Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why do I...

...nurse in public? Why don't I avoid nursing my children in public by waiting until I am in a private place, or by trying to schedule nursings so they don't happen when I am away from home? Or why can't I just use a bottle while out?

This has been a much-debated subject. I am not sure why it evokes such controversial debates among people... I can think of much more controversial subjects myself! The arguments typically go like this: One person speaks about the right to nurse in public, and the other starts talking about women "whipping it out" to feed their children. Then we get into the "I don't want my kids to see that!"and the "why can't you just go into another room/the bathroom/your car/somewhere isolated?" Then it gets really ugly when people begin comparing nursing to other bodily functions such as urinating.

So... I nurse my babies in public because that is how I feed them, comfort them, and mother them. I do in public the same as I do in private (although I tend to be less discrete when in the privacy of my home). Nursing is how I feed my babies. If I happen to be grocery shopping or dining out or at a park where my older child is playing when the baby gets hungry, then I nurse. Babies get hungry fairly often... and breastmilk is designed to digest quickly, so a breastfed baby may get hungry every two hours whereas infant formula is designed to fill a baby up for longer - it is made of cow's milk, which contains different proteins that are not as rapidly digested. So, especially with babies who are not eating much solid food (ie, babies under a year old in many cases), they will often need to nurse if mom has more than one or two errands to run or needs to be out for a few hours or more.

Mothers who bottle-feed their children in public are never questioned about this... nor are mothers who give their babies pacifiers in public in order to comfort them. Breastfeeding mothers are actually protected by law in most states so they will not be able to be charged with indecent exposure for breastfeeding. Frankly, I think that is sad that we have to have laws to protect a mother's right to feed her baby in a restaurant! Bottle-fed babies don't need such a law... nor do people who are fed through feeding tubes. It is recognized that they must eat, and so it is obvious that it must be legal for them to eat in "alternative" ways - by this I mean rather thn eating solid foods with a fork and spoon. But a breastfeeding baby is seen as different - why? Because breasts are seen as purely sexual body parts. Their functional main purpose is overlooked and all some people can see is, "Oh my goodness, I see some skin!!"

Most mothers who nurse in public are so discreet that you'd not even notice them unless you knew what to look for. A lifted shirt covers the top of the breast, the baby's head covers most of the rest of the breast, and the baby's body covers the rest. I have had people come up and say, "Oh, how sweet, she's sleeping!" when my baby was actually breastfeeding - and they didn't even notice I was nursing, or they only noticed once they leaned over closely and were two feet away from my baby's head. Often these people will say, "Oh, I didn't even know you were nursing her!!" They will sometimes apologize, thinking they have invaded my personal space - it doesn't bother me, though, because all they saw was a sliver of skin. Contrary to some belief (media-induced in many cases), one does not see nipples when women breastfeed in public... unless one happens to be looking very, very closely or happens to glance over at a mom who is having a brief fumbling moment, perhaps with a new baby and she is still learning the ins and outs of nursing.

So, the baby is just eating. Therefore, this should be allowed in all places a bottle-fed baby is permitted to eat. This should especially be permitted in a restaurant, where everyone is eating! This tends to be a place where women are often confronted with complaints about their babies nursing. I find this very strange, especially when it is suggested that they go to the bathroom to nurse... who would want to eat in a stinky bathroom? Who would think it's a good idea to bottle-feed a baby while sitting on a public restroom toilet? So then why should a breastfed baby have to eat in that way?

So, here's where we get into the part about bodily functions... often people who oppose nursing in public (NIP) will say something along the lines of, "Sure, it is the natural way to feed a baby, but there are lots of natural things that we don't do in public. I wouldn't urinate or defecate or have sex in public!" To compare breastfeeding to any of these things shows some ignorance on the subject. First off, on the bathroom functions - the reason those are done in private is because of sanitation. It would be unsanitary to urinate or defecate in the middle of a shopping mall, would it not be?? It would also smell awful! Breastfeeding a baby does not smell bad (although formula-feeding one does!), nor does it present a health issue... it is perfectly sanitary to nurse a baby in public as no milk comes in contact with other people... it is directly transferred to the baby's mouth! Even if some breastmilk were to spill somehow (perhaps likely if expressed and in a bottle but much more unlikely for it to spill onto the floor out of the breast!), it is not along the sames lines as urine or feces... it is not unsanitary. It doesn't carry diseases like blood could, it is not unclean like it would be if somebody defecated on the floor... human milk has actually been used to kill cancer cells! It has many, many properties, but being unsanitary is certainly not one of them!

