I breastfeed in public.
I do this for a number of reasons: mostly, of course, to feed my hungry baby. To remain involved in social contexts. To show that neither the ‘feeding’ part nor the ‘exposed breasts’ part are a big deal. To refuse to allow my body to be hidden away. To refuse to participate in the unnecessary sexualisation of breasts. To continue living my life as I would do were I not breastfeeding.
I also do it so that people who will one day become breastfeeding parents themselves see me.
For these future breastfeeders, I try to be an example of what breastfeeding can be.
They see that breastfeeding is easy. They see me unclip my bra with one hand and move my baby in the general direction, trusting her to latch on (she is practised now, after all, practically six months in). They see me cradling her gently while holding a book, while watching out for the bus, while chatting with friends. They see me taking the opportunity to bond with her, looking into her eyes as she sucks, or playfully biting her fingers to make her laugh.
They see that breastfeeding is not easy. They see me struggle to pull my bra down from under a squirming, wailing baby. They see my perfectly content baby pull off my nipple mid-feed and start observing it with a deep look of concentration on her face, or kneading it like a cat. They see me not knowing what I’m doing, whether a crying N is arching her back with hunger or anger (or both!), trying to force my nipple into her mouth. They see her push me away in tears, me continuing to try feeding her for a few moments before I realize what I’m doing and let her be. They see her eventually calming down enough to get what she wants, on those occasions that she does want to feed.
They see me reading my baby’s most subtle signals, and completely misreading those signals too.
They see strangers supporting me: I can’t count the number of thumbs-ups I’ve gotten, particularly from middle-aged women. They don’t see strangers disapproving of me: as far as I’m aware, I’ve gotten one negative comment and even that was a begrudging compliment (“she’s brave”).
In my six months as a breastfeeding mother, I have seen very, very few women breastfeeding in public. I get excited when I do – grinning broadly at them, telling people later on “I saw a woman breastfeeding today!”
I get that it’s scary to expose yourself in public, both physically and emotionally. What if someone looks? What if someone says something? What if the baby cries? What if the baby starts twiddling your nipple and gazing sternly at it and spraying milk all over the table behind her? (A situation I’ve been having to deal with this past week – congratulations on your inquisitive mind, N!) As much as the NHS pushes breastfeeding over bottle-feeding, and as much as bottle-feeding can be demonized, breastfeeding in public still remains a thorny issue.
I want more women to breastfeed in public, for themselves and for future breastfeeders. For example, although I use a variety of positions to feed N, there is only one in which I sit up and therefore which I use in public.
I think it would greatly benefit future breastfeeders to remove much of the stigma associated with pulling your breasts out in public to feed your baby; not just directly, but also for them to see a wide variety of breastfeeding, both successful and unsuccessful. The learning curve once you have your newborn is a steep one, and making breastfeeding safer and more visible can only help.