You may have seen them.
Lurking in coffee shops. Hiding in women’s changing rooms. Exposing themselves on airplanes as they make their way from coast to coast traumatizing innocent victims as they go. And to make matters worse each has at least one tiny accomplice.
They’re a shameless, chronically sleep deprived army of topless breastfeeding G cup hippies.
At least that’s what you may believe if you follow mainstream media. Because whenever a mother chooses to follow her instincts and meet her baby’s needs by breastfeeding in public, it seems to cause a stir.
When I first started writing about breastfeeding in public a Facebook post by Ashley Kaidel in which she was nursing her baby in a cafe had just gone viral. The controversy it caused speaks to how sensitive our society has become about breastfeeding in public spaces. It doesn’t take much to push our collective buttons.
How could something as natural as feeding a baby even be a topic for debate?
The truth is that breastfeeding mothers rarely expose themselves needlessly. Comments I receive in response to my support of normalizing breastfeeding suggest there is a cultural belief that women are somehow getting a kick out of exposing themselves. That nourishing our babies is an afterthought and really our main objective is to get our boobs out. To a breastfeeding mother the notion is laughable.
Because, breastfeeding is a monumental commitment. Women don’t accidentally breastfeed; it’s a conscious decision and often a treacherous journey requiring determination to overcome multiple obstacles thrown in our path.
Cracked nipples. Engorged breasts. Improper latches. Mastitis. Bites. Nursing on demand every two hours. Loss of independence. So, for most mothers, disapproval from strangers is the least of our worries. We’ve given birth. We’re enduring a level of sleep deprivation most would consider a form of torture. We’re tough. We can handle it. But, why should we?
Breastfeeding is a selfless act and one which society should be praising women for not berating them.
A 2010 study by the journal Pediatrics suggests if 90% of mothers were able to follow medical advice to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months, the US taxpayer alone may save more than $13B annually in infant healthcare and related costs. And more importantly, prevent almost 1000 infant deaths each year.
Most women begin breastfeeding their babies but by 3 months only 32% are exclusively breastfeeding. And at 6 months it drops to 12%. A survey conducted by the Australian Breastfeeding Association reports only 5% of women are still breastfeeding their toddlers at two years of age despite the strong recommendation by the World Health Organization to do so.
Dr. Melissa Bartick, of the Cambridge Health Alliance in Boston suggests, “We shouldn’t be blaming women, because not only are they often not actively supported in attempting to breastfeed, but they are also undermined” in a number of ways. Bartick says her main message is that moms need more support for breastfeeding including better access to lactation counselling and scaling back in the aggressive marketing of infant formula.
Thankfully positive change is coming. Australian Senator, Larissa Waters, made history in 2017 when she became the first woman to breastfeed her then 14-week old baby girl in parliament. Outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, has made changes to it’s family policies as they sought solutions for colleagues struggling to breastfeed and care for their babies without losing their jobs, resulting in 100 percent of their moms returning to work, compared to a national average of 35 percent.
Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, wife of Canadian Prime Minister, spoke about her choice to continue breastfeeding her two year old son in an interview with Katie Couric. She says, “I will continue to feed my child even if he’s two, I’m not going to stop if he wants it. I think it’s a beautiful bond. I encourage it.”
Perhaps the most powerful symbol of support would be a correction in society’s perspective. Let’s see a breastfeeding mother for the miracle she is and we’ll all be touched by the magic we’re witnessing; a brave mom who has been nursing around the clock, getting no sleep, enduring pain and trying to do the best she can for her new baby. So, if you see a nursing mother hiding in the corner of a cafe or anxiously comforting her baby on a plane give her a sign of reassurance, a thumbs up, a knowing smile, a pat on the shoulder.
Because she’s not trying to ruin anybody’s day.
She’s not trying to expose herself.
She’s doing what women have done for millennia, nourishing and protecting her baby the best way she knows how.