Monday, February 21, 2011

Answering Objections to Nursing in Public

navy-pier-chicago-4mBreastfeeding in public necessarily means breastfeeding around other people. And where there are other people, there are comments: some good, some bad.

I fortunately haven't encountered a lot of negativity during my three years so far of breastfeeding, but I have thought about what I might say if I ever do. (And, you know, if I were the type of person to have a witty retort always perched on my tongue that I could spit out at a moment's notice.) Well, it doesn't hurt to be prepared, right? (And it doesn't hurt to dream, either!)

So if you want some comebacks ready, so that you're not scrambling with mouth agape when a query comes your way, here are some possible responses to criticisms or questions.

I had the decency to pump milk so that I could feed from a bottle in public.

Play on sympathy, with a nod to sarcasm: Oh, you're so lucky. I've tried pumping, and I get absolutely nothing out. Good thing I have this convenient milk supply attached to me!
Try debasing yourself for a higher purpose: That would be wonderful — if I weren't so danged lazy. I just really can't be bothered to sterilize and thaw and pump and all those other things, when this way's so much easier.

If you just plan ahead, it's not hard to schedule your outings around feedings. Nurse before you leave, and then just get home before the next feeding.

Play the "expert" card: My pediatrician said my baby needs to eat every hour or even more often if she wants. He also said I had to get out for fresh air, so … [Shrug your shoulders and look innocent.]
Oh, did you say you liked sarcasm?: That used to work before I fired all my servants, but now I no longer have the luxury of staying home for a year and have to run all the errands myself, nursing baby or not.

When are you going to stop nursing in public?

Snarky: Well, we have an ongoing pool. What age do you want to put money on? We've still got 7 and 13 open.
Bore them with facts: Well, Katherine Dettwyler studied various other primates and looked at factors such as length of gestation, when teeth erupted, life span, and age of sexual maturity, and she determined that "the minimum predicted age for a natural age of weaning in humans is 2.5 years, with a maximum of 7.0 years." So … [Proceed to read the results of the research aloud to them until they stop listening. NB: These facts are absolutely fascinating to me; I just doubt the same is true of someone criticizing your choice in this regard!]

Cover up!

Blame it on the baby: My baby doesn't like having his head covered when he eats. It gets too hot and stuffy under there.
Continuing in an oh-so-gracious vein: But you feel free to put a blanket over your head if it makes you feel better.

Wouldn't you be more comfortable feeding in the restroom?

Counter it: Um, no. Would you be more comfortable feeding in the restroom?

I don't want to look at that!

Obnoxious: That's why God gave you a neck, honey. Use it.
Saccharinely uncomprehending: But who wouldn't want to look at something so precious and natural as a baby snuggling with his mama?

I don't think that's appropriate here.

I don't think your butt's appropriate here. [Ok, that's just my standard response for whenever I can't think of a response.]

That's against the law.

Refer to legalities: Um, no, officer [manager, random passerby], it is actually perfectly legal. What you are doing in asking me to stop is illegal. [It helps to have a general idea of the relevant laws for your state or region, but you can always look them up later and make a complaint if necessary. For convenience, carry a copy of the laws with you — has created cards for each state.]

Breasts are sexual.

Go anthropological: Yes. Yes, they are. They are also functional, and their primary function apart from arousing potential sexual partners is to feed infants. We are mammals, after all.

Women who insist on whipping out a boob in public are just exhibitionists.

Confirm their fears: So, so true, darling. [Then make a whipping noise while unclasping your beige boulder-holder and latching on your innocent infant.]

Seeing breastfeeding is just so weird.

Matter of fact: Well, that's why I'm doing it, so it will become less weird for everyone.

[Any objection or question at all]

Pass the bean dip.

You are not obligated to respond or debate, particularly if you think your answers will fall on deaf ears or be misinterpreted. What you are doing — feeding your baby — is entirely unobjectionable. So if anyone does object? That's their problem.

Other versions of this (non-)response, which work for nursing in public as well as other parenting decisions you make:
This is what works for us.
This is what our doctor [midwife, etc.] recommended.
Thank you for sharing your opinion.
It's interesting to hear your experience.
We've given this a lot of thought
[or done a lot of research], and we're comfortable with our choice.
Make a joke. (Self-deprecating often works best to deflect the conversation.)
If all else fails: Hey, look, is that a giraffe on a skateboard? [This gives you time to flee.]

