Breastfeeding Holistic Health Newborn & Infant Thrive

The Importance of Nursing in Public

young mother breastfeeding her baby in public
Written by Jessika Firmage

| by Meghan Johnston, IBCLC

As an IBCLC and volunteer breastfeeding counselor I see an abundance of unsolicited instructions given to nursing mothers as to how they can, and should, go about their lives without ever being seen breastfeeding. If you stalk the comments on a breastfeeding news article you will get an idea of what these moms are up against. Some comments are intentionally rude or denigrating while others are well intended but quite damaging to the breastfeeding relationship nonetheless. I’d like to challenge some of the more frequently seen suggestions about how women can keep breastfeeding hidden. “Why can’t mom pump and bottle feed when out?” “Why can’t mom cover up?” “What if my teenage boy sees that!?!” Not only are these comments isolating to new mothers who really need the support of their community, they also shame the breastfeeding woman by implying a lack of modesty, therefore promulgating the erroneous notion that feeding a child should be done in private, like sex.

The reality is, breastfeeding is simply the normal way to feed a child, and the sexual connotation attached to women’s breasts is cultural and nothing more. Biology has set up the breasts to have one function: to feed a child.

Since breastfeeding is considered a public health issue we all benefit from supporting breastfeeding, wherever it happens, even if we have never lactated.

Why can’t mom pump her milk and bottle feed while out in public? 

This is generally not meant to be offensive, but is a question that will only fall from the mouth of someone who has little understanding of breastfeeding. The easiest and most obvious response would be that some moms don’t respond to pumps and some babies won’t take a bottle. However, there are many reasons as to why this isn’t practical for women to do. Some women simply can’t afford a pump. Or, even if they could, they might not want to spend the money on one. Perhaps they’d rather put that money towards a nice infant carrier so mom can get out with friends, and be a part of the community with baby comfortably snuggled against her.

The strategic planning and time required to fulfill this request is outrageous. There is a small window of time between one feed to the next, particularly with a new baby. Usually less than three hours, often less than two hours, and occasionally less than one hour. The clock starts at the commencement of baby’s feed.


Mom must feed baby prior to leaving, which could take about 30 minutes or more.


Then while baby is happy (hopefully) and satiated, mom will now have to express enough milk for a bottle, which might not be possible since baby just ate, this is an additional 30 minutes of time, longer if mom needs to burp baby before starting her pumping session.


She must then load up her car like it’s a cargo plane because you never know what you’ll need when heading out with your first baby. This includesputting her recently expressed milk on ice. Add 20 to 30 minutes to the clock for all this.


Now add an additional 15 minutes for the wardrobe change due to baby’s blowout.


Once everyone and everything is packed mom can now drive to her destination. Depending on where she is going this could take 15 minutes or more.


By the time mom gets there she has about half an hour before baby will want to nurse, so she better immediately start looking for a way to warm up that bottle of expressed breastmilk she packed.


Say she does all of this successfully and baby happily bottle feeds thus sparing the public’s fragile eyes from the icky act of breastfeeding, what happens when, in an hour, baby is hungry again? This sleep deprived mom who can barely tell the difference between night and day, whose minutes feel like hours and hours like seconds, better plan her time just right by predicting the unpredictable time of when her baby will want to nurse again.

Given that she only packed one bottle of expressed breastmilk she must make it home in time to feed baby before he’s a screaming ball of hunger, wailing at the same decibel as a jet engine. Despite not having enough time to complete the goals of her outing she will likely be glad to head home anyway just to relieve the engorgement caused by skipping a feed and using that bottle.

The risk of said engorgement could lead to a decrease in milk supply or mastitis, neither of which are enjoyable for mom or baby. Furthermore the above scenario only applies to the hypothetical baby who nurses for only one reason, hunger. I have yet to meet one of these babies. All babies nurse for numerous reasons, hunger is just a sliver of the breastfeeding pie.

A mom who attempts this suggestion might find it easier to not go out at all, therefore leaving her isolated at a time in her life when community and friendly connections are critical.

Why can’t mom cover up? I don’t want my teenage boy to see her breasts.

Covering up seems like an easy way to protect the poor teenagers who might get the wrong idea about breasts should they see a pair being used as bottles. Gasp! That’s right, breasts are not just for you to ogle at. Poor teenager, sorry this world of hyper-sexualizing women’s bodies just got a little less sexual. In all seriousness, covering with a blanket seems simple enough. Mom can hold the blanket over her shoulder with her left hand, her breast with her right hand, while her baby can be brought to the breast with her…wait a minute.

Perhaps her baby can be brought to the breast by that teen who is nearby and apparently extremely interested in her breasts. Mom can then employ a friend to bring water to her mouth when that intense need to drink hits as oxtytocin kicks in. Alternatively mom could do away with the cover, get baby situated at the breast herself, and then comfortably sip her water.

Even if mom did have more than two hands, or a cover that ties around her neck, some babies simply won’t nurse under a cover. It might be too hot, or too hard to breath, or it might just get in the way. To understand I would encourage you to grab some food and a portable heater, cover yourself from head to toe with a blanket, set the heater at 98.6 F, and enjoy your meal.