So, what about the people whose sensibilities are offended by the possibility of seeing a little bit of cleavage or something while a mother nurses her baby in public? Or people who "don't want their children to see that"? Well, what if I don't want my kids to see bottle feeding? Or public displys of affection? Or people cussing at their children in Wal-Mart? Or people smacking their kids in the grocery store? Or people whose underwear is showing because their pants are down almost to their knees? Or girls whose shirts reveal a lot of cleavage (for no purpose other than to show it, I might add, and not to perform some function such as nourishing a baby)? My point is, people do lots of things in public, and maybe some of them are things we'd rather not see. I would rather my children don't see parents cussing at their children in Wal-Mart (And so I avoid taking my children to Wal-Mart!), but it is not something within my control. If people who are uncomfortable with nursing in public (because they have been taught indirectly to view breasts as merely sexual and therefore inappropriate to show at all in public - or even to use in public, as the case may be, since they are rarely showing while a mother nurses; it's just the knowledge that they are uncovered and being used nearby!) could understand that a mother is just innocently feeding and comforting her baby, and she is not intending to be gawked at or make a scene, then perhaps this would not be an issue. It would also not be an issue if breastfeeding were more common in general in this country. If people grew up around breastfeeding, with it just being a normal part of life that is seen regularly, then they would expect it rather than be shocked by it.

So another reason I NIP - rather than trying to go hide in another room - is because I want it to become seen as the norm. I want people to see breastfeeding more often so it doesn't seem so foreign to them when they have their own children! I have seen two people ever nursing in public in my town since I became a mother... only two. I cannot count how many babies I have seen how were given bottles in public, because that number would literally be in the thousands. So people think bottle-feeding is normal, and the proper way to feed a baby, because that is what they see so often. Believe it or not, this can be part of what influences them to breastfeed their own babies or not.

This also causes people to be much less understanding of a breastfeeding mother - why she can't just leave her baby at home, why she can't just bring a bottle either of expressed breastmilk or formula for when she is out, why she can't just make the baby wait a bit or go to a secluded spot... I will try to cover these one by one below:

Why can't a mom just leave her baby at home while she goes out for awhile? Mostly, this is due to supply and demand. A mother has to nurse her baby frequently - especially in the early weeks - in order to produce and maintain an adequate supply of milk to meet her baby's nutritional needs. If a mother skips feeding her baby and somebody at home is giving the baby a bottle instead, then her milk supply can suffer, particularly if this happens more often than just occasionally. Also, mothers who are breastfeeding do have hormonal factors at play... the hormones present can cause strong emotions about being with the baby. It is not easy for a breastfeeding mother to leave her baby - physically or emotionally!!

Why can't a mother just bring a bottle to feed her baby when she is in public? Well, part of this can be answered with the above paragraph. If she gives the baby a bottle in place of nursing him, then a mother may compromise her milk supply, especially if the baby needs to eat several times while they are out and the mother gives him bottles each time. The mother can also become painfully engorged due to not removing milk frequently, and this can lead to health problems in the woman - namely, breast infections. I actually read one person's thoughts that a mother should bring bottles for the baby and a breast pump for herself when out in public - that she should feed the baby a bottle first and then find someplace private to pump while out in order to maintain her milk supply and not become engorged. How over-complicated is that??? It is just one of the sacrifices of choosing to be a parent, this woman wrote. Sure, there are many sacrifices involved with becoming a parent, but I think this is one that is societally-imposed. People from other cultures in which breastfeeding is a common sight would probably not even be able to understand the rationale behind doing something like this!

Another thing about mothers just bringing a bottle... this may just not be what they want to or are able to do. Mothers have the right to feed their babies only with bottles, so how about it going the otherway, where mothers have the right o only feed their babies at the breast? There are many reasons a mother may want to do this... we hear a lot about possible toxins in plastics, so a mother may want to avoid using bottles for this concern. She may want to avoid them because the bottle nipple has been shown to cause tooth alignment problems in some cases, particularly in older babies and young toddlers. Perhaps a mother cannot afford bottles and a breast pump. Perhaps the mother has had problems maintaining her milk supply in the past and would not want to risk anything else that might lessen her supply? Perhaps the baby wouldn't take a bottle at all and the only way he will eat is at the breast? There are babies out there who completely reject bottles!

