Breastfeeding in Whose Public? by Peggy O’Mara

Issue 132
by Peggy O’Mara

nursing babyThis editorial appeared in Mothering magazine in 2005. To read Peggy’s current writing on breastfeeding visit her blog.

It is unnecessary to defend breastfeeding in public. To me, it’s like walking in public. It’s a basic human right. For others, however—those who live in a bottle-feeding culture with little or no apparent exposure to breastfeeding—the act is a private matter. How little they understand breastfeeding.

In the last month I have heard of four dramatic incidents involving breastfeeding in public, and the frequency of such reports makes me realize that the subject strikes a deep chord with the American public. I am hopeful that the retuning of this deep chord means that we are actually on the verge of becoming a breastfeeding culture.

In June, reported on a demonstration by breastfeeding moms outside ABC headquarters in New York City. The lactivists were protesting comments by Barbara Walters that she and others felt “very uncomfortable” when they saw a mother breastfeeding her baby next to them on a plane.

Later that month, Seattle’s ABC news commentator Ken Schram defended Walters when he compared public breastfeeding to public urinating, saying, “Now, I know we’re supposed to be living in an enlightened society and all, but I’ll tell you what: when some woman sitting next to you pops it out and starts suckling little Johnny or Suzie, I think it makes most people uncomfortable! Yeah, I know. It’s natural. Well, so is urinating, but most folks don’t up and pee in a glass jar in the middle of the mall.” In response to this outrageous comment, 150 Mothering readers and other breastfeeding supporters gathered at the Seattle Center on June 27. Schram not only failed to apologize, he implied that brazen breastfeeding mothers were the problem. “A little modesty goes a long way,” he said patronizingly.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard from a mother in Albuquerque whose friend had been asked to leave an amusement park because she was breastfeeding in public. And, just this last weekend, there was actually a television debate about breastfeeding in public in which CNN commentator Tucker Carlson said he opposed it.

The breastfeeding-advocacy community has used these outrages as opportunities for education. At one demonstration, participants handed out copies of the recent American Academy of Pediatrics statement on breastfeeding, which lists lack of support in society as one of the obstacles to breastfeeding success. With a national goal of 75 percent breastfeeding initiation by the year 2010, we still have a long way to go in helping mothers feel comfortable breastfeeding in public.

I take issue with those who suggest that breastfeeding mothers just stay home. First, the suggestion is patently misogynist. Second, it is impossible for a mother to control her baby’s need to nurse. If a mother brings a breastfeeding baby into public, the baby will inevitably need to nurse. Nursing cannot be put off because it is inconvenient. The woman has the choice between feeding her baby in public and letting him or her cry. The mother cannot run blocks through the parking lot to nurse her baby in the car. She can’t find a quiet place in a public bathroom because few exist.

In fact, our public spaces lack private places, and not many public places accommodate nursing a baby or changing a diaper. It is cruelly paradoxical that new mothers are encouraged to breastfeed without any idea of how much society and other people will undermine them. When it comes to going out in public to do what everyone else does, only clothing-store dressing rooms and bathroom stalls are spaces predictably private enough for mothers and infants. This is not good enough. Breastfed babies normally nurse almost continuously during the first few weeks and months as they build up the milk supply. Infant humans cannot simply be stashed at home while mommy runs off for her errands. Baby needs to be carried around so that breastfeeding is readily available, as breastmilk is low in fat and babies must feed often.

It’s not a simple matter or advisable practice for mom to leave her breastfed baby at home with a bottle while she shops. Breastfeeding and bottle-feeding are not simply interchangeable, and there are distinct disadvantages to a bottle for a breastfed baby. Even more important, it is elitist to assume that everyone has someone to watch her baby.

And what about the baby? Doesn’t the baby have nutritional rights? Does the baby have a right to breastmilk? If so, how absurd to limit the places where a baby can breastfeed because of unreasonable projections and ignorance about how breastfeeding works.

Barbara Walters says that breastfeeding in public makes her “uncomfortable.” I think a lot of people feel this way, but it’s not a legitimate reason for limiting breastfeeding in public. In fact, it’s all the more reason to encourage it. I suspect that people feel uncomfortable when they see breastfeeding in public because they can’t stop staring, and they interpret this as prurient interest. I believe that they can’t take their eyes off breastfeeding simply because they have not seen it before. It is a natural human instinct to want to see the feeding of our species. It does not mean that we see the breast as sexual. It simply means that breastfeeding is naturally fascinating. You simply cannot expect to refrain from staring at something you have never seen before. Fo those in a breastfeeding culture, however, it becomes commonplace.

Ken Schram equates breastfeeding with public urinating, implying that breastfeeding is both a private affair and a part of our animal nature that should be hidden away. This reveals a great deal about our cultural biases. I have already argued that it is impossible to keep breastfeeding private if the human rights of women and infants are to be respected. It is precisely because of its animal nature that breastfeeding should be embraced rather than avoided in public. It is only through making breastfeeding common in the public sphere that we will become a breastfeeding culture. And it is impossible for us to reach our health goals as a nation if we do not become a breastfeeding culture.

