While discrimination against breastfeeding in public is completely without merit, there are a few ignorant arguments that have been repeated so often they warrant addressing. So let’s get a few things straight:
1. If you can expose your breasts in public, then can I expose my penis in public?
Breasts are not sexual organs. Breasts are not part of the female reproductive system. Breasts are not comparable to a penis. Unless you’re ready to accept dildos as freely and openly in public as a bottle, don’t make this comparison. Exposing a vulva in public would be an appropriate comparison to exposing a penis.
Breasts are secondary sex characteristics, just like other indicators of sex (meaning male versus female) in the species such as height, facial hair, Adam’s apple, etc.—none of which are sexual or inappropriate in public.
2. Breasts are used during sex, therefore not appropriate in public.
Breasts are erogenous zones that can be used for sexual arousal just like mouths, fingers, necks, etc. It is acceptable to use your mouth to eat in public, as that is its primary function. It is acceptable to breastfeed in public, as that is your breasts’ primary function.
3. Everyone thinks breastfeeding in public is inappropriate.
Just the fact that many people believe something to be so does not make it so. The cultural argument that we should accept the inappropriateness of breastfeeding as objective fact because many people in our society believe it to be so is no truer for breastfeeding discrimination than for segregation by race. It is not okay to try to force people to move to the back of the bus because of their race or a biological function of their sex. We can stand up to misinformed beliefs that do not serve the well-being of our society and those beliefs can change.
4. Be considerate of the fact that you are making others uncomfortable.
Potential discomfort/arousal/offense of someone else is neither my baby’s problem nor my responsibility. I don’t consider the potential arousal of lurking foot-fetish perverts when I choose my shoes in the morning. Furthermore, we don’t get the right to never be uncomfortable or offended. Ignorance offends me and makes me uncomfortable, yet ignorant people still exist. So, if breastfeeding makes people uncomfortable, they are welcome to eat their lunch in the bathroom or eat with a blanket over their head. If people have a problem with breastfeeding, it is their problem, not yours, and certainly not your baby’s. My baby’s right to eat trumps your nonexistent right to never see something that makes you uncomfortable.
5. Peeing is natural too.
Peeing and pooping in public are illegal because they expose genitals and are unsanitary—breastfeeding does/is neither. Breastmilk is food, while urine is human waste that is hazardous to health if expelled in public places.
6. Can’t you just pump and feed your baby a bottle while you’re out in public?
While some moms can pump and bottle-feed their babies breastmilk in public, it is not possible/advisable/practical for most. You could grocery shop, cook, eat, and clean up your lunch in the privacy of your own home if you’d rather not see me breastfeeding in this restaurant.
A) Pumping and bottle-feeding requires owning a pump, milk storage containers, bottles, artificial nipples, temperature control storage bags, sterilizers, etc. I own none of these things. That’s part of the wonderfulness of breastfeeding—it’s free.
B) A pump will not trigger the letdown reflex that releases milk in every woman (myself included).
C) Not every baby will take a bottle (my babe has never even seen one).
D) Sometimes a baby will eat five times over the course of half an hour. Sometimes a baby will eat once in five hours. You cannot effectively meet these ever changing feeding needs on cue with supplies prepared and packed in advance. If a baby wants to eat five times and you have one bottle of stored milk, Baby is starving. If you have five bottles of milk and baby eats once, all of that made, pumped, and stored milk is completely wasted (“and leaves you dumping the wasted milk down the sink, screaming ‘NO!!!!’ on the inside and feeling like those moments in movies when rich people start burning hundred dollar bills.”2).
E) If your baby is hungry and being fed with a bottle, then you must pump at that same time to maintain your supply. Meaning, instead of breastfeeding your baby in the restaurant booth, you need to use a breast pump in the restaurant booth. Is that really less conspicuous?
F) Bottles of breastmilk must be heated before given to a baby. When out in the world, there is not usually a way to do this.
G) Much of the benefit of breastfeeding comes from the actual act of breastfeeding. Putting Baby directly on the tap has a myriad of benefits not captured with bottle-feeding. For example, did you know that your areola absorbs your baby’s saliva, reads the germ content, and tailors the antibodies in your milk specifically to the germs your baby has been exposed to? That milk magic doesn’t happen with a pump and bottle.
7. He’s too old to be doing that (if he can ask for it, eat “real” food, has teeth, can walk up to it, etc.).
The age and/or ability of my little one to speak, consume solid food, sprout teeth, stand, or any other arbitrary developmental milestone have no bearing on the appropriateness of breastfeeding in public. The long-lived benefits to breastfeeding extend well beyond infancy (the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for 2 years and beyond as is mutually desired by mother and baby, with a worldwide average age of weaning around 4), and the weaning of my child is a transition with two people who matter: mother and baby. If you are neither, it is none of your business.
