Breastfeeding In Public: An Epidemic of Love or Exhibitionism?


You may have seen them.

Lurking in coffee shops. Hiding in women’s changing rooms. Exposing themselves on airplanes. They’re making 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 shameless. Chronically sleep deprived. And dangerous. They’re an army of topless breastfeeding G cup hippies.

At least that’s what you may believe if you’ve followed the news lately. In late 2015 Ashley Kaidel’s viral Facebook post, in which she’s breastfeeding her baby uncovered in a cafe, caused quite the stir. What wasn’t shown in the image was the disapproving onlooker. Kaidel’s defiant stare paints a vivid scene. Criticism raged suggesting the photo was premeditated. And critics may be right. But does it matter if they are?

Sensationalist images are frequently used to bring attention to important social issues. They aim to wake us from our daily slumber and demand our attention. Shake us up. Make us talk. And that’s exactly what the post achieved. The controversy it caused speaks to how sensitive society is about public breastfeeding. It doesn’t take much to push our collective buttons.

In February, Juliet Thomson was on a United Airlines flight when she was humiliated by a female passenger who called her “disgusting” and complained to a flight attendant. Juliet had achieved the dream of nursing her baby to sleep on a plane. The reaction of those around her should have been relief. But, instead she was met with hostility.

How could something as natural as a nursing baby be a topic for debate?

Breastfeeding mothers rarely expose themselves needlessly. Comments I’ve received in response to my support of feeding our babies in public suggest breastfeeding 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.

Breastfeeding is a huge commitment which demonstrates unconditional love. Women don’t accidentally breastfeed – it’s a conscious decision. And often a treacherous journey requiring determination to overcome obstacles thrown in our path.

Cracked nipples. Engorged breasts. Improper latches. Mastitis. Bites. Nursing on demand every two hours. Loss of independence. And now, judgmental stares and nasty comments. 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 American taxpayer 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.

But, small, but positive changes are happening. Outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, recently announced changes in it’s family policies as they sought solutions for colleagues struggling to breastfeed and care for their babies without losing their jobs. In the U.S up to 35 percent of working women don’t return to their jobs after giving birth. Over the last five years Patagonia has seen 100 percent of their moms return to work.

In a recent interview with Katie Couric, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, wife of Canadian Prime Minister, spoke about her choice to continue breastfeeding her two year old son. 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.” Sophie’s no nonsense conviction lends a fresh and much needed face to countless mothers who feel less confident defending their choices.

But perhaps the most powerful symbol of support would be a shift in society’s approval. If we can challenge ourselves to shift our perspectives and see a breastfeeding mother for the miracle she is we’d all be touched by the magic we’re witnessing. A brave mom who has been nursing round the clock, getting no sleep, enduring pain and trying to do the best she can for her new baby.

She’s not trying to ruin your 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.

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  • April 15, 2016

    Beautifully said. I can’t believe people can be so ignorant and think mothers would do this simply for kicks!
    Kate recently posted…10 Tips To Get Started With Giggle Parenting

    • April 16, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Me neither Kate! Some people are so close minded and ignorant. Thanks so much for reading and happy you enjoyed the post 🙂

  • April 15, 2016

    Thank you for this post. My son was born at 34 weeks and, though we did not get the homebirth we had hoped for, I was determined to breastfeed him. Nipple shields, engorgement, SNS system, mastitis, pumping, lactation consultant… My son and I saw it all together. And here we are, almost 8 months later, and he’s still exclusively breastfeeding.
    To the people who shame public breastfeeding: Breastfeeding is an act of love. It’s beautiful. It should be celebrated and honored. If you only knew what some mothers go through to be able to nourish their babies.
    I am PROUD to be breastfeeding my son and will continue to do so for as long as he needs and wants it. I too sometimes get nervous when I am out in public, but I refuse to use a cover or hide in the bathroom. Because my son deserves better than that. He deserves to grow up knowing that breastfeeding is a beautiful, natural act of love and the people who look at it as shameful or inappropriate – THEY are the ones who are in the wrong.
    If every single mother who breastfed did so in public, around their children, around their families, we would normalize breastfeeding. I hate rocking the boat, I hate confrontation. It’s so much easier to just go to the bathroom or put on the cover to nurse. But I won’t do it. I’m standing strong for myself but, most importantly, for my son.
    Thank you again for this post!! It encouraged me and reminded me to keep on keepin’ on! Sending love and support to all my fellow breastfeeding mothers!!

    • April 16, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you for your wonderful, tender and heartfelt comment Courtney. And good on you for staying the course through all the difficulties you’ve experienced. I was relatively lucky and still it was hard. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said and I too, continue to breastfeed proudly. What you said about your not wanting to make your son feel like your doing something strange is exactly how I felt, especially as he got older. I don’t want him to think he’s doing anything wrong. You may like the post I wrote about nursing toddlers too. It’s a magical gift we have as mothers and no sense in giving it up for anybody else. Thanks again and so happy you enjoyed the post.

  • April 18, 2016

    There is a very simple way to avoid all controversy about breastfeeding in public: cover yourself. I have freely breastfed five babies in public places and never had any disapproval or controversy, simply by covering up with the baby’s blanket, which I always have along anyway. Baby can be fed, I can breastfeed and onlookers don’t have to feel uncomfortable. Don’t know why this has to be such an issue.

    • April 18, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you for your comment and wonderful you were able to nurse all five of your children in public. I respectfully disagree, however, that the solution is to cover our babies heads while they feed. It doesn’t get to the root of the problem which is normalizing breastfeeding so society understand it’s a NORMAL part of life. It’s how babies feed. I live in Canada and am from Australia – currently in NZ. I haven’t had a major issue with nursing in public. I always try to do it discreetly as I am respectful of those around me but my priority is my son, strangers fall a very distant second. All it takes is for them to turn away if it makes them uncomfortable. European countries are very open minded and in many places, like Norway, this isn’t even an issue – not because people put blankets over their babies heads but because people are open minded and kind enough to appreciate this is a normal part of life. It’s not their right to object to another person, no matter how small, feeding. My son is almost three and when he nurses I’d have no chance of putting a blanket over his head, nor would I want to make him feel like what he’s doing is weird and should be hidden. I’ve never put a blanker over his head even as a baby. I appreciate your comments but I think this issue is bigger and deserves a long term solution.

  • January 25, 2017

    This is great! Fortunately for them, no one has ever bothered me about breastfeeding in public covered or uncovered (I live in England). I sincerely cannot understand why anyone would find it disgusting. I’ve tried to see it from an onlooker’s perspective but still can’t understand. NORMALISE BREASTFEEDING!

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