Breastfeeding Your Baby In Public

Breastfeeding Out and About written by Dot Newbold BA, Grad Dip Women’s Studies, ABA Breastfeeding Counsellor

Some newly breastfeeding mothers worry about how they will deal with their baby’s need to breastfeed when they are away from home. We live in a society which finds it acceptable for women to wear skimpy bathing suits on the beach, to dress in low cut tops and to pose scantily clad for underwear advertisements. But many people are critical when they see a woman bare her breasts for their natural purpose, that is, to breastfeed a baby.

Many Australians have very little to do with the care of babies and small children before they have their own. These days, few people have five or six or more children, as they did when our grandparents were young. In those days, the oldest children were grown and married while their younger brothers and sisters were still quite young. In some cases mothers and daughters had babies at the same time and the art of breastfeeding was learned naturally, by observation and shared experience. Other children in the family were exposed to breastfeeding when they saw their mothers, aunts and sisters breastfeed. Breastfeeding was more visible in the community than it is now.

Today, women tend to be older when they have their babies. Family size is reduced and breasts are seen primarily as sexual objects, rather than a source of nutrition for babies. Some young women may rarely, if ever, have seen a baby at the breast before becoming pregnant. They may feel uncomfortable, or even embarrassed, about breastfeeding in front of friends and families, much less when out and about in their daily lives. Men who see breasts as sexual objects may worry about their partners or daughters feeding in public. Some may be jealous of the breastfeeding relationship. Women who feel that they must hide themselves away to breastfeed are likely to see breastfeeding as unnecessarily difficult or restrictive and may choose to wean early.

Our babies are the most vulnerable members of our society. They are totally dependent on us for their survival. Biologically, they need frequent feeding because their stomachs are small and breastmilk is so efficiently absorbed. Hungry babies shouldn’t be expected to wait. They have the right to be offered the breast whenever they need a feed.

Your Right to Breastfeed In Public

It is reassuring to know that breastfeeding mothers in all parts of Australia can have recourse to anti-discrimination legislation. This legislation creates rights and provides a mechanism for redress where people feel their rights have been breached. In Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory the legislation specifically mentions breastfeeding. This year, attempts to introduce a similar amendment into Victorian law once again raised the question of a mother’s right to breastfeed in public. Publicity surrounding this Bill ignored the fact that the law in Victoria already prohibits discrimination on the grounds of parenthood. In 1985 The Victorian Equal Opportunity Board found that a woman who was refused service in a hotel dining room after she began breastfeeding her child was discriminated against on the ground of parenthood, because of her status as a nursing mother. The Australian Capital Territory prohibits discrimination against a person on the basis of their status as a parent. In Western Australia discrimination on the grounds of a person’s family responsibilities is not allowed. Following the Victorian decision, breastfeeding could be seen as an aspect of being a parent or having family responsibilities. Other State laws and Commonwealth law prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sex. It may be that a complaint of sex discrimination could be substantiated under these laws if services were not provided to a woman who was breastfeeding in public.

If you are breastfeeding your baby in public and are refused services because of it, this may amount to discrimination under relevant laws. It is worth approaching State or Commonwealth anti-discrimination bodies who will investigate your complaint.

Media coverage of incidents in which women are openly criticised or hassled for breastfeeding in public places often do not acknowledge people’s rights under anti-discrimination law. Not only this, but many commentators fail to recognise the value of breastfeeding to the health and welfare of infants and their families. Mothers who breastfeed are doing the best thing possible for their babies. They should not be expected to separate themselves from their families or friends whenever their baby wants a feed while they are out. They are entitled to combine breastfeeding with their normal daily activities, to share the same facilities with everyone else and to breastfeed wherever they are.Being asked to leave a cafe or cover up on a bus because you are breastfeeding is a distressing experience. We may feel reluctant, in such a situation, to make ourselves and our baby the centre of a scene and upset ourselves further. Often, the best a woman can do is to gather herself together and leave. If someone you know has such an experience, encourage them to contact the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity or Anti-Discrimination Commission in their State capital city. Alternatively, contact the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (Commonwealth). These agencies are set up to advise and act on behalf of people who experience discrimination in their everyday lives. In such a situation, knowing our rights makes us feel more confident in negotiating a satisfactory outcome. It is a source of support to friends and family members who might wish to intervene on our behalf. And it empowers us to demonstrate by our actions that breastfeeding is not something dirty, to be hidden away, but a natural part of being a mother.