8. There are children here!
Children are always exposed to breastfeeding as the act requires the participation of a child. Furthermore, underage witnesses to the normal process of feeding a baby naturally only serve to normalize breastfeeding for generations to come. Just to be on the safe side, I will provide you with a script to handle the awkward, complicated, in depth conversation that could arise when a child witnesses a baby being fed for the first time:
“What’s she doing?”
“Feeding her baby.”
Extra material for an older or especially inquisitive child, who is in turn more vulnerable to the dangers of exposure to breastfeeding:
“Babies drink milk from their mommies’ breasts.”
9. You need to cover up!
Some women choose to breastfeed with a cover for a variety of reasons. Some do not. You know who gets to decide whether or not she uses a cover? Not you. The assertion that any woman should cover more or less is oppressive.
If seeing me breastfeed makes you uncomfortable, you are welcome to eat with a blanket over your head. That is no more absurd than expecting my baby to eat with a blanket over his head.
A) It gets very hot on someone’s chest with your face under a blanket. I am not willing to suffocate or overheat my baby for your comfort.
B) Wrestling with a blanket or cover creates a whole other obstacle in the breastfeeding process. Mastering latching a wiggling, hungry baby to your leaking nipple is hard enough without blocking your view and having to keep a piece of fabric draped and secured around you.
C) It’s one more piece of bulky gear that I won’t lug around with me everywhere I go.
D) Not many babies will tolerate having a sheet held over their faces. My baby would immediately start screaming and flailing in a panic (I can’t say I blame him), which is far more socially disruptive than a quiet, calm, silent, content, nursing baby.
10. Be modest and classy.
A woman’s willingness to feed her child is in no way an indication of a lack of class or modesty. Even Pope Francis said, “If they are hungry, mothers, feed them, without thinking twice,” while encouraging moms to breastfeed uncovered, in public, and on cue. If your standards for class and modesty are more conservative than the Catholic Pope’s, they need to be adjusted.
Women are not suddenly breastfeeding in public. Human infants have been breastfed in public since the dawn of humanity, otherwise our species would have long ago died out. Women, even during incredibly “modesty” and “purity” focused times, breastfed in public. You know what else they did? Celebrated it by taking breastfeeding photos and commissioning breastfeeding artwork (the social media pic of its day). Also, statistically speaking, our mothers didn’t breastfeed. That’s why you didn’t grow up seeing breastfeeding throughout the course of normal life in society. Thankfully, the tide is again shifting back to breastfeeding as the normal way to feed a baby. And since mothers live life just like you do—out in the world—breastfeeding in public is a part of the new norm.
12. Go do that in the bathroom.
The notion of a baby eating on a public toilet is horrifying. It is no more sanitary for a baby to eat on a public toilet than it would be for you to eat your lunch sitting on a public toilet in a bathroom stall. Actually, as your adult immune system is much stronger than a baby’s, it would be more appropriate for you to eat in the bathroom if you are uncomfortable.
13. That’s illegal.
Actually, breastfeeding in public is a legally protected right. Furthermore, breastfeeding discrimination, which is sex discrimination based on a biological function of being a woman, is illegal.
In California, Cal. Civ. Code 43.3 (1997) states: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a mother may breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, except the private home or residence of another, where the mother and the child are otherwise authorized to be present.” Meaning, a woman has the right to breastfeed anywhere she and her baby are allowed to be. Furthermore, the CA Unruh Civil Rights Act specifically covers breastfeeding discrimination as a sex discrimination case.
14. You’re only sharing breastfeeding photos to get attention.
A) When you are a breastfeeding mom, breastfeeding is a significant part of your life. As such, women are capturing photos and documenting experiences around breastfeeding along with all those staples of parenthood like angelic sleeping baby faces and messy eating adventures. They share these photos in the exact same vein as all normal mothering experiences.
B) Breastfeeding in public normalizes breastfeeding. Or as my friend Baby’s Breastie1 points out, breastfeeding in public normalizes society, as breastfeeding itself is already the biological norm. This applies to the virtual world just as to the real one.
C) There are no social media sites that classify breastfeeding photos as indecent, as the act of breastfeeding is not indecent.
15. Breastfeeding a kid like that is psychosexually damaging.
The biological function of breasts is to feed children. In fact, a defining characteristic of mammality is the act of breastfeeding. As breastfeeding is the evolutionary standard, measures of psychosexual health would be based on the species norm, which is to breastfeed for a few years (until we lose our “milk teeth”). So we look at the potentially damaging effects of deviating from the biological norm on healthy psychosexual development: Are there psychosexually damaging effects for children who are prematurely weaned? What are the long-term psychosexual consequences for a person who is prematurely weaning from breastfeeding?
16. I support breastfeeding but . . .
No buts; either you support breastfeeding or you do not. Period.
A good rule of thumb is: if it would be appropriate to feed a baby a bottle in the present setting, then it would be appropriate to breastfeed a baby.
2. Casey Ebert, 2015