Why can't the mother just wait a bit to feed the baby? This is hard for a mother who is feeding on-demand or on-cue. When a mother does this, she is reading her baby's hunger cues and feeds him when he first gets a little hungry so he doesn't get so very hungry that he is inconsolable. Crying is a late hunger cue. Often a baby who has only begun to fuss a little can be consoled by being fed right away, whereas waiting another five minutes could result in a full-scale meltdown. Nobody likes to hear a wailing baby in the store or a restaurant, although the sound is quite common. A baby who is given the breast is typically consoled... his appetite is satisfied, he is comforted and "pacified" by the breast... so he is quieter, draws less attention to himself and that his mother is nursing... and other people can enjoy their shopping or dining with minimal disturbance from crying. Of course breastfed babies may cry at times too, but most are quickly silenced when given the breast... often they will nurse to sleep! So, most patrons of a restaurant would be inclined to support a mother breastfeeding her baby, right? And when the bottle is empty, that is that... but a baby can continue to suckle at the breast for comfort after he is full, and he can remain content.

And why can't the mother go to a secluded place to nurse? There are times when a mother may choose to do this... when it is more convenient to nurse in her car, when the baby is less distracted if she goes to nurse in a dressing room in the mall, if the mother is unsure of herself in those early months of nursing and desires a little more privacy while she is figuring out how to nurse - these are some reasons mothers may choose to leave busier public areas. But what about mothers who have more than one child? This argument often comes from people with few or no children. They do not understand that if you are eating in the mall food court with your baby and two older children that you cannot just pack up the kids and all their food and hike off to the bathrooms to nurse because your baby is about to have a screaming meltdown. Likewise, if your older children are on a playground, you have to stay nearby while nursing so you can supervise them. If an older child is in some sort of performance or sporting event, then a nursing mother may have to feed her baby while she cheers on her older child.

Personally, I would find it difficult to bear if the people I was around asked me to go into another room to nurse. We are social creatures and are designed to be in the company of other people. When we get together for social events with family and friends and then are made to spend half of our time alone in a back bedroom rather than out socializing and enjoying the merriment, then that can be very difficult. I don't want to miss out on the Thanksgiving meal, the opening of Christmas gifts, the story-telling and reminiscing of family members, the quality family and friend time. I can nurse while I talk, play a board game, open Christmas gifts... I can remain a part of the family. Many women quit nursing because they feel isolated... not only do they not know many other nursing moms, but they are isolated in that they feel like they have to go hide every time they nurse, even in front of their own parents or children - or even in front of their husbands, which I have heard of happening (rarely, fortunately!).

Disapproval of NIP is just another hindrance to mothers' success in nursing their babies. When they are made to feel guilty or dirty about it, when they are inconvenienced and isolated, then they are less likely to stick with it. Babies deserve to eat and be comforted no matter where they are and what other people think! And babies usually can't "just wait!" They have no idea of the societal views - they just want to be fed and held close!

I am not sure I covered all the aspects of this much-debated topic, so feel free to leave a comment if I missed something!

Update: More comments on being discreet and covering with a blanket in the comments...


Kris said...

Great post!! Makes me miss nursing.... now that my "baby" has turned 5 (yesterday)!

That Married Couple said...

I really enjoyed this post, along with all the rest of your series! I'm thankful that I can learn so much from your "counter-cultural" ways :)

Forgive my ignorance, but if a mother just drapes a blanket or something over the child, doesn't that solve any problems of perhaps seeing skin? I think I've seen some sort of cape that mothers can wear for nursing. They seemed a bit much to me, but it does seem like a small blanket or something should work just fine.

Erin said...

Thanks for reminding me about the blanket thing... I meant to address that, actually!

In my opinion, whatever helps a mother feel more comfortable with nursing (and therefore able to continue her nursing relationship) is great - some mothers feel much more comfortable when they nurse under a cover, so if it helps a mother to nurse her child, then a blanket or nursing cape is great. I don't care for them myself for the reasons I mentioned in the post... that it makes it appear that NIP is wrong when one hides to do it. If the public is more aware of mothers NIP (not that they should jump around announcing what they are doing!), then it will become the norm and won't seem so "weird" to people.

