What’s So Hard About Covering Up to Breastfeed in Public?

Photography: Bloom and Blossom Studio

By Annie Reneau

Any time a breastfeeding story comes up in the news, especially one in which a breastfeeding mom is asked to leave an area to feed her baby, I break my own rule about not reading online comments out of sheer, morbid curiosity. In real life, I’m surrounded by people who are very supportive of breastfeeding, so it interests me to read comments and questions about the appropriateness of breastfeeding in public.

Of course, there are always some unnecessarily mean people, but some sentiments that come up frequently are legitimately well-meaning. As a mom who nursed three kids in all kinds of situations, I thought I’d address a few of these:

“I totally support breastfeeding, but what’s so hard about covering up to breastfeed in public?”

That’s great that you support breastfeeding. I actually would love to get to the stage when we stop calling it breastfeeding, and just call it feeding. That’s all it is. You’re not feeding a breast, you’re feeding a baby. It’s babyfeeding. Should women have to cover their babies to feed them in public? That sounds a little silly, doesn’t it?

But to answer your question, there are several reasons why moms might not cover up in public:

1) It actually is hard to cover up and feed a baby at the same time. Especially when you’re a new mom, and you’re trying to wrangle a squishy baby into a comfortable position where they can latch on correctly. Even with my third baby, keeping a cover over my shoulder while latching on wasn’t easy. And really, the only time one would “need” to cover up due to possible nipple exposure (if that’s the reason you think moms should cover up) is during the latch-on. And balancing a blanket on your shoulder while trying to see what you’re doing to get the baby latched is a big pain in the butt. Truly.

Covering up implies that there’s something inappropriate about feeding a baby. There’s not. It’s feeding a baby. That’s it.

2) Some babies hate being covered. Most of the time, my babies would try to pull the cover off. I wouldn’t want to eat with a blanket over my head, would you? Especially when it’s hot. Ugh, it makes me claustrophobic just thinking about it.

3) One of the benefits of breastfeeding is the eye contact between mom and baby. The location of the breast is designed to put the baby within the vision range of mom’s face. Yes, you can have the same eye contact when you’re bottle feeding, which begs the question – would you cover up your baby’s face while cradling and bottle feeding, rather than looking at your baby and smiling at him/her at regular intervals? That would be silly.

4) When I was nursing, I actually felt like using a cover drew more attention to what I was doing. Uncovered, most of the time, it just looked like I had a baby cradled in my arms, sleeping. No breast could be seen once baby was latched. Nothing screams, “Hey, I’m breastfeeding over here!” like a draping a blanket over your shoulder while awkwardly trying to get your baby into a comfortable breastfeeding position.

5) Covering up implies that there’s something inappropriate about feeding a baby. There’s not. It’s feeding a baby. That’s it.

“I breastfed all my babies, but I never did it in public. Why don’t women just pump if they’re going out?”

That’s great that you breastfed all your babies. That’s also great if you were able to pump and that your baby took a bottle. Not all moms can pump successfully. Not all babies will take a bottle. After working at it for a while, I could pump, but my babies never took a bottle. That wasn’t for lack of trying – they just wouldn’t. I’m sure if their lives depended on it, and if I wasn’t around for a long time, they would eventually take one, but having a baby is hard enough. I wasn’t about to go through that much unnecessary effort so that I could bottle feed in public.

I’ve known some women who couldn’t get anything from pumping. Some women can’t relax enough with a machine hooked up to their body to get a letdown. Totally understandable.

But the real answer to this question is, they shouldn’t have to. Think about what you’re suggesting: that a mother skip a feeding to pump, or pump regularly enough to have the extra milk to pump outside of a feeding, then find a way to keep the milk cold in transport, then find a way to warm up the milk once she is where she’s going, then feed the baby with the bottled milk, then deal with the leakage or discomfort of the full breasts she has from feeding with the bottle instead of the breast for that feeding, and then wash and sterilize the bottle afterward-all instead of just taking her baby with her and feeding the ready-to-go milk she has on hand in her own body?

Doesn’t that seem a little ridiculous?

Most women who successfully pump have a system and a routine for it, and usually it’s because they’re away from their babies for a certain amount of time on a regular basis. More power to them. I’ve known lot of working, pumping moms, and I think they’re amazing.

But the idea of pumping just to go out in public with your baby, when your breasts are right there with you, is goofy to me. How long have breast pumps been around? How long have humans been feeding babies? When did we get to the mindset that feeding babies in public is better done with machinery and accessories than with mom?

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