Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Guest post: Major breastfeeding (advocacy) fail!

Heading to Target to do some shopping, I waddled my way (at 7 months pregnant) onto the Metro and found an aisle seat. Sitting behind me, I noticed a couple of very fashionably dressed high school students. Sitting several seats in front of me, a corner of boisterous 1-4 year olds of various ethnicities darted between their mothers/nannies legs to peer questioningly at each other and then dart back to the safety of their own corners. I watched, enthralled by the happenings of these cute little humans exploring the train; a particularly cute Latino little girl wanted to sit on the floor and her mother quickly let her know that she couldn’t. She started getting upset and I quickly averted my eyes and opened my new novel. I feel that when parents have to admonish their children, it’s their business what they do and they don’t need an audience.

Several pages into the book chapter, I hear one of the teenagers behind me say, “That is soo nasty! I can’t believe she’s doing that.” I turned, saw two women in their 60s shaking their heads in disbelief. I raise my eyebrows unknowingly and turn back to the toddlers. The Latino little girl’s mother had started nursing her sans cover to distract and comfort her. My Metro stop came before I had a chance to say anything to the teenagers or to the women.

I smiled at the nursing mother and waddled away. But inside I felt like a major failure!!! Uggghhh. I should have said something witty! I should have said “breastfeeding is more natural than formula” or “what’s nasty about feeding a fussy child?” or “seriously ladies, I’m less offended by her nursing her child than folks feeding theirs salty chips and sugary soda everyday”. But no! I had to waddle off of the train. I was ashamed. Did my unknowing smile make the women think I was agreeing with them?!? I sure hope not!!! I am one breastfeeding-mama-to-be. Forget the old women who may have been set in their ways, but what if those teenagers had never considered the benefits of breast feeding? Again, I felt like a failure.

Becoming a vocal Breastfeeding Advocate (self proclaimed title) in the last few years has been somewhat of a journey. I did not know many mothers who breastfed their babies when I was growing up. My own mother only briefly breastfed my brother and myself secondary to discomfort and lack of resources and support. More recently, when one of my good friends whipped out her breast to feed her son during dinner day several years ago I was a bit taken aback. For me, it took time to realize that breastfeeding was perfectly normal and that I had to get over my hang ups of “modesty” and “privacy”.

The issue has become all the more important now that my husband and I are welcoming our own little baby into the world. Personally, having a supportive husband who doesn’t see the need for formula, several busy friends, sorority sisters, and a mentor who successfully breastfed from 8 months to the 1-year plus mark also helps.  Although I plan to use a cover to be a bit more discrete, I applaud the mama on the Metro who appropriately responded to her little girl in the most nourishing way she could! Next time I hear someone say something disparaging I’ll be ready, no more breastfeeding advocacy failures for me!

Mommabee is an upperclass Medical Student at a mid-Atlantic medical school who is interested in community-based Pediatrics and has a background in public health. She and her husband are pregnant with their first Baby Bee.


  1. although i love that women are breastfeeding more now, i do think there should be some propriety involved. just because it's natural doesn't mean it needs to be done without cover. we don't have sex on the street because it's not something that needs to be shared with everyone. we all agree it's natural and can be beautiful, but we still respect the privacy of the situation.

    i believe that breastfeeding is so important because it's a private moment that is shared with the mother and baby; a bonding experience that isn't necessarily something that needs to be shared with the world. your friend whipping out a breast at dinner, in my opinion, is completely inappropriate and you really shouldn't get rid of your "hang-ups" because they have to do with your natural and good sense of propriety.

    again, i believe that women should absolutely breastfeed for as long as they are able, but i also believe that covering it up a little bit in public is the only socially responsible thing to do. that way, not only are they showing people that breastfeeding should be seen as normal (because it is) but also that they have a respect for what it means and the private bond it creates between mom and baby.

  2. Don't beat yourself up about it. What could you have said, really? Teenagers are teenagers, and old ladies aren't going to change because you reprimand them. It sounds like the woman was doing just fine regardless. Nobody likes to be reprimanded when they're not doing anything wrong, but it's just part of being an adult, and especially part of being a woman.

  3. @M3:

    It bothers me that some people think it's necessary for a mom to cover up as she feeds her child. I would have LOVED to been able to use my nursing cover, but my very active baby would literally try to tear it off from covering his head when I nursed him. Babies have an inherent right to be fed and comforted anytime, anywhere, and this is balanced by the public's non-existent right to not have to look at things they don't want to see. I've nursed in public many times, both covered and uncovered, and I would say that 95% of the time, no one even noticed what I was doing. If someone's nursing in public and they are not covered up, I think looking away solves the problem.

    I don't think comparing sex to breastfeeding is a useful analogy. I see breastfeeding as feeding your child, and sex is, well, . . . not that. Sure, both include "private bonds," but breastfeeding is far more than simply bonding with your child. We wouldn't bat an eye at someone bottle-feeding in public, and when a baby is nursing, it should be viewed precisely the same way.

