Breastfeeding mothers and their babies shouldn’t feel they have to stay home—hey, they want to enjoy the same activities as anyone else! Current recommendations are to breastfeed exclusively for six months and to continue breastfeeding with added complementary foods for two years and beyond. If you’re not comfortable breastfeeding in public, you can find your life becomes very restricted.
Many mothers are already perfectly comfortable breastfeeding in public. That’s great—not only for you and your baby, but for those women and girls who are not yet mothers, who learn about breastfeeding when they see you.
But maybe that’s not you. Maybe you are feeling pretty anxious about nursing in public. You worry about what people will think, and how much skin you’ll be showing. These tips may help:
1. Know your rights. Breastfeeding in public is legal and a very good thing. You are nourishing your baby with the most biologically appropriate food, and—as a great side benefit—you are educating any young men and women who might happen to see you. The Ontario Human Rights Commission, for instance, specifically states:
No one should prevent you from nursing your child simply because you are in a public area. They should not ask you to “cover up,” disturb you, or ask you to move to another area that is more “discreet.”
Remember that it is legal for women in Canada to be topless anywhere it’s legal for men to take off their shirts—so why worry about a little breastfeeding?
2. Practise at home in front of a mirror. If you’ve been concerned about showing a lot of skin, this will probably reassure you that it’s not likely to be an issue. A nursing baby covers your breast rather efficiently. You can try nursing in different outfits to see which ones work for you and your baby. Some babies can’t stand any fabric touching their faces as they nurse, others are less bothered by it, so experiment to find your best options.
3. Choose clothes you’ll feel comfortable in. You can buy (or sew) specially-made nursing clothes that have hidden openings to make breastfeeding easier, or you can put together nursing outfits from ordinary clothes. A loose-fitting T-shirt is often a good choice in casual situations, because you can simply lift up the shirt on one side to feed the baby. If it’s loose, the extra fabric will cover most of your belly and breast. A shirt that buttons down the front can be unbuttoned from the bottom to nurse, or unbuttoned from the top if your baby doesn’t like fabric touching his face while he’s breastfeeding. The belly bands that many women wear when they are pregnant can work well to cover up your postpartum tummy when you lift up your shirt. Put a cardigan, loose unbuttoned shirt, or jacket over a T-shirt, tank top or shirt, and you’ll also have most exposed skin covered up while baby’s at the breast. You can also take a snug-fitting tank top, cut two slits in the front large enough and in the right position for you to breastfeed, and wear that under your shirt, T-shirt or jacket for extra coverage.
4. Use a sling or wrap. With practice, you can breastfeed your baby in most slings or wraps and the fabric of the baby carrier will cover the baby and your breast. You can even walk around while breastfeeding! If you’ve pulled up your shirt from the bottom to make your breast accessible, you may want a belly band or tank top underneath, as your tummy may be exposed.
5. Choose an easy-access bra. Many mothers find a stretchy sports-type bra works well for them; rather than having to undo a snap or other fastening, they can simply pull the cup of the bra down under their breasts to feed the baby. If you are using a nursing bra where you need to lower the cup, it might help to practise undoing it one-handed at home (and doing it up again after) so that you’re confident about managing it out in public.
6. Pick your spot. You’re looking for two things: a place where you can sit comfortably, ideally with some support for your back, as well as a place where you are less visible to the general public. In a restaurant, sitting towards the inside of a booth means you’ll mainly be seen by your dining companions; if there are no booths you can pick a seat at a table facing away from the dining room. At the mall, some women opt to use a change room—while it can be kind of boring sitting in there, at least it’s not a public washroom! You may also be able to find a bench that is beside a planter, or a booth in the food court area. On a bus, sitting next to a window means you’re less visible to other passengers and you can lean against the side of the bus to be more comfortable. Outdoors, you may be able to find a place to sit leaning against a tree or a bench with a back that gives you support.
None of these options available? Don’t get stressed out looking for the perfect spot. Find a place where you’re comfortable and where you have enough room to organize yourself and don’t worry too much about who might see you. There’s no point in walking around with a crying baby as you look for a place where you won’t be visible. Feeding your child takes priority.
7. Turn away to latch. The time when the most skin is likely to be shown is when the baby is first latching on. So let’s say you are sitting in a restaurant booth, next to the wall, but still visible to other diners. Before you latch the baby on, try turning so you are completely facing the wall. Latch your baby on in this position, then turn back to face the table and your dining companions. You can do the same if you need to unlatch the baby.
8. Consider a cover-up. If you feel really uncomfortable breastfeeding in public, you may want to try covering your baby and breast with a blanket or a commercially available cover-up. Be sure to practise at home, because many babies dislike having a blanket over their heads while nursing and will pull it off or fuss. You may still need to do the “turn away to latch” routine with a young baby, because you need to see what you’re doing to latch the baby on. Many breastfeeding supporters are not fans of these cover-ups because they can send the message: “Breastfeeding is happening here! And we think it’s obscene or embarrassing so we are covering it up.” However, for some women, a cover-up can make all the difference between feeling comfortable nursing in public and not wanting to do it at all.
Another type of cover-up some mothers have used is a broad-brimmed sun hat on the baby. This might be more acceptable to babies who hate blankets over their faces, and it does cover much of your breast.
9. Smile! If you notice someone glancing in your direction as you breastfeed your baby, even if they are frowning or looking horrified, give them a smile! You know you are doing something very important for your child, and that’s a good thing. If you show your confidence with a friendly smile, you may defuse the situation.
10. Plan your response. What if the worst happens, and a mall security guard or restaurant manager comes up to you and insists you go to the washroom (yuck!) to breastfeed, or a stranger makes a negative comment? It can help to have planned a response in advance. In BC, the Human Rights Commission has a little pamphlet that includes a statement about a woman’s right to breastfeed in public—you could always bring along a copy.
You might simply want to politely say: “No, thank you, we don’t eat in washrooms.” If the manager says a customer has complained, you could suggest, again politely, that the customer might want to move to a different table where he can’t see you.
Of course, if you are feeling upset or bullied, you may want to just leave. Just know that you have done nothing wrong. You can always follow up later with a letter or email if you choose to.