Have Breasts Will Travel: Nursing Discreetly In Public

By Lisa Palazzo
Issue 109, November/December 2001

Woman breastfeeding on a beachIt was already past my 20-month-old daughter’s bedtime when family friends stopped by for a visit. As my husband and I chatted with our guests in our tiny living room, Mary Kay padded around us in her pajamas. I knew she was ready for her final nursing before bedtime, which usually took place in the living room. Glancing at our guests–my husband’s great-aunt and uncle–I knew that was out of the question.

When Mary Kay, tired of waiting, climbed into my lap and wailed, “Nummy!,” I finally excused us to the bedroom. I came out ten minutes later, after Mary Kay had dropped off to sleep, and explained to our guests that she had just wanted to breastfeed before going to bed. After an awkward moment of slack-jawed silence, the great-aunt managed a shaky smile and said, “Oh, she’s still nursing?”

From that experience, I learned that the difficulties surrounding breastfeeding in public sometimes have little to do with where you are. After all, my living room was normally a place of total privacy, yet on this occasion I would have felt very conspicuous nursing there. By the same token, many mothers and children enjoy comparatively private nursing sessions in such public places as schools, churches, parks, and airports-even when nursing toddlers and older children. How do they do it? I talked with ten mothers with a collective 60 years of experience in breastfeeding in every public place imaginable. They shared their tips on how they happily-and, usually, easily-nursed their children in public.

1. Face the Changes

Many mothers find that toddlers and older children nurse publicly a lot less frequently than when they were infants. For one thing, toddlers are eating solid foods and drinking other beverages. Also, because toddlers actively interact with their surroundings, they can be too busy to nurse.

Among the mothers I spoke with, the most common situation in which toddlers request public nursing is when they are tired, hurt, or otherwise in need of their mother’s comfort. Tracie Dakters, who breastfed both of her daughters until age three, says, “As the girls got older, public nursings didn’t happen too frequently because their needs often could be satisfied in other ways, like with a snack or drink. If they really needed to nurse–if one of them skinned a knee and was screaming her head off–I’d nurse right away.” In light of this, bring a healthy snack and drink for your child when you leave home so you’ll have an alternate means to satisfy him or her. Also, try stashing a few small toys in your pockets or purse. “Sometimes, toddlers want to nurse out of boredom,” points out Barbara Foster, who breastfed her four children for a total of almost nine years.

2. When You Are Discreet, All Things Are Possible

All nursing moms have different comfort levels; an acceptable public nursing situation for one may be objectionable to another. In any case, with practice, it is possible for mothers to nurse discreetly almost anywhere.

“I nursed everywhere and found it easy to be discreet,” says Susan Oldrieve, a mother of three with eight years of breastfeeding experience. “I got so good at unhooking my bra and positioning the baby that people never knew I was nursing. I nursed Katherine in church during her baptism service, and people came up to me afterwards, saying, `Your baby was so quiet!’ They had no idea I was nursing her.”

A mother can become so skillful at public nursing that she may forget what she’s doing. “When the kids were little, we lived near a lake and went to the beach every day,” explains Oldrieve. “I would go with a friend and her three kids, so we had six between us. I used to be a lifeguard, so it was my habit to ‘count heads’ every five minutes or so. Once, in the middle of a conversation, I counted only five heads. I panicked and shrieked, ‘Where’s Libby?’ My friend said, ‘Susan, you’re nursing her.'”

3. The Language of Love

It’s difficult to keep nursing private when your two year old is unzipping your sweater, screaming, “I want milkies!” during a quiet church service. It’s important to teach your child how to request breastfeeding away from home. Whether it’s “sippy,” “nursy,” “nurt,” “mee mee,” “breeny,” or “nanny,” all nursing families arrive at a word that means “Let’s nurse.” Many mothers encourage the use of a word that they’ll feel comfortable using in front of strangers.

The child’s request for nursing is only half of the communication process. A mother’s speed in responding to those requests also can impact the privacy of public nursing sessions. “When my first baby was a newborn, I learned to nurse her in public before she started making too much noise,” says Barbara Foster. “Once I nursed her just before we set off on a two-hour boat tour, hoping she wouldn’t want to nurse before it ended. She started fussing on the boat, but I tried to hold her off because I felt nervous about nursing in front of the other passengers. I finally nursed her, but only after she was crying and had everyone’s attention.” Even better than responding immediately to a request for a public nursing is anticipating a child’s desire to nurse before she asks–for instance, when she is hurt or upset. “When you’re used to mothering this way, you already know how to respond to your child without her ever having to ask to nurse,” says Dakters.

This doesn’t mean that mothers must assume that a toddler needs to nurse immediately whenever he asks. Nursing toddlers usually can understand the need to wait. Depending on their communication level, children who request a public nursing may be fine about mothers’ suggestions to wait until they get home or to the car.

4. Find a Little Hideaway

If you’re out running errands and your child suddenly decides he or she wants to nurse, you can choose a space that will improve the chances of a more “private” public nursing experience. “I always tried to find a less populated spot with plenty of room to spread out and get comfortable,” says Meg Sondey. “Quiet places are great,” adds Dakters, “especially with toddlers, who are easily distracted and turn their heads, leaving you exposed.”

