, I'm already short a few hands, so using an extra hand to keep a blanket over the head of a baby that doesn't want it there just isn't going to happen.

Now to the main point of my post. I thought that public breastfeeding had gained general acceptance. I'm not naive enough to think it doesn't bother anyone, but I thought that it had reached the point where those people would simply turn their heads, and carry on.

Apparently not.

There are nearly hundreds of comments following these stories.

Aside from the comments specifically about the pool, the comments following are largely vilifying public breastfeeding. If they are in support of it, the writer is often very clear that it is only acceptable when covered up.

Comments like this:

"Do it in the changeroom or lobby covered up"
"I'm a woman and think breastfeeding is appropriate in your own home on your own terms or anywhere in public UNDER A SHEET!"
"We don't need to see breastfeeding in public thank you very much. For the sake of the public, yourself, and your baby, practice a little discretion."

One person even claims that babies prefer blankets over their heads:

"Infants like quiet and a blanket over their face when feeding."

Not any baby that I've met.

Another common theme is even more offensive. Many people seem to think breastmilk fits into the same category as urine, feces, and snot.

"urinating is just as normal as breastfeeding, but you don't see people sitting down on a mall bench to do it."
"Proponents of the breast feeding in public brigade always defend themselves by claiming it is 'a natural function'. Well, so is defecating, but I wouldn't do that in public either."

Last I checked, breastmilk was a food, not a waste product.

There is another theme that shows just how little some people know about the actual process of breastfeeding:

"I am actually disgusted by women who feel it is ok to "whip it out" at any location."
"don't expect me to have to see your breasts flapping in the wind and not say something to you."

I don't usually present a moving target when I am try to feed my daughter...

On a more serious note though, when a baby is breastfeeding, there is actually very little to see. Far less then there is to see in a bikini or even many low cut tops. In fact, I have been in public places and been halfway through a conversation before somebody notices that I am feeding my baby at the same time.

It is largely accepted that breast milk is the ideal food for a baby. It is also natural and has been the way to feed babies for centuries.

So why lack of acceptance of public breastfeeding?

In the past years, it has been largely publicized that "breast is best". Companies that try to stop mothers from breastfeeding find themselves the target of "nurse ins", where dozens or hundreds of mothers come together and breastfeed on the premises of said company.

This brings attention to the issue, but I wonder if it has actually succeeded in bringing understanding. I wonder how many people are offended by the "idea" of a woman breastfeeding in their presence but have never actually dealt with the "reality".

I also wonder what needs to happen to change the public attitude?


Lady Rose said...

I'm not sure I quite understand what people's issue with public breastfeeding is.

I will admit that I'm not jazzed about the idea of pool breastfeeding but that's mostly because babies seem to spit up frequently after eating and I wouldn't be into encountering baby spit up in the pool. I wouldn't be jazzed about encountering adult spit up in the pool for that matter.

But breastfeeding in a restaurant or other public place, I just don't get it. I've seen adults with worse manners than a breastfeeding baby.

Perhaps next we can suggest that really ugly people shouldn't be allowed to leave the house. It might be natural but who wants to look at the Elephant Man while noshing on roast beef sandwich.

Anonymous said...

i do support breast feeding though i had to bottle feed my first :( but i think the pool is the wrong place as the baby might choke on the water

woolthing said...

Very good writing.

I think that this a complex subject but there are at least two factors that I think are involved. The first is that in this high tech industrialized world we forget that we are still animals. We want to deny that part of us and we get uncomfortable when we are reminded of it. A mother feeding her child is so very basic. Every animal does it.

The second thing is that we want women to be sexual beings. The breast being the most sexualized part of a woman's body in our culture. There isn't any thing sexy about a nursing breast. It reminds us that we're more than what the advertisers want us to be.

So, I say just keep knocking on people's perceptions. If it makes someone uncomfortable it's because it's tapping on that tight little box that they are sitting in.

Stinx' Mom said...

Excellent post Deb!

I definitely feel like I will be less shy nursing my next baby. I've always been pretty comfortable nursing Stinx in front of other mothers but always felt self concious around men. I definitely plan to nurse the next baby anywhere and at anytime, with or without a cover. I think it took me some time to grow comfortable in our breastfeeding relationship. I guess I really lacked confidence.

Alisha said...

I enjoyed reading your post. I have to agree with almost every comment. People just seem to have these preconceived notions about nursing, and how it happens..I am not sure if the posters actually have a problem with NIP or just trying to get a rise out of others, as the poll suggested that many agree with public nursing, if done with consideration in mind.

Richard said...

Interesting debate, it gave Gin and I a lot to talk about this morning. I also wonder what needs to happen to change public attitudes. My guess is that people's attitudes are changing, and that this whole controversy demonstrates that. Reading the comments on the news articles, it seems that in general people believe that breastfeeding is better for babies than formula. That's good. The question is then, where should women breastfeed? I believe that women should breastfeed wherever and however (blanket or uncovered) they want.

Nonetheless, I admit that when I see a woman breastfeeding, I feel a little uncomfortable. I want to watch: babies are fun to look at, and there is something comforting and primal is seeing the mother/baby intimacy. But I don't want to make the mother feel like I'm a slimy voyeur. I think my discomfort is the tension between two basic human drives: sex and reproduction. Usually breasts are sexualised, and I think of them in that way, but when I see a mother breastfeeding, I'm forced to think of breasts in their other function: creating food for babies. So, if I watch a mother breastfeeding, things are fine as long as I think about her breasts as feeding her baby, but if I remember that those same breasts are sometimes (marginally) clothed in a bikini, I feel creepy.