Breastfeeding is a beautiful thing and is something that moms should feel proud and confident about. Unfortunately society doesn’t always share this all-important view. In fact, sometimes we’re even made to feel guilty or embarrassed for doing the most natural thing in the world—feeding our baby—especially when we’re doing it in public.
When you’re a breastfeeding mother, you’re usually in a very exhausted, burnt out, self-care-lacking state of mind as you put all of your needs aside to deliver all of your baby’s needs. Feeding is an around-the-clock job, as is caring for your baby in the many other ways you do. So when you experience breastfeeding shaming, be it from a family member, colleague or complete stranger, it comes with a sting—one that reminds you that you’re not as valued in your community as you should be.
What is breastfeeding shaming?
Breastfeeding shaming occurs when a person holds a negative attitude or judgment about breastfeeding and, as a result, says or does something that is harmful, physically, emotionally or mentally, explains Emily Guarnotta, PsyD, clinical psychologist in New York state and blogger at The Mindful Mommy. A good example is when a mom is nursing her baby in a public setting, such as a mall, and another individual comes up to her and tells her to cover up—or to go nurse in private.
“Breastfeeding shaming can happen if people are misinformed and wrongfully assume that nursing is a sexual act,” Dr. Guarnotta explains. “People may feel uncomfortable with the fact that nursing involves exposure of a portion of a woman’s body and, unfortunately, do not think through their thoughts and beliefs and instead allow them to translate into judgements.”
Breastfeeding shaming in the 21st century? Say it isn't so.
While it’s true that we've come a long way in terms of acceptance for public breastfeeding, it’s clear that we still have a long way to go. While many states now have laws in place to protect breastfeeding women, there continues to be a stigma around the topic. “Some people continue to wrongly associate it with sexuality, which can lead to negative attitudes, judgements, and messages directed at nursing women,” says Dr. Guarnotta.
If you’re breastfeeding and come across someone who is shaming you in any way, here are four ways to come to your own defense.
If someone expresses a negative comment about your feeding choices, you have every right to disagree both verbally and non-verbally in an attempt to stand up for yourself should no one else around you be willing to do so, notes Dr. Guarnotta. “You have the right to disagree and explain your own views on this,” she says. “If someone is willing to share their opinions, you have every right to also share yours.” Remember that the key word here is “respectfully”—you can disagree so long as you do so in a respectful manner that doesn’t put you or your child at risk.
Remind them that breastfeeding is totally legal
It’s hard to argue with the law, although people will certainly try. “If you are getting pushback about nursing your baby in public, just know that you are not breaking the law in the U.S. or Canada,” says Joanne Frederick, Ed.D., N.C.C., L.P.C., D.C., LCPC-MD, LPC-VA, Washington, D.C.-based Licensed Mental Health Counselor. “Believe it or not, some state laws in the US allow the mother to bring legal action against those who try to shame them according to the Breastfeeding Law.” Even though these shamers might make you feel uncomfortable, remember that you are not doing anything illegal and that you cannot—and will not—be arrested for feeding your baby in public.
Tell them to look away if they’re bothered
While you shouldn’t have to bear the burden of their issues with public breastfeeding, it may be helpful to remind them that it’s their choice to look. “A helpful approach towards someone who seeks to shame you for breastfeeding in public could be: ‘I understand my breastfeeding is uncomfortable for you, however, I'm taking care of my child and you're welcome to look away,’” suggests Saba Harouni Lurie, L.M.F.T., Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner and founder of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles. “By responding in this way you establish that you are not going to make any changes to your behavior in a cool and collected manner.”
Don’t stay in a potentially dangerous situation
Standing up for yourself is important and something you should feel validated to do, however, it’s also important that you not put yourself in a potentially dangerous situation. “If you are in the middle of nursing a hungry, helpless child, that isn’t an ideal time to defend yourself physically or mentally depending on how irate or unstable the ‘shamer’ is,” warns Dr. Frederick. “If you are on an airplane, gather yourself and your baby and seek the help of a flight attendant, the same would hold true for a restaurant, seek out a manager—or if you are in a situation such as public transportation (a bus) don’t engage with an irate shamer and exit the bus as soon as it is safe to do so.” She reminds nursing mothers that they can always seek “justice” later on. “At the moment, protecting you and your baby is your top priority,” she adds.
If you are approached by someone who makes you feel unsafe in any way, Lurie suggests accessing support by folks nearby or distancing yourself from the situation entirely. “In the same way that you are doing what's best for your child by attending to their needs and breastfeeding them in a public space, you will also be accomplishing that by putting your and their safety first,” she adds.
Surround yourself with people who support you
“Remember that, while others have good intentions, you need to find others in your life that will support you as the strong mother you are currently,” says Johanna Kaplan, Ph.D., clinical child psychologist and director of the Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. “First-time mothers are especially impressionable when it comes to this influence by others, as there are so much factors that go into this decision (i.e., how does the baby latch, do they have colic, is the mother producing enough, is it painful, does it help bonding, etc).” She recommends finding people who support you and your efforts to breastfeed so that you have people to talk to when and if you experience this type of shaming.