That being said, sometimes covering with a blanket can cause added attention to be drawn to the nursing couple. Older babies often don't like to be covered when nursing and will scream and cry or yank the blanket off, which can create a bit of a scene! A new mother may find a blanket or nursing cover helpful when she is learning how to latch the baby on and wants to have more coverage since she may be exposed a little longer with trying to get the correct latch. Once a mother and baby get the hang of it, latching on takes just a second.

Another thing with the blankets is that some babies seem to get really overheated with their heads under blankets while up against the mother - the body heat plus a covered head inside a heated building can sometimes make for an uncomfortable baby and mother.

Another benefit of nursing is how the baby is at a perfect distance from the mother's face to focus on her. Babies thrive developmentally when they make eye contact with caregivers frequently, and it seems to be a built-in part of God's design that babies are at that optimal viewing distance when they are at their mothers' breasts. Their eyesight normalizes after the early weeks, but the eye-to-eye contact is still important in bonding and emotional development. This is one reason why it is not recommended to prop up a bottle for a baby but instead to hold them while feeding them... they bond better when they see their mother's face. This is not to say that if a mother occasionally covers her baby while nursing that it is going to cause problems with his development... but I have actually read one person's views who stated that mothers should always nurse their babies under blankets at home so they "get used to it" and won't protest when they are covered to nurse in public (or that they should just never leave the house during the period they are nursing... I wouldn't have left home in four and a half years, personally!)!

Also, some moms like to use a blanket or nursing cover while latching the baby on since that is the time they would be most likely to show the most skin. Other moms can't latch the baby on very well if they are trying to see under a blanket at the same time... so it comes down to personal preference and what works for each person.

Bottom line for me: If a mother feels more comfortable covering herself and her baby while nursing, then that is fine. I don't have a problem with a mother choosing to cover while she is NIP, but I would have a problem with others insisting that mothers must use a cover... because they do not know the mother's circumstances or the baby's reaction, so they should not be able to require that she cover herself. Most state laws have removed the "if done discreetly" language from their NIP laws, because one person's definition of discreet may not mesh with another person's definition.

Maureen said...

Amen!! Great blog!

Erin said...

Some more words on using a blanket to cover the baby... I just happened to come across this today. This is a comment from another blog from a lady named Kendra who was commenting on a woman who was kicked off an airplane because she would not cover up with the blanket given to her by a flight attendant (the third paragraph makes an especially good point):

"I'm with the mother on this one. It wouldn't have hurt me to use a blanket, but it would have been really uncomfortable for my baby. She never even liked having blankets on her body (kicked them off, even in her newborn days) so I can't imagine putting one over her head! Nor can I think of a single adult who eats under a blanket. Or can't avert their eyes if they see something they don't like.

On top of that, being discreet does not mean you have to use a blanket. Most moms are perfectly capable of nursing without revealing their breasts. When I nurse in public, you really need to get in there and look to see anything, and most of the time people don't even know what's going on. Last time I was on a plane, the woman next to me asked if she could hold my daughter. She never even realized she was eating. Having done it, I do know when another mom is breastfeeding, but I can't think of a single time before I breastfed that I saw a mom nursing in public. It can't be that in 26 years I never saw someone breastfeed, so they must have been discreet about it.

Then, you have the questions of what constitutes discretion, and why it matters. To me, it's blatantly obvious that a mom with a blanket over her whole baby and most of her body is breastfeeding. Not so much if the baby is simply latched on--she could just be cradling her baby. So is it the breasts or the breastfeeding that's scowled at? It can't be the breasts because I've never heard of a woman being kicked off a plane for too low cut of a shirt, and you see way more boobage in that case than in the case of your everyday nursing mother. So it must be the breastfeeding that's offensive. So then, wouldn't it be more offensive to have a big red flag that screams, "Hey! Breastfeeding here!"?

And why do we feel breastfeeding needs to be discreet? It's not a sexual act, it's just the biological design for feeding our babies. I don't get what's interesting, much less offensive or obscene about that. It's just normal. For what it's worth, I've never seen a woman just lift her shirt and go at it, but if she did, I wouldn't think anything differently than if I saw a mom nursing discreetly (with or without a blanket) or bottle feeding her baby. Just a mom feeding her baby in all cases."