A mom who attempts this suggestion might find it easier to just bottle feed, therefore putting her baby at risk of premature weaning from the breast.

Why can’t mom politely excuse herself and breastfeed in a bathroom, car, or other room?

Lets start with the most offensive suggestion first. Nursing in a bathroom. Yes, that actually gets suggested quite often. All I can say is, how often do you enjoy your meals in a bathroom? About at often as you eat them under a blanket?

How about a car or private room? It is disrespectful to segregate mothers every time her baby wants to nurse, which at times can be constant, particularly if baby is out in the community and finds the situation overstimulating, therefore requesting to nurse for comfort. It’s not always about the milk! Mom might be enjoying a conversation with friends when mid-sentence baby starts to fuss. Interrupting conversations and sending mom off into isolation infringes on her right to be part of the community, and is likely to leave her excluded from most discussions. If mom desires to care for her baby’s needs while still meeting her own, she simply can’t be sequestered to the backroom every time baby feels cold, tired, or hungry.

Forgive her for making her baby and herself a priority above the stranger sitting at the table next to her who might find exposure to normal infant feeding distressing. Dear nursing mothers, rest assured as hard as it might be for a passerby to get a potential glimpse of a breast being used in a nonsexual way, delaying your baby’s feed is much more distressing to you and baby.

A mom who attempts this suggestion might find it easier to distract her baby as long as possible rather than feed in public, therefore putting baby at risk of slow weight gain and other health issues.

Why can’t she just feed her baby formula while out, and breastfeed while home?

Short answer: there are risks to formula feeding mom might not be willing to take.

Risks aside, if mom wishes to breastfeed than she must indeed breastfeed. There is no on and off switch. It’s quite common for moms to try this only to find themselves uncomfortably engorged and needing to head home to remove milk from her breasts that baby was not permitted to remove. Once home, where she can count on the walls of her house to protect individuals from seeing her public displays of breastfeeding, she will likely offer baby the breast, but baby isn’t going to take the breast with a belly full of formula. This leaves mom engorged and uncomfortable. Since breastmilk, like a free market, works on supply and demand, if this happens enough the lack of demand will lead to lack of supply. This type of “breastfeeding” is undoubtedly not sustainable.

A mom who attempts this suggestion might find it easier to give up on breastfeeding altogether.

Breastfeeding mothers face many challenges throughout their nursing relationships, often times experiencing a lack of support from family, friends, or the community. No mother or baby should have to suffer the consequences of not breastfeeding because people can’t handle seeing infants fed the way biology intended.

For some mothers, being criticized for nursing in public won’t stop them from feeding their child wherever necessary, but for other women with less support and experience, harsh critics could be the difference between her breastfeeding or not. The difference between her getting breast and ovarian cancer or not. The difference between baby suffering from diabetes, ear infections, respiratory infections, and being hospitalized or not. These demands to hide breastfeeding could be the difference between baby dying of SIDS, and getting childhood leukemia or not. These very words could be the words that rob her and her baby from the oxytocin rush that occurs with every single feed and allows for proper brain development, fertilizing the brain with a hormone known as the “love hormone.”

With breastfeeding comes breastfeeding in public, there is no way around that and no mother’s price of admission into her own community should have to be to give up breastfeeding.

1. American Public Health Association. A call to action on breastfeeding: a fundamental public health issue. 2007. Policy No. 200714. Available at: Accessed January 13, 2015.
2. Gartner LM et al. (2005) Breastfeeding and the use of human milk.
3. Iwinski, S. (2003). Feeding On Cue. New Beginnings, Vol. 20 No. 4, 1264. Ip S, Chung M, Raman G, et al. Breastfeeding and Maternal and Infant Health Outcomes in Developed Countries. Rockville, Md: Agency for Health Care Policy and Research; 2007.
5. Freed GL et al. (1993) Effect of expectant mothers’ feeding plan on prediction of fathers’ attitudes regarding breast-feeding.
6. Susin LR et al. (2008) Inclusion of fathers in an intervention to promote breastfeeding: impact on breastfeeding rates.
7. Gartner LM et al. (2005) Breastfeeding and the use of human milk.
8. Ip S, Chung M, Raman G, et al. Breastfeeding and Maternal and Infant Health Outcomes in Developed Countries. Rockville, Md: Agency for Health Care Policy and Research; 2007.
9. Woo J, Dolan L, Morrow A, Geraghty S, Goodman E. Breastfeeding helps explain racial and socioeconomic disparities in adolescent adiposity. Pediatrics. 2008;121(3):e458–465.
10. Uvnas-Moberg K. Neuroendocrinology of the mother-child interaction. Trends In Endocrinology And Metabolism: TEM 1996 May;7(4):126-31.
11. Ross HE, Young LJ. Oxytocin and the neural mechanisms regulating social cognition and affiliative behavior. Front Neuroendocrinol 2009

About the author

Jessika Firmage