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Adieu to Taboo: It's Time to Normalize Public Breastfeeding

March 28, 2024
Ahma & Co Team
Image Credit: Cleyder Duque
Image Credit: Cleyder Duque

Today marks the first day of World Breastfeeding Week, running from August 1st through August 7th. Suppose just one week is not enough for you, no worries - in the United States, the entirety of August is National Breastfeeding Month! The last week of August is especially significant for mothers of color, with August 25th through the 31st being Black Breastfeeding Week. Created by breastfeeding advocates, the dedicated week aims to bring awareness and facilitate action to help support racial disparities in breastfeeding rates. All in all, World Breastfeeding Awareness is a celebratory occasion; policies that aim to support breastfeeding have increased prolifically as decision-makers across the globe recognize the incredible value that breastfeeding poses for both public health and their respective economies. The lingering problems do not seem to be due to a lack of policy, but rather to unwelcome, Karen-Esque presences.

You see it time and time again, the horror stories of public breastfeeding populating your feeds. Imagine a breastfeeding mom is on the go with her little one, who starts crying. Mom, knowing it's likely time for her baby to eat, settles down on a public bench, uncovers her breast, and begins to feed her baby. Then, it emerges. The infamous public-breastfeeding-shaming monster. It lurks around, waiting for its moment to tell you that exposing your breasts like that is inappropriate, or worse, immodest. Unfortunately, there is no magic repellant spray to rid the world of these monsters like you might with your little ones' at night. There is, however, the compelling solution of normalizing public breastfeeding.

Here’s the thing. Public breastfeeding is legally protected and encouraged across a majority of developed nations. The World Health Organization (WHO) encourages mothers to breastfeed, given its deep and widespread benefits for global communities. Most developed countries worldwide have listened to WHO, adopting and creating legislation that protects and supports mothers in pursuing breastfeeding. For instance, most mothers in their place of work are entitled to the time and the appropriate space to breastfeed or pump. They also have the protected right to breastfeed in public spaces. In addition, businesses are encouraged to allow mothers the space to breastfeed, and many legally meet that threshold, providing the space (aside from dangerous locations with chemicals per se) to do so. Thus, on paper, mothers are in good standing for public breastfeeding; the fear or frustration that most mothers experience when approaching public breastfeeding is not of legal repercussions, but of societal pressures that shame mothers for doing so.

Geoforum conducted a study that examined these societal pressures around public breastfeeding. This research was motivated to address the lack of understanding in how stigma and concern about public breastfeeding may cause lower breastfeeding rates in high-income countries such as the United States. The study uncovered that mothers who publicly breastfeed faced the following perceptions of being:

  • Unattractive
  • Lazy
  • Bad Parents
  • Lacking in Self-Respect
  • Exhibitionists
  • Sexual aggressors, inviting sexual contact from men

It’s painful to write these things, let alone to know that these are common perceptions mothers must face if they choose to breastfeed publicly. The study then introduces the paradox: good mothers have to breastfeed (which is frankly harsh and untrue), but only at home where it's appropriate to feed your baby. Finally, the analysis contextualizes this paradox, noting that these perceptions often emerge from gender inequality in society and the hyper-sexualization of women's bodies.

If you see a mother publicly breastfeeding her baby, 10 times out of 10, it is to simply nourish her baby. Breastfeeding is not cryptic, signaling to others, "Hello, ignore my baby, I want you and me to get it on." It is simple. Their. Baby. Is. Hungry. Newborns are designed, so to speak, to feed frequently. The CDC notes that within the first few days post-delivery, newborns will look to feed as often as every 1 to 3 hours; elongating to 2 to 4 hours in your newborns’ later months. Therefore, it is nearly inevitable for breastfeeding mothers to be out and about and be confronted with the fact that their baby is hungry. The unfortunate truth is that they are also sometimes confronted with negative and aggressive commentary from surrounding individuals. Some mothers who publicly breastfeed cite instances of being told to cover up or find a more private location to nourish their babies. The anticipation of this commentary can also negatively impact mothers’ own perceptions of public breastfeeding.

The International Breastfeeding Journal explores mothers' perceptions regarding public breastfeeding. It notes that mothers experience negative emotions, like feeling ashamed or anxious to breastfeed in public. So much so, some mothers feel so uncomfortable towards public breastfeeding perceptions that they are deterred from ever initiating breastfeeding or feel pressured to cease earlier than hoped. For some mothers, who want to continue breastfeeding but do not want to do so publicly, they express their milk before travel and utilize bottle-feeding. As an additional alternative, there are also "nursing covers," the blankets you may see mothers utilizing to shield the act of breastfeeding. While these options for feeding on the go are entirely valid for mothers to use, what is less valid is often the motivators for their usage: a toxic culture that sexualizes mothers' breasts in something as fundamental as breastfeeding.

It's unfair; it's pervasive. But, what it's not is static. A tremendous amount of work and progress has been realized in normalizing public breastfeeding. You're likely to have seen it, too, populating your feeds with #normalizebreastfeeding. Vanessa Simmons, a mom to three little ones and photographer in San Diego, launched Normalize Breastfeeding. As the name suggests, the campaign seeks to make breastfeeding a standard in society--to treat it as something normal, rather than unacceptable, emphasizing the Black community who have been historically underrepresented in the breastfeeding narrative. The campaign, including sharing mothers' stories via social media and events, is Vanessa's effort to "... remove the taboo of public breastfeeding from modern society." This initiative has been well-received, which, to illustrate, led to June 27th being recognized as International Normalize Breastfeeding Day. But, while inspiring to see the heights it has reached, the campaign is far from over in its mission.

It's time (and it has been for a while) to normalize public breastfeeding. There are so many fears and frustrations in breastfeeding itself--mothers do not need the added pressure of feeling unwelcome to feed their children publicly. So, as we move further into World Breastfeeding Week and Month, let us celebrate the victories and look towards a future where breastfeeding in public won't raise even a second glance.

Ahma & Co Team

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