Ahh, breastfeeding! Such a controversial topic lately, isn’t it? Women who nurse in public (or NIP as it is commonly referred to among nursing mothers) have been met with a lot of scrutiny and judgment for having the nerve to “let it all hang out” while they feed their babies in public places. I am currently a nursing mother to a beautiful, happy 6.5 month old son, but let’s back up a little so I can share my story with you.
I grew up in a Christian home, and was always taught that modesty was very important. Being the youngest of 5 children (the next closest sibling in age to me is 11 years older), I never saw my mother breastfeed (she nursed me for 4 months). At our church, you rarely saw any women breastfeeding, and if they did, they had a large blanket draped over them. I never saw a woman actually breastfeed until I was 18 years old, when my sister-in-law nursed my nephew in front of me, without a cover. Even then, all I really knew is that the baby sucks, and milk comes out. I knew nothing about proper latching, holding positions, how much pain it causes in the first few weeks. Nothing. That was the first and last time I saw someone breastfeed until I had my first son in 2012.
When the nurses asked me if I was planning on breastfeeding, I said that I was, and they showed me how to hold Grayson and (for lack of a better word) shove my boob in his mouth when he opened it. That was really the only instruction I got before I was discharged. Then when I got home, I pretty much had to figure the whole breastfeeding thing out by myself. I can tell you this. I was NOT ready for how much it hurts in the beginning! I literally thought my nipples were going to be ripped off every time he latched. My husband and mother can attest to the fact that I got tears in my eyes and my entire body clenched up every time he would nurse. I did not know this was what nursing was like in the beginning. Now, granted, I’m sure some ladies don’t experience much, if any, pain in the first few weeks, but to me, it was some of the worst pain I had ever experienced. I literally dreaded feeding my baby, and my nipples were always cracked and bleeding. I didn’t know how I was supposed to take this type of pain for an entire year, or longer! Everyone kept saying, “The pain will go away.” But 3 weeks in, when I got a raging case of mastitis, I knew I couldn’t take it any more. I went straight to formula and never looked back. Grayson is now a happy, healthy 2 year old!
I can’t help but think that if I had seen more women actually breastfeeding (instead of hiding behind a cover) that I would have had more success breastfeeding Grayson. I read an article several months ago about young mothers in African tribes being asked when they learned how to breastfeed their babies. Their response was that they’ve always known how to breastfeed, since they had seen all the mothers before them openly breastfeeding their children.
In January 2014, I gave birth to a second baby boy, and this time I knew I wanted to get breastfeeding right!
There was something I wasn’t doing properly last time, and I wanted to figure out what it was. I got the help of a lactation consultant at the hospital and didn’t let her leave my room until I was confident that Oliver was latching properly. I also joined a breastfeeding support group on Facebook, where I could ask as many questions as I wanted and no one made me feel silly for asking. Since I already knew there would be a great deal of pain in the beginning, I think that helped prepare me the second time to know what to expect. 6 weeks was my goal. Everyone I talked to told me that the pain is usually gone by 6 weeks, so that’s what I had to make it to to see if they were telling the truth.
As it turns out, they were right. Around the 5-6 week mark breastfeeding went from a stinging, pinching pain, to just a tugging sensation (unless Oliver decided to bite me occasionally). You better believe that I slathered on that lanolin religiously, and that seemed to help soothe my sore nipples along the way.
Once the pain was gone, I could think about taking the plunge and nursing in public. I had a nursing cover I got as a gift when I had Grayson, which obviously didn’t get much use, and packed it in my diaper bag to take on our first long outing since Oliver had been born — a trip to the zoo! Previously, if I needed to run errands or go out of the house for any reason, I made sure to feed Oliver right before we left, and only stay out long enough to where he wouldn’t get hungry again until we got home.
The weather was just starting to warm up that day, and about an hour into our visit, Oliver started fussing. I knew I was just about to have my first public breastfeeding experience. I found a bench in the shade next to the giraffe exhibit, and while my husband walked around with Grayson, I attempted to nurse Oliver. There was a slight breeze that day and my cover was flapping all over, making it very hard to see what I was doing. I finally got Oliver latched, but after a few minutes I could tell he was getting uncomfortable and sweaty. I mean, who wants to eat under a blanket, pressed up against someone’s body heat on a hot day? I know i sure don’t! I started blowing on Oliver to cool him off, silently praying that he would finish eating quickly so we could finish up our trip and I could finally nurse again, at home, without a cover.
It took a few months before I had the courage to attempt NIP again, however, most of the time I would nurse in the car, or if we were at someone’s house, I would retreat to a bedroom to feed him (while missing out on much needed fellowship). Now that he is 6.5 months old, I can finally say I’m very comfortable breastfeeding in public with or without a cover. And I’m happy to report that Oliver has never had a drop of formula.
This past Saturday, at the start of World Breastfeeding Week, I, along with 70 other nursing mothers, met up at Opry Mills Mall for the Big Latch On, where we planned on breaking the world record for the most women breastfeeding at one time. Cities all over the country (and even the world) had similar meet ups going on at the same time. In total, across all the cities and countries, 13,798 children were breastfeeding at the same exact time. We didn’t break last year’s record of 14,536, but it was still fun to participate and see so many women breastfeeding at the same time. And I’ll tell you what — not one woman there was wearing a cover.
It’s really easy for people to say, “I support breastfeeding in public, as long as they wear a cover.” Well, what some people don’t seem to understand is that not all babies like to be covered up while they eat. Babies don’t know that it’s not “socially acceptable” for their mother to expose her breast while she’s feeding her baby. They just know that they’re hungry, and they want to eat NOW! Many times, it draws more attention to the mother when she or the baby are fumbling with a cover, than if she were to just nurse her baby without one. Most bathing suits (and even some shirts) show more breast than what I show when I nurse without a cover.
Another comment I’ve heard is, “Well, why don’t you just pump before you go out and feed your baby with a bottle while out in public?” I can tell you this: Since I’ve had Oliver, I haven’t been able to pump more than two ounces (total from both breasts) at a time. Usually it’s more like one ounce. That means, for a 4 hour outing, I’d have to start pumping at least a week in advance to have enough milk to last for two feedings and just pray that he’s not still hungry when I run out of milk. And there’s the other thing. Some babies refuse to take bottles. Oliver would NOT take a bottle at first, and I finally shopped around and found one that he would take after many failed attempts. In May of this year, I photographed a wedding, and I had to start pumping over a month in advance to have enough milk for the nine hours I would be away from him. Then the stress of finding a bottle he would take almost made me call the bride and cancel my services. Luckily he finally did take a bottle, but that is not always the case for some babies. They will just flat out refuse no matter what you try!
I think the public in general just needs to be educated in the area of breastfeeding. Most women don’t want you to see their breasts while they’re feeding their baby, but sometimes (while latching and unlatching) a little more might be exposed than we’d like. But our baby’s needs come before a stranger’s comfort level. Breastfeeding is not a sexual act, but in our society, today, breasts have become so sexualized that when someone sees them doing what they were designed to do (nurture and feed a baby), they get all up in arms about it, casting judgmental looks and hurtful comments. I’ve read comments on blogs or social media where people equate breastfeeding in public to urinating or defecating in public! I’m not even going to go there, because that is so ludicrous it doesn’t even require a response.
So the next time you see a woman breastfeeding, and you don’t want to see her breast, all you have to do is look away. Chances are, she doesn’t want you staring at her anyway.
And here’s a little bonus picture of my sweet Oliver that I took last week.