The fact that someone would actually debate the question of breastfeeding in public as if it were simply a lifestyle choice, like walking your dog without a leash or skateboarding on the sidewalk, reveals a gross ignorance of human anatomy and physiology. One must know nothing about breastfeeding to assume that one could simply feed one’s baby at home in order not to have to bother with feeding in public. There is simply no argument against such ignorance, which points to the logical conclusion that more education is needed. I’m glad that most groups that have demonstrated against these absurd remarks have used them as educational opportunities.

Some of the press about women who have demonstrated against these insulting comments has been dismissive to lactivists. In fact, one website, The Bitch Girls (, agrees with Tucker Carlson that “the lactivists seem to go out of their way to attract more attention to their naked breasts.” The site recommends sending breastfeeding moms to the bathroom. Lactivist, on the contrary, is a respected label that has been used proudly for years by breastfeeding advocates, many of whom have been instrumental in improving breastfeeding policy internationally. I take offense when sincere demonstrators are dismissed and marginalized by labels. But I also realize that strong opposing emotions must be aired in order for breastfeeding to become assimilated into the culture.

The Bitch Girls site echoes the concern expressed most often by those who oppose public breastfeeding: modesty. In many ways, it is ludicrous to even discuss modesty in the context of breastfeeding when scanty women’s clothing is so well tolerated in the media, at the workplace, and in public on most other occasions. It is obvious, then, that this argument is a foil for those who are uncomfortable seeing a woman breastfeed in public because they are underexposed to breastfeeding in general. And it is further evidence of prejudice toward women”heven, unfortunately, among women.

Do we breastfeeding moms have any responsibility to be discreet when we breastfeed? I was active in La Leche League in the 1970s, when directives came out from headquarters before conferences urging us to be considerate of others when we breastfed in the hotel and to do so discreetly. There were those who took umbrage at this well-intentioned advice, but in fact most of us are discreet in public simply because of our own modesty and the fact that no one enjoys being stared at. However, the baby is an active participant in nursing and sometimes can make it difficult if not impossible to be discreet. Also, some moms are insulted by the suggestion that they should cover up while breastfeeding simply because others are uncomfortable with something totally natural.

It’s important that we take the higher road and not polarize ourselves with such ridiculous posturing. Let’s not knock heads with those who appear to denigrate breastfeeding. Let’s educate them. The cover of the January – February 2004 issue of Mothering showed an infant breastfeeding. It was very artistic and tasteful, but the nipple was visible. If you visit a store that carries magazines today, you will see that one can be almost totally naked on the cover of a magazine on the newsstand”has long as the nipple is hidden.

We at Mothering did not even consider that the cover would be controversial because we are so accustomed to witnessing breastfeeding. However, others did not see it the same way, and in one local store the issue in question was covered up. They put a blank piece of paper over the image, with only the logo showing. This was done by a store clerk, at the request of a customer who was offended by the nipple cover. Our local newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican, did a front-page story on the covering of the cover, and local media followed the story closely and incredulously. As it turned out, the owner of the store was a reader of Mothering, and was mortified that her clerk had covered the magazine. The problem was that she had no store policy for this kind of situation, only a policy for pornography. Simply creating a store policy so future employees know what to do with a breastfeeding cover would help tremendously.

Soon after this incident, a natural-foods grocery on the East Coast sent back their copies of the same issue, then had to go to another local store to buy more when local breastfeeding moms questioned their decision and wanted their Mothering magazines. The moms were cordially accommodated by the store when they came for their nurse-in, and everyone learned a lot.

I find that in most cases the public is supportive of breastfeeding and understands its importance. That was not so when I was a young mom, and we have surely made progress. It is often lack of a store policy, intimidation or sensationalism by an extreme individual, or simple ignorance that causes people to object to breastfeeding in public or images of breastfeeding. They are simply afraid of the natural world and, hopefully, can be gently reminded of it. Nurse on, you lactivists. We’re almost there. Contact us for a one-page PDF news brief of the AAP breastfeeding policy, which includes the importance of public support. Hand it out at your next nurse-in.


Peggy O’Mara is the mother of four grown children. She has gained international celebrity as publisher, editor and owner of Mothering Magazine. She is also the author of four books: Having a Baby Naturally: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, Natural Family Living: The Mothering Magazine Guide to Parenting, The Way Back Home: Essays on Life and Family, and A Quiet Place: Essays on Life and Family, all of which can be purchased in the Mothering Shop. A dynamic speaker, she has lectured and conducted workshops in conjunction with organizations such as the Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche International, and Bioneers. She has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and has been featured in national publications including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Mother Earth News, and Utne Reader.

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