About four weeks into my maternity leave it was clear that I was going to need more nursing tops for when I brought my son to work with me. It was my husband’s day off and he was in need of some new digs too, so we packed up our little family and headed to the outlet mall.
My son slept like a champ until right before we were about to leave, when he woke up hungry. So he did what babies do when they are hungry: cry. Then I did what mothers do when their babies are hungry: I fed him. My husband wanted to pick up one more thing so I sat on the bench alone, feeding my son, and scrolling through Facebook. I suddenly became very aware of how differently people were treating me. Normal glances darted away, people walked around me at exceptional distance, one couple stopped dead in their tracks and turned around. I suddenly felt uncomfortable. Then one woman walking by turned up her nose and muttered something about it being “disgusting” and how I should “cover up.”
I felt angry and embarrassed. Then a family of five walked by and the mother, dressed in a chador, smiled and nodded at me. A woman whose own beliefs lead her to cover her body offered me support. So I started thinking, does location, dress, or demographic make a difference in the reaction to public breastfeeding? I started to conduct an experiment that was not at all scientific.
Public breastfeeding has been a hot topic lately as more women come forward sharing their stories of shaming. It is also becoming more normal for women to leave the nursing apron or cover at home for the convenience and ease of going without. I assumed that by the time I was done I would hear a few nasty comments and a lot of staring. I also assumed that most of these would come from men and older women and that younger women would be more accepting.
Before I started my experience I spoke with some young mothers in a Facebook group I am apart of. Most had experienced some sort of stigma when breastfeeding in public at one time or another. A few badass women even told me about how they had offered strangers a blanket to cover their own head while they ate if they were so uncomfortable. As fun as that sounded, I knew I wouldn’t be so bold if and when that time came.
Overall, I was uncertain what to really expect as well as where I would actually be when my son needed to be fed. Here is what I found:
Outlet Mall, sitting on a bench
Nursing clothes: Pink nursing top from H&M
Reactions: Awkward glances, avoidance, 1 rude comment, 1 nod and smile of support.
Target, walking around shopping
Nursing clothes: Nursing blouse by Jessica Simpson
Reactions: Awkward glance and smile from male store associates, otherwise no reaction.
Church, sitting near the back
Nursing clothes: Black nursing t-shirt from Latched Mama
Reactions: None, everyone thought he was sleeping.
Church (Easter Sunday), middle of pews and during Easter brunch in basement
Nursing clothes: Purple nursing dress from Milk Nursingwear
Reactions: None while in church, a few awkward glances and smiles during brunch.
Breakfast Restaurant, at the table
Nursing clothes: Black t-shirt from Motherhood Maternity
Reaction: Stares from elderly woman across room, uncomfortable look from bus boy.
Target, walking around shopping
Nursing clothes: Floral nursing tank from Destination Maternity
Reactions: walking widely around me, multiple uncomfortable looks.
Church, Bible Study
Nursing clothes: Blue nursing blouse from Milk Nursingwear
Reactions: Avoiding glancing in my direction.
Target (yes, again), sitting in Starbucks
Nursing clothes: Grey nursing tank from Latched Mama
Reactions: Staring and whispering by elderly lady at a nearby table.
From what I have found the only thing that has an effect over people’s reactions to nursing in public is the individual themselves. Nursing tops that are more discreet may help a little, and men may be slightly more prone to being uncomfortable around nursing women, but overall there was not great distinction.
The same individuals that seemed to have issue with me breastfeeding are also the ones that glared and stared when my hungry son started to cry in the first place. Some people will just always be uncomfortable around the beauty – and sometimes distraction – of infants.
Because of this, I felt more comfortable nursing in more discreet tops as I felt I experienced less attention. However, it was significantly easier to feed my son and limit the amount of time he was crying with less discreet tops as they allowed for faster access. For that reason, I look forward to more women standing their ground and breastfeeding openly in public. Hopefully the stigma will be reduced over time and nursing mothers can choose wardrobes that benefit their children more than the comfort of strangers. I also discovered that my son cannot make it through a trip to Target without nursing.
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