Some of the potential (and oft-repeated) criticisms of public breastfeeding I listed are simple ignorance; some come from a place of really wanting to be informed; and some are just mean-spirited and unreasonable. How you choose to respond to any such comments that come your way depends a great deal on the motivation of the speaker and your own comfort level with confrontation.

Whenever I'm trying to decide whether or not to engage in a debate with someone (particularly someone I know), I ask myself, Is there any way what I say will change this person's mind? and Is this person really asking me a question or just setting up an opportunity to air a contrary opinion? What and how much I say depends on my answers to those questions. If I get the sense that my responses will be ignored or used as ammunition against me, I often withhold them entirely. That said, you might be surprised what seeds you're planting if you can respond in a reasonable and respectful way.

A lot of the answers I wrote are more what would be fun to say, rather than what I would ever actually say in such a situation. Although, if you do manage to blast out something fiery — more power to you! Do share!

For further reading, see kellymom's post on "Handling criticism about breastfeeding," which is a helpful and thoughtful take on the topic.

What are objections you've heard to breastfeeding in public, and what are your witty responses? These can be responses you actually said or ones you just wish you'd have said.

Hobo Mama family photoLauren is the breastfeeding mama to three-year-old Mikko and a baby on the way. She blogs at Hobo Mama about natural parenting, is a co-founder of Natural Parents Network, and co-hosts the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting. You can also find her at Hobo Mama Reviews and


"Women who insist on whipping out a boob in public are just exhibitionists." How about this comeback:

"Only if someone is watching." (accompanied by a pointed stare)

How about playing the convert?

"I used to feel that way, too, until I educated myself and had personal experience with breastfeeding."

Breasts are sexual.

"So is your mouth." [Followed by an explanation of "oral sex" in case the person appears clueless.]


"Saccharinely uncomprehending: But who wouldn't want to look at something so precious and natural as a baby snuggling with his mama?" Thanks for that. I just almost woke my sleeping toddler with my laughter. I can just SEE that one playing out. Love it.

As for sharing, here are a few more:

I've never gotten any, and I NIP plenty! I did have someone get up and leave the table because he was SO offended that I did that where others were eating. He left (and later ate cold food), I kept eating (hot food) and nursing. Who won that one?

I'm so thankful that I didn't have negative reactions very often at all. Most of the time that I nurse in public no one knows what's happening at all! I've even had old men bend down to look at baby and say "oh how sweet" and never be the wiser AND... I don't cover with a blanket!

I guess I'm pretty lucky that I'm in a location wherein people we don't know are too shy to say something when I'm NIP. Although I've got close relatives who keep on saying that my kid (33 mos) is too old for breastfeeding. I'm planning to say that we're planning on weaning on his JS prom night though. ;)

Great comebacks!

Luckily, where I live public breastfeeding has not been a problem. I've never been bothered.

I would probably get more comments on the fact that the baby in the photo needs to have pants on. Why is the mother dressed warmly and the baby has his back and thighs exposed? Baby Legs are cute but come on!

A friend of mine was breastfeeding at church and was told by another lady in the congregation "I didn't breastfeed because I'm a TRUE Christian."
Her response? "Oh, so baby Jesus took formula did he? Because formula factories have only been around about a hundred years."
That same friend was also called a "fucking pervert" for breastfeeding her child. As I recall she refused to dignify that accusation with a response.

I have been lucky or oblivious and not had any negative experiences in public. But the funniest was at a Ren Faire... we (and my entire visiting family) sat on some straw bales next to a booth while I fed my daughter. A guy in costume came around the corner & started chatting with my sister-in-law. He eventually asked what we were doing, & withou thinking I said feeding the baby. He got this funny look, said something like, uh akward..., & backed away. We all laughed. If you've ever been to a ren fair, you'd know how many women are bursting out of their boddices, & I made him uncomfortable. :D

I like the comment about covering up ... and saying "why not cover your head if it makes you feel better" I did cover my newborn as long as I could with a receiving blanket, but once they get big enough to pull it off, there is no covering up. I really think people are clueless to the fact that covering up is really not an option once the baby reaches a certain age. From some things I read society is really clueless about alot of issues relating to breastfeeding. I can't understand why people are against something that is so healthy and natural for a child. I do believe that someone will eventually link formula feeding to life long health issues. Of course formula has it's place, and many moms are happy to have it around, when there is a health issue/inability to breast feed ... but I truly believe that babies have a difficult time digesting it.

