Breastfeeding in public

Her son was hungry, and Shawn Dell Joyce had no qualms about settling on a park bench in a public place to feed him. After all – she had everything she needed with her. The Montgomery mom was breastfeeding. But while her little boy, eighteen months at the time, snuggled up to her and lunched, a woman walked by and spat out the words: “How disgusting,” then moved on.

It was eight years ago, and Joyce still remembers it like it was yesterday. It was one of only two times Joyce encountered a challenge over breastfeeding in a public place. Ironically, the second would come soon after, when Joyce became a local hero to breastfeeding moms by standing up to officials at Stewart International Airport in Newburgh. An artist, Joyce had painted a four-panel piece called “She Nourishes,” which featured – among the four scenes – a mother feeding her baby.

The painting had gone up as part of a community art exhibition at the airport, but officials were yanking the piece down. It was too controversial, they said. People were complaining. The chief complaint came, in fact, from a woman. She later told Joyce that she would be fine with a painting of a child drinking from a bottle, but not of a woman breastfeeding.

It’s a common complaint for breastfeeding mothers – when they’re in public, they feel like the world is watching and shaking their collective heads. Online the popular social media site Facebook has earned the ire of mothers for removal of breastfeeding photos the company says violates its decency standards.

Asked to clarify its policy, Facebook told the New York Post, “photos containing a fully exposed breast (as defined by showing the nipple or areola) do violate those Terms and may be removed. These policies are designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for all users, including the many children (over the age of 13) who use the site. The photos we act upon are almost exclusively brought to our attention by other users who complain.”

So who’s complaining and why?
Joyce, who was active with La Leche League during the three years she breastfed her son, found that the people most likely to speak out against a mother feeding in public were women – and older women at that.

“Younger women are more aware of the benefits of breastfeeding,” she says. “Some of their mothers and grandmothers have the bigger problem. In their generation, if you breastfed, you were poor or uneducated. It’s only been in recent years that women have come to understand breast is best.”
Joyce was quick to say that she’s seen the opposite too – some older women are overly accommodating while younger women look at nursing as “icky.”

“We are an image-driven society.  We are usually not comfortable with what we don’t see,” says Laura Keegan, a family nurse practitioner and author from East Fishkill.

Why we should break the taboo
“When women are discouraged from breastfeeding in public, new moms get mixed messages. They are expected to breastfeed as often as a baby needs; yet unlike bottle-feeding, breastfeeding needs to be hidden,” Keegan continues.

And anything that might turn a mother off from breastfeeding is bad news, says Jill Meltzer, head of Women, Infants and Children in Sullivan County. A certified breastfeeding counselor, Meltzer says she tells mothers that breastfeeding is “like immunizing your infant against all those illnesses and viruses that you have developed antibodies to.”

Pointing to numerous studies on the positive affects of breastfeeding for both mother and child, Meltzer says moms who breastfeed are giving their kids the best start to life possible. “It’s nature’s medicine, but the affects stay around long after the infant is weaned,” she explains. “Infants who are artificially fed with formulas are 15 times more likely to get sick and need medical care or hospitalization. Mother’s milk contains different types of living cells that gobble up germs and keep the infant healthier.”

It’s one of the reasons public breastfeeding is protected in the State of New York. A 1994 amendment to New York Civil Rights law allows that “a mother may breast feed (sic) her baby in any location, public or private, where the mother is otherwise authorized to be.” New York is also one of 27 states that exempts breastfeeding from public indecency laws.

But can’t you just cover up?
You wouldn’t have to worry about being indecent if you just covered up, some people say. Not exactly.
“Covering up is not practical nor comfortable for the baby, and there will be incidental exposure of the nipple and areola anyway,” Keegan explains. “With an infant, a mother needs to see her baby to comfortably latch him on to her exposed breast. With an older baby, the baby often pops off the breast unpredictably or pushes the cover away.”

For babies, eating is also a social event – they like moving about, they like the freedom of seeing what’s going on around them. Similarly, mothers like keeping their babies in view when they’re feeding – whether it’s to see that the baby is comfortable or simply to have that bond.

But while people, like the woman who voiced her disgust at Joyce for feeding her child, see indecency, Meltzer says most women show very little skin while breastfeeding. “Most women who breastfeed in public are pretty covered, not only by their shirt, but also by the baby,” she points out. When they see a woman breastfeeding, the experts say the response shouldn’t be “gross,” but recognition that they just saw a woman being a good parent.

“If people understood the importance of breastfeeding as a real public health issue, they might be more understanding or at least tolerant of seeing a woman breastfeed,” Meltzer explains. “People mistakenly think women are being selfish or self-centered for wanting to breastfeed in public and willing to fight for that right,” Keegan says.

“No one ever gave me any problem breastfeeding in public,” she says of the days when she was still nursing her four children. “However, when I could, I found private places to nurse. I did find certain situations uncomfortable because breastfeeding in public was not the norm.”

To make things more comfortable, Keegan kept her eyes on her child; but she would have preferred to see more women breastfeeding in public. It would have made her more comfortable to be part of the crowd.

New mothers and breastfeeding difficulties
Keegan has found that discreet or hidden nursing has adversely impacted the way new mothers are launched into breastfeeding. Accustomed to seeing bottles stuck in the center of the mouth, that’s the first thing a new mom attempts to do with her own nipple.

“Unfortunately the bottle-feeding positioning inevitably leads to a suboptimal latch that is responsible for the common difficulties women experience such as painful nursing and low milk supply.  I wrote Breastfeeding with Comfort and Joy to help women overcome this bottle-feeding imprinting that causes so many problems for breastfeeding,” she explains. “Unless a woman is exposed to breastfeeding, including observing a baby latch which requires the momentary exposure of the nipple and areola, she is imprinted with bottle-feeding behaviors.”

Jeanne Sager is a freelance writer and mom from Sullivan County.