  4. Comparing breastfeeding to sex is ignorant and hurtful. I am NOT sexual with my child when I'm feeding him. I'm feeding him. Breasts are sexual, but you know what so is a mouth. Should we all cover our mouthes when we eat a salad? If someone is turned on by me feeding my baby they have incredibly unhealthy sexual boundaries and need to get some counseling.

    I do not cover when I nurse. I show almost NOTHING. I wear nursing tops in public that allow me to open my shirt to the point where my nipple only is exposed and my son latches on right away then I put my nipple away when he is done.

    Also consider that in the summer it is over 100 degrees in many parts of the country. Covering a baby could result in overheating as well as rebreathing of air, both of which increase SIDS risks.

  5. Amen to the above 3 comments - the first post of M3 is the perfect example of why there are obstacles for breastfeeding moms. We've become more supportive of breastfeeding as a society but still not ACCEPTING!!

    It's not supportive to say, "yes I believe in breastfeeding but it is a private thing." Try breastfeeding past 3 months and you will see that it is not - your child is distracted and active. Good luck keeping covered up - it can often be more obvious what you are doing b/c the child is so squirmy and fighting that cover up!

    To the original post - don't beat yourself up - I can never think of the clever thing to say at the time and the times that I find most helpful in discussing it with teenagers is one on one at their well visits.

  6. I remember BFing once in my own home and my uncle (a close family member) raced out of the room because he felt uncomfortable. The whole thing made ME feel uncomfortable and made me feel like I was doing something wrong by whipping it out in my own home. It's a shame that we can sometimes feel that way about something so natural.

    I understand what M3 is saying, but I think most nursing moms DO try to be discreet in public. Usually when I see a nursing mom, I see very little boob. Most of us are pretty good at not flashing too much, even without a cover.

    I really wish it were more acceptable to nurse anywhere, but I don't know if yelling at random people on the bus is the solution. Especially with teenagers, it would probably just make them angry and resentful.

  7. This is probably the one NOT "disgusting" thing these teenagers have ever seen done with a breast. Packing breasts (partially) into a Forever 21 top ... not my favorite thing to see on a train or anywhere else. Breastfeeding, on the other hand, is cool, healthy and an effective means of taking care of babies - not to mention what breasts ARE FOR!

    I think ignoring these kinds of comments is just fine as opposed to feeling the need to give a witty reprimand anyway. Humankind has survived to this point thanks to breastfeeding. A few ignorant stares or comments aren't going to derail a mother's instinct to feed and nurture her child.

  8. I'm a premed, expecting my first child in two months and will be exclusively breastfeeding. Here are two breastfeeding related comics found through my Bradley Method class instructor.

  9. Using a cover is simply respecting those around you. The people on transit had every right to be upset, they did not want to see another woman's breasts even if used for something as wonderful as breastfeeding. Life is about respecting each other. If the breastfeeding woman didn't have enough respect to cover up, how could you expect the other people on transit to respect her?


  10. Laura,

    (Assuming this is not a troll comment, which it kind of sounds like. . . .) It is not disrespectful to breastfeed in front of others. As suggested above, you need to simply look away. Why are you staring at someone's breasts and how are you seeing that much if you are? A well-latched baby covers up most of the breast. Have you ever breastfed a baby with a cover on? I have tried many times, mostly unsuccessfully, because babies seem to love to squirm and pull the them off. You should share your tips about how to use a cover and not have it pulled off by your baby because I have met so few moms that were able to use them without this problem.

  11. I am a physician mom who happens to be in charge of the first year medical school curriculum at our school. This year, we introduced a "infant feeding symposium" and had a wonderful group of volunteer moms (12 - including 2 physicians) who came with with their children - ages 6 weeks to 3.5 years, to talk about infant feeding (ranging from breastfeeding, to exclusive pumping, to formula; up to and including introducing solids). At the end, we had time for all the moms to nurse and have the med students talk to them and observe them in small groups. I was HORRIFIED to find that at least 1 male student would not go to speak to any of the nursing moms, because it "wasn't appropriate". Unfortunately, I didn't hear about it until afterwards, (so I couldn't address it) but if we can't even have male medical students talk to moms while they are breastfeeding, how can we expect others (outside of medicine) to know any better?

    I nursed with and without covers - but mostly the covers were there to help the boy focus on the task at hand! : ) When he "fired" the cover after a few weeks, I still nursed when he needed to be fed, and I make no apologies to anyone for that. (Even my dad got over his hang-ups...)

    To the initial poster - it's much easier for me to address these issues in my position of "power" (ha!). I might also have a hard time on the bus... you'll get there!

  12. I do not see how others requesting to use a cover is inappropriate. Yes there are various nursing tops or other sorts of things that can be used to. Face it in our society breasts are not shown constantly, so yes some people would prefer that you keep them covered. Including myself who yes used a cover when feeding or pumping. I'm sorry people but I don't want to see your boobs.

  13. Anne Montgomery, MDJune 22, 2011 at 9:20 PM

    Major "Breastfeeding advocate" who met my child's needs whenever and wherever. I usually wore clothes that allowed me to be discreet but also didn't worry about people seeing me nursing.

