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

19 June 2009 at 7:34 pm 11 comments

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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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kim  |  19 June 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Well written and well said! I also refused to ever use a nursing cover. I, too, thought they were awfully silly and weren’t working towards normalizing breastfeeding!

    Funny, our stories are very similar. Go check out my first nursing in public story!

  • 2. Melodie  |  20 June 2009 at 12:55 am

    I love all those stories you have. Awesome!

  • 3. Shotgun Mary  |  20 June 2009 at 6:45 am

    I’m just not coordinated enough to use a cover. I get baby latched, try to cover, baby gets mad at cover and unlatches. Relatch baby, recover, cover falls off. Try to recover, baby gets mad and unlatches . . . it can go on and on and on. We only went through that once or twice before we accepted failure. Now its just me, the birdie and the bosoms.

  • 4. Kim  |  20 June 2009 at 9:20 am

    I was in a similar situation with a nipple shield. It took us 5 weeks to wean him, and the first time I nursed out of the home (other than the LC’s office) was in a BRU mother’s room. I didn’t use the shield and it worked! I am grateful that I used to so that I could continue BFing, but what a pain!
    I am glad you had such an easy time of weaning him.
    Thanks for the good read!

  • 5. Whozat  |  20 June 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Not a biggie, but I’d appreciate if you could change my name on my link to “Whozat” instead of my real name. Thanks!

  • 7. Mom on the Go  |  23 June 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Necessity may be the mother of invention but mothering is the mother of many successes. Like you, the first time I nursed without way too much planning and worry was in public because my daughter was hungry and so I had to do it.

    I’m tempted to do the 2 thumbs up thing, too. Don’t want to scare off someone who thinks no one will notice.

  • 8. Birth_Lactation  |  26 June 2009 at 3:35 pm

    You are so funny! Your story is like another one by Kim about the baby latching through the shirt! Mine did that once or twice but not for long before hollering at me….. I hope you had a good LC.. It almost sounds like you may not have truly even needed the shield… at least not for consistent use. Glad you were able to overcome all obstacles in your way! Good job!

  • 9. NJ Mama  |  2 November 2009 at 11:48 am

    What a refreshing story! When my in-laws and friends start to make me feel crazy for breastfeeding without being covered shoulder to knee it is always nice to know there are other “coverless” breastfeeding moms out there. Thank you for your story.

  • 10. NIP, no tuck - Mama Bear  |  17 August 2010 at 6:47 pm

    […] Kim Through The Looking Glass Grudgemom: Learning To Be A Mom One Diaper At A Time Mum Unplugged Massachusetts Friends of Midwives Mother Mary’s Soapbox Tiny Grass Mommy News & Views Blog Breastfeeding 1-2-3 Stork […]

  • 11. A Wee NIP In The Park!! | babyready  |  9 January 2011 at 9:09 am

    […] Kim Through The Looking Glass Grudgemom: Learning To Be A Mom One Diaper At A Time Mum Unplugged Massachusetts Friends of Midwives Mother Mary’s Soapbox Tiny Grass Mommy News & Views Blog Breastfeeding 1-2-3 Stork […]


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June 2009


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