Breastfeeding. A Family Affair?

It’s holiday time, and you know what that means. Festive family get-togethers will abound in households all across the country, and at these get-togethers nursing mothers will inevitably breastfeed their little ones.

Some will breastfeed freely and boldly in the open and other mothers will breastfeed in secret, relegated to a back bedroom.

A quick jaunt around mommy message boards and mom blogs will unearth unfortunate stories of mothers who complain about feeling too uncomfortable to breastfeed even around their friends and family. Some mothers’ parents, grandparents, or closest relatives do not understand why they have chosen to breastfeed and/or offer baseless comments criticizing how long they have chosen to breastfeed.

All too often we hear reports of mothers who are ill-treated by mall security guards or restaurant managers simply because they opted to breastfeed in public. But there are still countless incidents where mothers are ridiculed and ostracized about their decision to breastfeed, even among those who are closest to them. This is truly unfortunate, especially when it is unquestionably clear that breastfeeding is the best feeding option for infants.

During and after WWII, millions of mothers tucked away their breasts and opted to bottle-feed their babies as they entered the workforce for the first time. Although breastfeeding has made a remarkable comeback since then, the legacy of mass bottle-feeding still claims a stranglehold on our nation’s perception of breastfeeding; a perception that considers breastfeeding to be some sexualized nuisance that should forever remain locked in the confines of ones’ home, instead of a beautiful and natural way to nourish a baby. But America’s outlook on breastfeeding has not always been this way.

There was a time in America’s history when mothers, particularly rural mothers, could breastfeed in the presence of friends, family, men, children and even strangers without incident. And it simply wasn’t because commercial formulas were not on the market, because they were. It was because breastfeeding was considered as natural as the sunset. Below is a great example of this.

This mother and her husband are talking to a rehabilitation advisor who is helping them save their farm after the Great Depression. Notice how openly she is breastfeeding her baby and also notice how the men are acting. The fact that she is breastfeeding and her breast is exposed is not an issue to them. Breastfeeding back then simply “was.”  I’d also like to mention that the photographer was a man as well. Still, this mother is breastfeeding without shame or embarrassment.

Here is another example of a mother breastfeeding around her family and perfect strangers at a furniture auction in Hagerstown, Maryland in October 1937.

Again, notice the men in the photograph. They are not having a conniption because a mother is feeding her baby or even harassing her to nurse elsewhere. What great times these were for mothers who breastfed.

Do you think scenes like these would be the norm or the exception these days? There is no question about it; mothers breastfeed in public and in front of friends, family and strangers even today. But, what is certain is this: A cultural shift occurred in America as far as breastfeeding is concerned. These photographs highlight the shift that now considers breastfeeding to be an act practiced best in private.

12 thoughts on “Breastfeeding. A Family Affair?”

  1. Baring in mind I’ve never seen a mother breastfeeding in public, I would come to the conclusion that the photos do not show the norm these days. I’ve heard about mothers breastfeeding in restaurants and getting kicked out because of it!

    I believe nowadays people think you should buy a breast pump and fill a bottle with the milk to use out and about. Like these: bottle feeding products.

    It’s a solution I guess, but perhaps everyone should just be more relaxed about it- its only nature!

  2. There are still some places where it can be done. I have nursed my daughter in public from day one, and I have never been chastised for it. I’ve done it in doctor’s offices, in malls, in schools, at church, in restaurants, on airplanes, and parks. I’ve never covered myself up and I never intend to. I can’t tell you how comfortable those around me are, but I’ve seen enough encouraging smiles from women that I think there might be a chance.

    I live in Salt Lake City, UT.

  3. I agree. I think there are some places where moms can breastfeed in public and it’s no problem and then in other places it poses a great problem.

    From the photos I’ve posted it seems there were more places where moms could breastfeed without it being a problem. I don’t know that for sure, but it seems like breastfeeding was more of an unquestioned way of life then.

    Thanks for visiting my blog and for leaving a comment!

  4. I think a lot of it has to do with how big a city in you’re in. In a place like Houston, SLC, San Francisco, just by sheer virtue of population, you’re going to see more people breastfeeding.

  5. I love your blog!! It is so encouraging to see all these great breastfeeding pictures from the past.

    It would be nice to see more current ones too! It is hard to imagine finding enough pictures from a wide variety of places and people breastfeeding these days though.

    I’ve always breastfed in public, I don’t cover up, but I do try to be discrete. I don’t cover with a blanket, that is something I won’t do – I will occasionally throw the end of my sling over my daughter’s head when she’s tired to keep out distractions. I wish I didn’t feel the need to cover up at all. It’s so much more work to keep covering and adjusting yourself. Especially when you’ve large breasts, like mine – or when you leak excessively, like me!

    I cherish the pictures you post of these mothers with their whole breast out confidently feeding their children.

    I never had any comments made to me, but I’m all too aware some people might be put off by me “exposing” myself.

    I just hope some day we can get back to a place of “normal”.

    Thanks again for this blog

  6. Hi Sara and Cynthia — Thank you so much for the kind words about the blog. I really appreciate it. Hearing from readers really helps me when I’m searching for photos because they are hard to find at times. But knowing that people are reading motivates me to keep searching through hundreds of thousands of photos. It is definitely worth it. Thank you again.

  7. I happened to find your blog while doing some research for my essay on breastfeeding and I have to say I that I am hooked! I love all the historical photos and I look forward to seeing and reading more! Thank you!

    Oh, and this was the first time that I’ve ever seen the word “conniption” in print! I’ve been given really weird looks for using that word now that I don’t live up north!

  8. I just found your website here and it is terrific. I am giving a lecture this weekend to other docs and hopefully some midwives as well. I will definitely pass along your blog address, as always pictures say more than words. As a nursing mother in Chicago I have found numerous restaurants to be accommodating but I do cover up just to avoid the leer from the rare creep, but now my baby wants to look around so a few good swats at the cover and oh well, I tried!

  9. I agree with Katherine: I also live in the SLC area and it’s common to see women nursing in public–not as much as I’d like, but still more common (hey, we have the highest birthrate in the nation, it just follows suit.) It’s also because the formula culture did not make as much inroads in the Inter-mountain West as it did in more populous area of the country, for many reasons.

  10. Wow! Stumbling upon your blog late at night was a God send! I am a very pro-breastfeeding young mother of 2 and just today was asked by security at a children’s nature/science museum in Denver to hide in the coat closet. Of course I was livid and refused. That security guard was not acting in accordance with the museum policy, but on her own regard because some ignorant person complained about me. I was using a nursing privacy apron so nothing, absolutely nothing was showing. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank you for your blog!

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