The author, breastfeeding in public at a portrait studio. Photo: Courtesy of Nicola Prentis
“You’re very discreet,” said my pregnant friend, admiringly, as we sat near our kids at a toddler play session. “I’m still not sure how I’m going to feel about breastfeeding in public.”
I allowed myself a flicker of pride. By that point, I’d been breastfeeding my first child for a year and my friend wasn’t the first person to comment on how I was approaching it.
I’d long perfected the “discreet feed"—deftly attaching baby to boob with one hand and minimal exposure. It had meant a certain amount of sacrifice to my wardrobe, as it only worked with low necklines or button-up shirts, but it was worth it. I fed him in cafés, restaurants and shopping malls, on park benches and public transport, even on the beach, and no one ever seemed to notice.
It was, I figured, the least I could do to make sure no one around me was upset at seeing something they preferred not to see. I’d been primed by news stories about breastfeeding women being asked to cover up or feeling shamed by staff or members of the public. And not just by the stories themselves, but the sneering comments asking why those women couldn’t stop flaunting themselves and bring a bottle instead.
My sister once flung me a muslin cloth in a pub, saying, “No one wants to see that,” even though I’d chosen a seat facing away from the room. That was a step too far for me. I’d be discreet, I decided, but I wasn’t going to pretend I wasn’t breastfeeding, nor completely cover up as if there was something to be ashamed of. As my son grew, his head helpfully obscured most of my F cups and I carried on until he was 25 months old.
When my second son came along, I restocked my wardrobe with front-fastening gear and put away my high-necked tops. Luckily I’ve always lived in places where breastfeeding in public is legal and supported, at least officially, but I’d never really noticed many people doing it.
Then I read an article that suggested some women who want to breastfeed but don’t are, like my friend, worried about doing it in front of people.
That day, supervising my toddler at a drop-in play group while hoping my three-month-old would sleep for the whole thing, I looked around the room packed with children of all ages and their parents. As usual, I didn’t see anyone breastfeeding, though there were a couple of mothers bottle-feeding babies in high chairs or on their laps.
But, for all I knew, maybe someone was, in fact, breastfeeding, discreet and completely unseen, just like I had done shortly after we arrived. I realized the invisibility of discreet feeding might make women think no one breastfeeds in public and feel self-conscious that they’d be the only ones if they did it. Maybe they would think someone would complain if they started feeding their baby. I’d been contributing to their self-doubt by making sure no one could see me.
I’ve never felt embarrassed or self-conscious breastfeeding and happily sunbathed topless when I was younger. It wasn’t about modesty or shyness for me, though there’s nothing wrong with covering up if you’re more comfortable that way. I thought by being discreet, I was just striking a balance between what I wanted and how others would feel seeing it. But, thinking about women who might want to breastfeed yet don’t, I wondered whose interests I was serving and why.
Breastfeeding is allowed in public—and it should be. Nowhere in the legislation does it say only discreet feeding is legally protected or that only certain percentage of breast tissue or, God forbid, nipple be exposed.
To me, that means there can be no requirement to be discreet, and anyone who’s upset or offended has no legal back up for their feelings on the matter. I’ve always felt sure that if anyone were to tell me to feed my baby elsewhere or made a mean comment, it wouldn’t upset me. But, it’s no surprise I’ve never been tested on that, apart from by my sister, since hardly anyone will have seen me doing it.
I decided right then and there that I'd rather be a role model for feeding in public than for feeding in a way that people who have no right to mind aren’t disturbed. So, when my baby woke up during the play group and needed a feed at the same time as my thirsty toddler was asking for juice, I did what I needed to.
I walked the length of the room to the cafeteria, with my baby nursing in the crook of one arm, paid for the drink one-handed, and returned to my seat.
Over the last weeks, I’ve perfected the walking feed and have even done it in the street. I no longer go out of my way to sit in a more secluded space or face in a certain direction. Blankets are only for covering the baby if the sun is too strong, and if a nipple is visible, it’s not deliberate, but it happens.
Funnily enough, the reaction is about the same as when I was feeding discreetly. No one cares. Or if they do, they’ve not said so. If anyone ever tells me they saw me being indiscreet, I’ll allow myself that flicker of pride.
Because maybe, just maybe, by doing so I’m offering encouragement to anyone who’s not sure about breastfeeding in public.