    Good for you for smiling at the mom. We all need reinforcement. I doubt it would have helped much to say anything to the others. What you might do in the future is address the mother and say something like "i am glad to see you feeding your baby here. It is so important to meet our baby's needs. Isn't Breastfeeding amazing". Or something like that. Then maybe, the others will think about their reactions.

  14. nursing my 16 month old as I read this post! I just love it that your baby isn't even born yet and you're already such an advocate! I was not too accepting of breastfeeding until my son was born, then those maternal hormones and his sweet face compelled me to embrace it and we're still going strong today.
    coming from someone whose mother and sister in law wanted to watch me bf bc it was just so foreign to them (uggghhh) I know the average person needs a good dose of education and familiarization. it is not at all the same as having sex in public, as pp suggested. however, when I bf in a public place other than a car (I've learned how to bf ds while he and I stay belted in!) I have used a cover. when he got old enough to pull it off, we just go to a more private area. not bc I dont think it is appropriate, but bc I know the lack of awareness the average person has and I know they're going to stare. sad, but true.
    all of that to say, way to go to the bfing mama and to mommabee!

  15. I believe in breastfeeding prety much anywhere at anytime. I nursed both of my babies that way, and to heck with people who didn't like it! You can't please everyone all the time, and if I'm going to cause someone discomfort I'd way rather it be the mild social disquietude of an adult stranger than hunger or other distress of an infant. Not to mention that hearing any baby cry is about 8 million times more uncomfortable than watching them nurse...

  16. I agree that breastfeeding in public shouldn't make people uncomfortable-- but also that you can be discreet. I even managed to breast feed on ESPN (while at a basketball game-- our seats were behind where the opposing coach stood) without anyone around me realizing I was doing it. The cover was always a challenge-- my baby got too hot and pulled it off, but I still managed to be discreet. My sister-in-law thought it should be a private bonding moment as well, but I was feeding 60 minutes out of 90 (except at night) for the first 2 months, and I didn't want to become a hermit. Plus, I'm not a very private bonding-y person and what worked for me was interacting to take my mind off the cow-ness of it all.

    What particularly struck me about this post, though, that no one has commented on, is that it isn't at all clear the child was hungry. I'm not a huge fan of whipping out the breast every time your child needs consolation. But on the other hand, I'm not a big fan of people who criticize my child rearing habits either.

  17. What's important is that you are aware of the different sides of the issue--you can empathize with the mom and baby and understand the ignorance of the teens, etc. This is how you'll be able to advocate going forward. The teens, like you at dinner with your friend, like me before I had a baby, are not accustomed to seeing nursing in real life, if at all. The mom just needs affirmation, and you will definitely be able to give that.

    I wouldn't call it a failure so much as a learning experience.

    It's wonderful that you are already planning on nursing. As an MD I hope you'll think about how you can help your patients to nurse.

    My first daughter was born with a cleft palate, and I pumped for her for a year. There was very little medical support or interest in that from her docs or mine, and it would have been helpful, frankly.

    Congratulations on your baby and I hope you'll keep writing!

  18. I'm a 36 yo mother of 2, heme/onc attending, currently breastfeeding. It doesn't really bother me that you didn't stand up to the teens. It would have been great if you would have said something, but it probably wouldn't have made a difference anyway.

    However, I'm firmly on the side of "no cover required". Squirmy 4+ month olds do not put up with being under cover. And frankly, I don't want to bother with it, either. Most of my bare skin is covered by the combination of my clothing and the baby himself. Certainly no one sees nipple or areola unless they are staring.

    I've recently had the experience of two people asking me about my Medela backpack pump. A male fellow saw it on my desk and innocently asked me "what's that?" A woman randomly commented, "ooh, neat backpack") When I casually told each, "Oh, it's my breast pump" both appeared very uncomfortable! It doesn't make me uncomfortable at all so it always surprises me when people act that way.

  19. I agree with M3 and hh that discretion is important when possible. Respect IS part of the issue. People have different degrees of comfort with regards to certain body parts being "out there," even with nursing. Part of this may be due to ignorance as suggested previously, or it may be due to culture, upbringing, religion, or other personal issues. I'm not saying ignore your hungry baby... I'm just saying when it's possible, please be mindful of others. thanks.

  20. personally i didn't use a cover when i had my first child and when i am lucky enough to get pregnant again i won't use a cover, my son was born in june. it was around 100 degrees that summer and most places it was almost uncomfortably warm inside, i didn't feel the need to cover my child while he ate making him uncomfortable just so other people would feel better about my modesty. if you don't want to see a woman nursing look away.

  21. I agree M3!

    I agree completely that it is a respect issue. It's definitely NOT okay to make a woman breast feeding in public feel uncomfortable, and it isn't okay for her to do the same to the people around her. I agree a cover is best, even if the mom holds it open a bit at the top so it's not on the infant's face and so fresh air can flow in.

    To the OP, I don't understand how you stuffed your face in your novel quickly because, "when parents have to admonish their children, it’s their business what they do and they don’t need an audience" yet you find it perfectly ok to get in the business of other strangers on the train. You would have said something to them about their views on breast feeding publicly and with an audience at that. Don't mean to be rude, but what I get from your post is that something is only "their business" if you agree with it.


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