If you’re at a shopping mall, try the food court, where you can sit at a table or on benches in the more isolated sections. By choosing a bench in a corner or near a wall, you can position your stroller to make your spot even more secluded. Fitting rooms can be a boon, and so is a couch in a smoke-free ladies’ restroom, especially if it is in a separate room from the stalls and sinks.

At restaurants, ask for a booth or side table where you can sit close to the wall when nursing. Facing a wall at a corner table will give you even more privacy. As a last resort, if your child is very distractible or upset, you can nurse in your parked car, if it’s not far away.

“I live in the expansive middle of the US, where the car is essential,” says Norma Jane Bumgarner, author of Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, who nursed her four children into toddlerhood. “So the car becomes an extension of home and is the obvious retreat for discreet nursing.”

5. Cover-up Tactics

Lots of companies create beautiful, high-quality shirts, dresses, and blouses specially designed for breastfeeding, with hidden openings to allow easy access to the breast while allowing the mother to remain well-covered. Some mothers like nursing tops and use them when they want to remain as covered as possible while nursing publicly. However, others find that they can easily nurse discreetly by wearing regular shirts that can be lifted in front.

Try wearing a jumper with low armholes and lifting the shirt underneath it. Unbutton blouses from the bottom or lift the front. Wear twin sweater sets or a jacket over your shirt, so your back and sides are covered, even if the shirt is lifted in front. Position your child to hide as much skin as possible–a baby sling can hide even more. Avoid shirts with fasteners that your child knows how to undo.

The one piece of specially-designed nursing clothing that many breastfeeding mothers can’t live without is the nursing bra. Mothers can be most discreet by using one they can unhook with one hand. “A lot of times, I don’t even unclasp it-I just lift the soft cup over my breast,” confesses Jane Pinczuk, author of the children’s book Michele: The Nursing Toddler. Sports bras and other non-nursing soft-cup bras can be used in the same way.

People sometimes suggest that a woman should drape a baby blanket over her shoulder to cover a nursing baby. The mothers I spoke with gave this “tenting” tactic a thumbs-down. First, it’s a red flag announcing breastfeeding. The child can easily pull off the blanket, or it can fall off by itself. The mother may not be able to assure a proper latch-on, and the baby can’t see mom’s face. Most important, the blanket doesn’t cover the areas that need covering.

“Instead of putting the blanket on your shoulder, tuck it under the arm of the breast you’re nursing from and wrap it around the child,” advises Foster. “When your shirt is lifted, the blanket will cover your exposed belly, back, and side. Plus it looks as if you’re just cradling the child.”

Formal dress can pose a real challenge. “During the holidays, I forgot I was nursing and wore a one-piece, full-length dress,” recalls Pinczuk. “I sat in the ladies’ room and breastfed-and not even in a stall, because we had to spread out. There I was on the ladies’ room couch in my stockings and shoes with my dress pulled all the way up to my chest so we could nurse!”

6. The Octopus on My Lap

You anticipated your child’s need to nurse, found a quiet spot to breastfeed, and dressed with nursing in mind, yet you’re faced with a squirmy nurser who foils all of your attempts to be discreet. What now? Sometimes, a limit on public nursing can mean ending the nursing session. Bumgarner explains, “When a child insists on nursing, and then gets distracted every few seconds, popping on and off, a mother may figure that nursing isn’t all that important right then and move on to something else.” Oldrieve adds, “That’s when I used to say, `Let’s wait until we get home.'”

7. Those Nasty Naysayers

Even if you’ve never been asked to leave a public place when you are nursing, you may have gotten negative looks or comments from other people. How a nursing mom responds to them can make a big difference in (a) sustaining or improving her self-confidence, i.e. perceiving herself as a strong advocate for her rights and those of her child, and (b) educating people who may not have correct or current information on breastfeeding. It can be difficult to say the “right” thing, especially when caught off-guard. Marianne Neifert, author of Dr. Mom’s Guide to Breastfeeding and a member of the work group that drafted the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) most recent breastfeeding policy statement, suggests that a breastfeeding mother find a supportive physician to serve as part of her cheering squad.

“That way, she can say, `My doctor encouraged me to do this!'” says Dr. Neifert. “Also, she could quote the AAP breastfeeding policy, saying something like, `Did you know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women nurse for at least one year and however long thereafter as desired?'”

Meg Sondey says the topic of criticism comes up at every one of her La Leche League Toddler Series meetings. “Often, a simple `We do what works for us’ is the most effective response,” she offers.

Another helpful approach is humor. Depending on the situation, a little good-natured banter can be a disarming response to a stranger’s question.

Bumgarner, Norma Jane.
Mothering Your Nursing Toddler
La Leche League International, 1980.

Eiger, Marvin S., and Sally Wendkos Olds.
The Complete Book of Breastfeeding
Bantam Books, 1987.

Huggins, Kathleen, and Linda Ziedrich.
The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning
Harvard Common Press, 1994.

Neifert, Marianne.
Dr. Mom’s Guide to Breastfeeding
Plume Books, 1998.

La Leche League.
The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding
Penguin Group, 1991.

For more information about breastfeeding in public, see the following past issues of Mothering: “Seen & Heard: Some Ideas for Creating a More Child-Friendly Society,” no. 96, and “Breastfeeding in Public,” no. 57.

Lisa Palazzo and her husband, John, live in Avon, Ohio, with their daughters Mary Kay (4) and Sarah (21 months). Lisa enjoys nursing Sarah in restaurants, libraries, stores, and even her living room.

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