Fantastic article! Thanks for sharing!

When I got "thats gross" comments I would usually say something like this :

Well, all milk comes from modified sweat glands. Which means dairy, is really just cow sweat. At least my baby is hygenic enough to take it from the right species. Enjoy your cowsweat (milkshake/cheeseburger/ice cream etc)

Thanks, everyone! I've loved reading your comebacks as well!

@Particles of Stone: Love it. So true!

@Lisa C: That's a thoughtful one; I'm going to have to use it for real!

@Lauralee: He definitely showed you…ha ha!

@The Lazy Mama: That's when we're weaning, too! ;)

@Anonymous: That's my baby and me, and I can only say that he was plenty cozy. It was a pleasant autumn afternoon, and he's always warmer than I am (takes after his father that way!). He was in a fleece mei tai (legs tucked in) except for when he was feeding. I didn't get the hang of breastfeeding while babywearing until he was older. But thanks for your concern!

@Sarah: That's hilarious! You're right about the bodice-ripping of Ren Faire costumes!

@Mommy Malsack: Ha! Cow milk does sound pretty gross put that way. Now I'm off to have nachos for lunch… :)

Love that response from Particles of Stone!!

Funniest moment for me NIP was at a work party (not actually public, it was in our Sr Mgr's home). Note: there was alcohol involved. My husband and I were possibly the only sober people there. Anyway, I was nursing and the Sr Mgr about got whiplash to "sneak" a peek. Being an ACTUAL exhibitionist, it just made me laugh. He didn't stare or anything and no one said a thing.

I got more negative comments from my family when I was a teen mother than I've ever gotten from NIP.

I haven't received any negative comments while NIP, but I would love to use the sarcastic approach if I ever did. I really hate the phrase "whip them out." I have NEVER seen a woman "whip out" her breast for nursing.

I've always been to scared to nurse in public. Sadly I actually did hide in my living room for my daughter's entire first year because of this...I regret that because now I'm like a hermit.
I did start breastfeeding her over at my sister-in-law's house about a month ago. My SIL started freaking out about how big she was and I can't believe she's still breastfeeding (and it looks so wierd)!
I was shocked of course but simply explained that my daughter still enjoys breastfeeding at 14 months and I'm glad because I still have that special bond because of it. Though I wanted to tell her just where she could shove her statement...

I usually get people asking how long I plan to breastfeed, as if there is a magic number. My response use to be something like "oh depends on if he plans on going to an out of state school..." now it is (play it cool and innocent) "oh he usually only nurses about 3-5 minutes on each side"

A reply I would like to use to the question "How long do you plan to nurse?" would be "About 3 more minutes. Why, would you like some when he's done?" LOL

@Inspired Mama: Ugh. Good for you for starting to learn how to nurse in public. It's definitely new territory at first. I just hope most people around you are more supportive than your SIL! :(

@Anonymous: LOL!

Gosh I was quite taken by the looks i get in a city mall when feeding my young baby! That was day we happened to be attending a flash mob and i guess people wernt used to seeing b/f mamas, sooooooooo many bottle feeders out there. But i must say, even tho i am somewhat oblivious to peoples eyes averting/copmments or what ever, i have such a lot of guys come up to me and comment on how wonderful it is to see baby wearing and breastfeeding simultaneously!!! it is very awesome to be congratulated on doing the shopping, carrying baby and breastfeeding at the same time!!!! :)

If breasts should be covered up because they are purely sexual, then I must say the same thing about a mouth.

@Whollyraw: I have to say, that IS pretty impressive. :) Isn't it nice to be able to multitask so conveniently?

breasts are modified sweat glands, but the ones that produce oil, not salty water...just so you know.

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