Tuesday, January 5, 2010

the politics of breastfeeding in public

Breastfeeding is normal, biologically and physiologically speaking, while bottle feeding, on the other hand, is not. However, in our society, breastfeeding is not necessarily considered the cultural norm. As such, breastfeeding in public is a very political topic, with surprisingly heated arguments coming from both sides. I am always surprised about this, surprised at how sexualized breasts have become, and how uncomfortable some people can be when they see a baby breastfeeding in public. Having nursed two children for a total of nearly six and a half years and counting in nearly any and every location imaginable, it makes my head spin to think about how backwards we are here in the United States. The fact that people are uncomfortable seeing a child at the breast stems from cultural perceptions and previous practices.

Before I continue, I want to point out that, despite some people feeling uncomfortable seeing an infant at the breast, most states have jurisdiction protecting breastfeeding in public. In the state of Ohio, it is illegal to ask a nursing mother to stop nursing, move to a different location, or to even cover up (1). To do so may result in a civil lawsuit and charges of harassment.

For several generations now in the US, breastfeeding was not seen much outside of the home. As a result of this absence, breasts are perceived only as sexual tools, and breastfeeding is seen as a private act. Perhaps one way to look at this situation is to consider that, at one time, it was acceptable to exclude women and racial minorities from certain places and jobs. Now, though, as a society, we have decided this exclusion is wrong, unfair, and unconstitutional. But it often remains that, despite the societal shift, seeing others in these positions is still not what they consider to be 'normal' and can make these people very uncomfortable. The more often women chose to breastfeed outside the home, the more quickly it will again be considered an accepted and 'normal' practice by society.

Many women walk around in clothing that reveals far more skin and cleavage than a what is revealed by a breastfeeding mother. Breasts are everywhere. Provocative images of cleavage and breasts are plastered billboards, television shows, movie previews, fashion ads, beaches, bookstores, cereal boxes, animated children's shows, and the six o'clock news. These images are all considered acceptable. Most people do not feel uncomfortable when they see breasts. Some people are, however, uncomfortable when they see a baby nursing. Perhaps this discomfort is because the breasts are being used in a non-sexual way. Our society LOVES breasts, it seems--everywhere, at least, except in a baby's mouth--which is ironic, as the purpose and function of breasts is to nourish our young.

To say a woman should be 'discreet' and cover herself when she breastfeeds, well, I say if you have ever nursed a babe, then you know how illogical that mentality is. When nursing a young baby, positioning is often a challenge, and raising, lowering, and removing layers of clothing helps a mother observe her nursing infant and provide the most attentive care possible. And when nursing a baby older than eight to ten weeks, any covering will doubtless be pulled down, up or away by the impatient hands of the curious baby. Most importantly, it is not only unsafe to cover a baby's head with a blanket or towel, it can endanger the life of the baby. Many, many medical associations around the world have official statements advising against using any cover over a baby's head as it greatly increases the chances of heat stroke, suffocation and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

One thing that angers me more than just about anything else is when someone compares breastfeeding with deification. That is a disgusting statement. The only thing breastfeeding can be compared to is other methods of feeding a baby. Breastfeeding is not public sex or masturbation or passing gas or voiding in public. It is not a peep show or a political statement or a way to flip the proverbial bird to anyone who happens to see it. All it is is a way to feed a baby. If a baby bottle-feeding in that particular circumstance is not an issue--and there are very few places where it would be--then breastfeeding should not be an issue either. Because at the end of the day, that is really all it is about--feeding a baby.

When observing a mother and child breastfeeding in public, we must consider whose rights are most important in this situation. Is it the person who walks by and insists upon looking, gives in to being offended, and then voices that offense? No. Is it the nursing mother who has chosen to nourish her child in the healthiest, most natural way possible? Again, I would be inclined to say no. Even though a woman has the legal right to breastfeed whenever, wherever, we must not think about it as a woman's right to breastfeed. We must rather think of it as a baby's right to eat.

If someone is uncomfortable seeing a woman breastfeed, then by all means, they should not look. Perhaps they should even throw a blanket over their own heads. But an individual's personal kinks and sexual proclivities should not dictate how women feed their children. It is chauvinistic and patriarchal.

There are several public service announcements from around the world that highlight the importance and acceptance of breastfeeding.

From Canada, Sudbury District Health Unit--Breastfeeding Commercial:

From UNICEF, Importance of Breastfeeding Public Service Announcement:

From Puerto Rico, Dar la Teta es Dar la Vida (To Give the Breast is to Give Life), one of the most beautiful and heartfelt videos I have ever seen:

From Australia, Australian Breastfeeding Association advertisement:

Another from Australia, Australian Breastfeeding Association advertisement:

From Spain:

From Bulgaria:

From the United States:

Another from the United States:


(1) A Current Summary of Breastfeeding Legislation in the US: Ohio, http://www.llli.org/Law/Bills31b.html

Comic: Parenting by Jim Borgman


  1. Fabulous post! I am surprised more people aren't commenting on your blog. You have great resources and commentary. Thanks for helping to spread the word.