Managing Breastfeeding in Public Places

So, what can you do when you are out and about and your baby needs a feed?

The first thing to remember is that you need to feel comfortable and relaxed about what you do. At first you will probably prefer to feed just among your family or friends. One rather shy mother, unsure of how her teenage brothers would react to her breastfeeding in their presence, would just announce that she was going out into the garden, or into the living room to feed the baby. She felt that this was preferable to hiding herself away in a bedroom as they could come and join her if they wished. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before they came to chat to her as she fed and she soon felt confident enough to breastfeed wherever she happened to be. When we are newly breastfeeding, feedtimes are not always easy. A baby who is still learning about positioning and attaching may fuss at the breast and you may feel awkward and unpractised. A distractible six-month-old may leave you feeling uncomfortable and with milk dripping, while he checks out what is going on around the room. Most toddlers don’t know the meaning of discreet breastfeeding. Some do somersaults or handstands at the breast, others like to stroke the breast or stop for a chat in the middle of a feed. Some onlookers may be disturbed by the intimacy of the breastfeeding relationship, particularly when they see a mother breastfeeding a little boy. Many people in our culture only experience physical intimacy within the context of a sexual relationship and feel confused and threatened by the physical closeness between a mother and her breastfeeding baby. They may feel that this should be kept private, that it belongs in the home, even perhaps in the bedroom, not out in the world. Experienced and confident breastfeeding mothers may not worry about this, but others may prefer to find somewhere quiet to feed. It’s important to do what feels right to you.

Subscribers of your ABA Group will probably be able to tell you about local baby-friendly facilities. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where there is a ABA approved Baby Care Room, you will know that there is at least one place which is clean and convenient, with a change table, hand-washing facilities and a comfortable chair or two. Good facilities will have a safe place to park your pram and room for your older children to play safely while you feed your baby. Most shops that sell women’s clothing have a change room and, unless it is busy, may be happy for you to feed there if there is not a baby care room available. Some mothers feed in the car or look for a comfortable spot under a shady tree in a park or playground. When out and about with friends and family, it is easy to breastfeed without being noticed if you sit in a booth, or near a tall plant or choose a corner table and sit with your back to the room.

Beware the person who directs you to the ‘Ladies’ Rest Room’. People who make suggestions such as this seem to confuse breastfeeding with excretion and therefore regard it as something dirty. They do not see it for what it really is, the best way of nourishing a baby and the foundation of a close, loving relationship between a mother and her child. So if someone suggests this to you, you are perfectly within your rights to remark that he or she would not eat their dinner in a toilet and that your baby shouldn’t have to either.

We are the products of our culture and when we first begin to breastfeed in the presence of other people, many of us feel a little embarrassed. Choosing jeans or a skirt and a T-shirt or blouse makes it easier to feed a baby unobtrusively. Rather than undoing buttons from the top, all you need to do is lift your shirt from the waist. If you check in the mirror, you will see that your baby covers up most of the bare skin and it can be hard to tell whether you are feeding or just cuddling your baby close to you. Cuddling your baby in a sheet or a bunny rug makes it even less obvious. It is also easier if you anticipate your baby’s desire for a feed, rather than wait until he or she begins to cry and fuss. Peacefully feeding babies are much less noticeable than crying ones.

Most breastfeeding mothers find that, despite the publicity, only a few people are openly critical when they see a baby at the breast. Many of us have had the opposite experience. Older women, in particular, will often recall with pleasure their own breastfeeding experiences and be openly encouraging. This gives us the confidence to continue to meet our babies’ needs for breastmilk whenever and wherever we are at the time and, by doing so, to demonstrate the importance and ease of breastfeeding.

As ABA subscribers, we can support other women by dealing positively with any criticism we may hear of public breastfeeding (‘I think it’s lovely to see a baby at the breast… and breastmilk is the best possible food for them, after all.’) and by rewarding breastfeeding women with a smile and an encouraging word whenever we have the opportunity. Breastfeeding will never be seen as the norm while children see only bottle-feeding and mothers hesitate to breastfeed outside the home. Those of us who feel confident about breastfeeding while out and about are helping to make it easier for others to do the same. We will be creating a society in which our grandchildren will all be able to enjoy the advantages of breastfeeding.

Further Breastfeeding Resources and Recommended Reading

Last Updated: February 21, 2015


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