Archive for 19 June 2009

Nursing in Public: Chinatown, the Subway, the Vatican, and More

Welcome, Carnival of Breastfeeding readers!

The June 2009 Carnival of Breastfeeding is about nursing in public; read my account, then click through to read those of the other contributors!

CIMG4173I’d always been scornful of the nursing covers sold with cutesy, punning names; why would a woman want to use them? What baby would want to be covered up under one? I couldn’t understand it. While pregnant, I joked to my husband that—so much for “inconspicuous nursing”—when a friend of ours draped her Hooter Hider around her neck and nursed, she might as well have a giant bulls-eye painted on the cover, or a sign that said “NAKED BREAST UNDER HERE NOW!” Interestingly, my husband, apparently more oblivious than I’d thought possible, said, “Wait, that’s what your friend is doing under there? Really? Huh, I’d never known.” Still, I was unswayed. Breastfeeding is completely normal, and there is no reason a woman shouldn’t do it absolutely anywhere, without the need to hide her baby and her breast under a colorful flowered cloth.

When my baby Marcus was born I discovered that latching was a little hard for him (“Ah, I see the problem,” a lactation consultant said, a day or two after my milk came in, “you have very full breasts with very flat nipples.”), so I breastfed with a silicone nipple shield at first. The nipple shield, however much it helped my baby latch on, made nursing in public such a logistical nightmare (find shield, attach it, attach baby, detach baby, take off dripping shield, dry off, store somewhere clean) that I couldn’t even think about doing it at first.

Still, when Marcus was two weeks old, we went out to lunch at a little family-run restaurant in Chinatown with my parents—who were staying with us to help out—and some of my husband’s co-workers. There were eleven or so of us squeezed around a round table meant to fit perhaps eight, and we were all the way in the back of the crowded restaurant, between another full round table, a wall, and a refrigerator, with no elbow room whatsoever. Inevitably, as soon as we had ordered, Marcus got hungry and started to cry. My husband tried to soothe him; my mother tried to soothe him; my baby still screamed in hunger. I tried to plan out my movements, as though in a cautious military attack, but the nipple shield was in a plastic baggie in the diaper bag underneath my seat, impossible to reach without making at least three people push back their chairs and move. I couldn’t see a viable strategy at all, and hearing my baby’s cries was making me so upset I almost started to cry.

In desperation I grabbed Marcus from my husband or whoever was holding him and just cradled him against me. He calmed down immediately, opened his little mouth, and latched onto my right breast over my shirt. This maneuver bought me a few minutes, but I realized he wasn’t going to be content with cotton-covered breast for long. Still, since I already had a wet mouth-shaped spot on my shirt, I figured I didn’t have anything to lose by trying to latch my baby on without the shield (even though he had never once nursed without it so far). I was wearing a nursing tank at the time and no bra, so I just nudged the upper layer of the tank aside and Marcus seamlessly latched onto my naked breast instead. He nursed hungrily, of course—silently, seriously, and happily.

The food arrived just then: my baby was nursing from the right breast, in a cross-cradle hold supported by my left arm, so my right hand was free to hold the chopsticks and eat. I remember the peculiar combination of sensations: the tingly let-down of my milk—so much stronger when my baby was a newborn than now, nine months later, that I miss it; the rush of relaxed elation as all my anxiety disappeared; and the first bite of juicy dumpling. When Marcus fell asleep at the breast and his mouth went slack, I detached him, nudged my tank back in place, and kept cradling him until it was time to leave. First experience nursing in public? Success! (And, incidentally, we never went back to the nipple shield after that.)

Since that day in September, I’ve breastfed my baby all over. Sometimes Marcus wants a full meal, and sometimes just a few sips—at those moments, he’ll sit up from the breast, his mouth full of milk, and raise himself up on my chest and grin at people walking by. Sans cover, my baby has nursed in all sorts of malls, supermarkets, restaurants, and playgrounds—the basic places of daily life, after all—as well as in a planetarium during a show, in a rush-hour subway car, in airplane seats next to strangers, in a gallery of seventeenth-century maps at the Vatican Museums in Rome, in an adult Sunday School class in a church basement, in a mei tai while I stood on line at an airport, and in the halls of a convention center between sessions at an academic conference.

Since that day in September, I’ve become somewhat rabid about nursing in public. After all, I had never seen anyone breastfeed—other than my one friend under her Hooter Hider—before I had my baby. Now I want people—family, friends, and total strangers—to see me breastfeed, to know that it is normal, healthy, convenient, and fulfilling.

Sometimes people notice when I nurse in public, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they smile down at what they think is a sweetly sleeping baby, and then get nervous when they catch a glimpse of breast. Sometimes men stare at me, sometimes they look away; sometimes women meet my smile and give me encouraging looks—and, in one case, even a couple of thumbs-up and a motion to her own breasts in apparent solidarity.

I hate it when women say that breastfeeding keeps them “stuck at home,” unable to get out of the house: know that you can nurse your baby anywhere. There might be some logistical hurdles to overcome—nipple shields, close quarters that prevent you from using your baby’s favorite position—but you’ll figure those out as you go along. So yes, I learned to avoid booths at restaurants (not enough room), and I found the football hold, for example—one of Marcus’s favorite positions early-on—nearly impossible to accomplish on a bench at a mall or other unsupported spot. But what I also learned is that when you’re nursing (in private or in public), you’re never in it alone: it’s you and your baby, together. You both have a shared desire that only nursing can meet—your breasts need emptying, while your baby needs filling and comforting, so you work together: you both make do in the occasionally awkward positions, you both are thrilled when your milk ends up in his mouth, and you both smile up at people. What’s more, by nursing in public you both normalize the act of breastfeeding for everyone else.

(pictured above, me nursing Marcus in my Storch wrap on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, when he was seven months old)


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19 June 2009 at 7:34 pm 11 comments

Things people say when you’re planning a homebirth

At the slightest provocation–the mere hint of an opportunity–I tell people I had a homebirth (now ten months ago!). When I was pregnant, I told everyone and anyone that I was planning one. People’s reactions fell into a few main catagories:

1) “You’re crazy–you’ll be begging to go to the hospital and get that epidural!”

2) “You’re crazy–what if something goes wrong and it’s an emergency?”

3) “Really? A homebirth? What’s that?”

4) “That’s great! I [or my mother, my sister, my wife, my daughter, etc.] had a homebirth and it was the best experience!”

Obviously, #4 was the most gratifying, but I also found #3–a genuine plea for information–really fun to respond to. I wasn’t even unhappy about getting responses like the first two, though, because while part of the reason I told people about my birth plan was that I was excited about it and wanted to talk more about it, another part of the reason was my desire to educate people. Basically, I was thrilled to talk statistics, to explain my research, and to try to convince people of the safety of homebirth.

All too often, though, I hear people who had a homebirth say things like, “Well, we didn’t tell anyone we were planning a homebirth because we knew they’d freak out,” or “We didn’t want people to look at us funny, and we didn’t want to have to explain ourselves.” But, really, why be silent? Talking about your birth is free publicity for homebirth and midwives! So be brave, homebirthers–get out there and talk about your births!


19 June 2009 at 7:19 pm 1 comment

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June 2009