Thank You For Breastfeeding in Public, I Know It Can Be Scary

Photography: Brandi Johnson

By Emma Pickett, IBCLC

People ask for a lactation consultant’s help for lots of different reasons. We often see people at one of the most difficult times in their lives. They might be damaged and in pain and feeling really desperate. Positioning and attachment problems are a common issue.

Sometimes we can see immediately how things could be improved and after just a few minutes, a mum might feel more comfortable. A look of relief passes across her face. I’ve had mums say things like, “This is the first time it’s ever felt like this.” Or they don’t even need to say anything as their stress just falls away.

Many many times, towards the end of one of these sessions (where I’m feeling really good about what I do and slightly smug), a mum then says, “But what would I do if I was feeding outside the house. How would this work if I wasn’t sitting here?”

She’s overcome an enormous obstacle and the next problem for her immediately pops into her head.

I see these comments as a positive. It suggests she feels like she’s making progress and feels her major difficulties are behind her but it does reveal just how the subject of breastfeeding outside the home nibbles at the mind of many new mums.

Mothers and babies are not allowed to be discriminated against on the grounds of breastfeeding. Their access to businesses and services is not allowed to be restricted. You are not allowed to ask them to move on or to stop.

I think most of us know that mothers and babies are not allowed to be discriminated against on the grounds of breastfeeding. Their access to businesses and services is not allowed to be restricted. You are not allowed to ask them to move on or to stop. It’s not complicated. It really isn’t. The Equality Act 2010 protects mums in England and Wales. In Scotland, it is a criminal act to stop anyone breastfeeding up until the act of two: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2005/1/contents

But the law doesn’t automatically change how people feel.

The idea of breastfeeding in a public place feels scary when the whole breastfeeding things feels new and you are getting used to your body behaving unpredictably.

Are feelings based on reality? A Start4Life poll showed that 72% of the UK population ‘support’ breastfeeding in public. But yet a third of mums still feel uncomfortable.

Media love a story of a breastfeeding mum being harassed. And there’s no doubt that there ARE some poorly educated employees and members of the public sailing beyond the law and embarrassing themselves regularly. But these stories make headlines precisely because they are rare and juicy. If 72% support breastfeeding in public, a heck of a lot more really aren’t that bothered. And I’ll bet in the tiny group that are bothered, most will mumble an internal dialogue that the mother doesn’t pick up on.

Yet it doesn’t stop it feeling scary even when we know the statistics.

In my years of breastfeeding, I have fed all around the world – on planes, trains, mountain-sides, cafes, doorsteps, bus stops – and not ONCE have I ever received a negative comment or glance or been asked to stop. The response has either been warm and supportive or indifferent. I have spoken to many experienced breastfeeding mums and breastfeeding counsellors and none of them have ever received a negative comment (and actually quite a few wish they had as they would have loved to have snapped something back).

Yet it doesn’t stop it feeling scary even when experienced breastfeeding mums tell you not to worry and in their experience everything is fine.

What might help?
Acknowledge what is the scary bit for YOU.

What is the thing that you are really really worried about?  Deep deep down. The thing that worries you won’t necessarily be the thing that worries your friend.

Are you worried about people seeing your breasts?
People seeing your new baby tummy?
People seeing milk dripping or spraying?
People seeing you in pain?
Not having your stuff with you?
Are you worried about people saying something negative?
Or about people looking?

Depending on what you worry is, you might address the problem differently.

What is the absolute worst thing that would happen in your worst nightmare? Imagine it. How is it likely to go?

For someone, it might be the middle aged bloke yelling across the room that it is disgusting that you are breastfeeding outside the home and he doesn’t want to see that. I think we all know that’s bloody unlikely to happen but what happens then in your nightmare? Does everyone rise out of their chairs with pitchforks and move towards you with threatening expressions on their faces?

Is that what happened in that internet story someone posted on your birth group? I bet actually someone came to the mum’s defence: the bloke on the train who protected her or the employees in the bowling alley who formed a line and threw the bloke out (and several of these videos are set up by actors to test public reaction and get a nice bit of internet clickbait by the way).

The new mum would have felt scared but she probably also felt protected by those around her and angry on behalf of her baby rather than upset.

If it’s more likely that you are worried about looks, don’t look around the room. Why should you? I remember when my own son was less than 6 months old and I was feeding him in a café in an unfamiliar town, I scanned the room before I started. I clocked a man across the room chatting to a friend and when I was feeding, I looked over again. Why did I do that? What on earth was I doing? Almost certainly giving off a nervous vibe which is the sort of vibe an unkind person might sometimes thrive on. As it happened, the café customer I had first clocked called across, “You’re alright love. Good on ya.” OK, that was pretty embarrassing too as it happens, but I expect he had felt obliged because he sensed I was nervous.

Being a new parent can feel like a constant cocktail party. Just when you feel least up to it, you are trying to develop new friendships and work out what place these new people will have in your lives.

I once spoke to a mum who took off her glasses when she fed to stop her being tempted to look around. It’s probably not going to help the breastfeeding if you’re nervous so just give your focus to your baby for that moment. They will latch on more easily and oxytocin is more likely to happen.

Is the scary thing actually about being outside of the house with a new baby? I think for many people the nightmare is not the pitchforks or a weird shouting person but it’s that you will have a crying screaming loud baby and you won’t be able to sort it out. They might get themselves in such a frazzle that they can’t even latch on. And then what would you do?

At home, you try some skin-to-skin or walk around for a bit and try another room. You are not disturbing anyone else unless you have thin walls and neighbours who are home.

But in a café there are people EVERYWHERE and VERY CLOSE. People wanting to relax and talk to others. People with their own stresses. And YOU are making so much noise.

I promise that everyone in that room is feeling sorry for you and wishing they could help. We are British and get embarrassed so our embarrassment and discomfort FOR you might look like edginess for other reasons but we really just wish we could help.

That’s not about breastfeeding really, it’s just about fear of loss of control.
The solution? Have a baby for longer. After a few more weeks and months, it feels easier. Babies still cry but you feel better about not being able to retain control.

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