Particularly if breastfeeding in general — and breastfeeding in public specifically — is not the common experience in your culture, it helps to prepare and practice what you plan to do for nursing in public comfortable.
Practice, practice, practice breastfeeding in general.
If you have a babymoon period at home to relax with just you and your newborn, take full advantage. Keep your baby skin to skin, and work on practicing your latch and getting used to each other. The more comfortable you are with breastfeeding, the less you’ll feel fiddly and awkward when you’re in the public gaze. (Again, you shouldn’t have to feel awkward regardless, but I know some people can make you feel so!)
If you can currently breastfeed only with paraphernalia and props, like pillows or a footstool, it might take practice and time to ditch them. Don’t get me wrong — you could bring your nursing pillow with you everywhere, but it’s easier if you can practice nursing without it at home so that you eventually don’t need it when you’re out.
A good way to replicate the lift and angle a nursing pillow gives your baby is to cross your legs and place your baby on the raised leg, so you can try that until it feels comfortable. You can also try to practice babywearing to find a carry that holds your baby in a comfortable line with your breast for hands-free feeding while you’re out.
If your baby had a tougher start and you’re breastfeeding using tubes and syringes and pumping, or something similar, it might take longer for you to figure out your breastfeeding and be comfortable doing the feeding in public.
But try not to get discouraged — many mamas have had the experience of breastfeeding challenges persisting for days, weeks, or months, and then disappearing as quickly as they’d begun, with a satisfying and simple breastfeeding relationship continuing from then on. If you are having any sort of difficulties, though, consult a licensed lactation consultant to see what might be improved; don’t suffer in silence!
Choose Your Clothing
Depending on your breast size, you can possibly make do without a nursing bra, but I found a good one invaluable for support and ease of accessing my breast without fuss. Good nursing bras have clasps you can open one-handed. Smaller-breasted women might be able to get enough support from a nursing camisole instead. Basically, you want easy access to your nipple once you get to that layer, so choose well and then practice freeing yourself till you get used to it.
For top layers, an easy way to breastfeed discreetly (if that’s your wish) is to layer two shirts. I like to wear a light camisole (plain cotton without a shelf bra) underneath whatever shirt I’m wearing on top. Then I can pull up my overshirt and down my cami when I’m wanting more concealment — people can then see at most a sliver of breast in the middle at the side of my baby’s mouth.
If you don’t care about hiding extra skin, you can always just either pull down your shirt from the top and pull your breast out the neckline, or pull your shirt up from the bottom. The first way shows more of your chest, and the second more of your tummy; if you’re self-conscious about showing either area, you might want to choose another option. You can also use a hand to shield extra skin showing up top, or a belly band to shield your tummy and back.
But know that whatever you choose, your baby’s body will be hiding much of your skin, and your baby’s mouth and head will be hiding your nipple except during latching on and off. Remember, too, that no matter if you “flash” someone or not, what you’re doing is perfectly acceptable. These things happen and are normal and not a big deal, so just wear what’s comfortable for you, and figure out what works best.
For type of fabric, I’ve found time and again, after many overly optimistic shopping choices, that something stretchy and natural is the way to go. I prefer cotton knit, personally.
Anything more restrictive (such as a woven fabric without stretch), or with lots of buttons or too much structure, and I have to contort and partially undress to free my breast. With a stretchy natural cotton, I can pop a breast out the top of the neckline or pull up just the part at the front that I need, and everything goes back (mostly) to the way it was afterward.
If you have the extra funds and it makes you more comfortable, you can buy clothing that’s specifically designed for nursing. I found using my regular clothing just fine, if you don’t have that option. I did appreciate having some specific nursing camisoles for when I wanted to wear a dress, though. It let me feel as covered up top as I generally prefer.
Speaking of cover-ups and shielding blankets, you don’t have to use one if you or your baby don’t like to. However, if you feel more comfortable with one, it helps to practice putting it on at home so you know how it will work when you’re out. As you become more comfortable breastfeeding in public, you might eventually be able to do without it.
Prepare Yourself Mentally
The first step to being comfortable around other people while breastfeeding is to be comfortable with the whole idea yourself. If you’ve never or only rarely been around other breastfeeding mamas, as is the case with many women, it helps to educate yourself on how normal and natural breastfeeding is.
Find out about the benefits to yourself and your baby, and learn how often a baby, especially a newborn, feeds (answer: a lot!). Give yourself positive affirmations till you internalize that breastfeeding is good.
Then it’s time to convince yourself that public breastfeeding is perfectly natural and good as well. Learn the arguments for it, because they’ll persuade you, and you can pass them on to anyone who challenges you. For instance:
- It’s not reasonable to babies or mothers to ask them to stay home for all feedings;
- it’s not good for the baby or the milk supply to delay an infant’s feeding;
- it’s not fair to tell women to bear the added expense and hassle of pumping;
- it’s not good breastfeeding practice to introduce bottles too early into a breastfeeding relationship;
- it’s never as good for an infant to receive formula instead of breastmilk;
- it’s not ethical or sanitary to suggest that feeding of a physically vulnerable infant take place in a restroom.
Once you’re familiar with and convinced of the reasons public breastfeeding is better and easier — and why the alternatives are so dismal and inadequate — you’ll feel more comfortable in your own right to breastfeed.
If you’re surrounded by people who are unfamiliar with public breastfeeding (or breastfeeding at all) and you feel unsupported, take the steps you can to find like-minded breastfeeding advocates. Attend a La Leche League meeting (the people there are typically very nice and welcome questions from new mamas). Look for a local meet-up of attachment parenting types. Ask your midwife or breastfeeding-supportive pediatrician for recommendations of supportive parenting groups or classes you could join.
Besides looking locally, you can find a giant and supportive tribe of breastfeeding advocates online. Try blogs (like this one — and check out my blogroll in the sidebar for more), forums like Mothering and kellymom, and Twitter friends (look for lists of breastfeeding or lactivist Tweeps). If you have any problems, concerns, or questions about breastfeeding, you’ll get the answers you want and not feel so alone.
Know Your Rights
Let’s hope it never comes to this, but it never hurts to be prepared. Find out what the laws are in your state, province, or other region, in terms of whether public breastfeeding is allowed (generally speaking, it is), and whether discrimination against breastfeeding is prohibited (that is, are people not allowed to hassle you, ask you to cover up, or ask you to leave?). You can even print out the legal wording onto a small card to carry with you in your wallet or bag, so you can refer to it if there’s ever a situation.
If someone asks you to stop breastfeeding or to cover up, remain calm and try to remember that you are doing nothing wrong. It is that person’s problem, not yours. (I know this is hard in the moment!) If it’s a passing stranger, you can try reasoning or ignoring as seems advisable. If it’s a store employee or manager or a police officer or someone in authority, point out the laws protecting your right to breastfeed as you are doing, and ask for names, both of the people involved and of their supervisors.
If you wish to avoid further confrontation, then, you can leave or comply (or not, as you wish) and then seek further advice from the online community or even a lawyer on how to proceed. Very often, a strongly worded message to the company or the person’s superior will be enough to garner an apology and restitution, as well as an opportunity to educate the public on the legality and acceptability of public breastfeeding.
Of course, you probably don’t want to be that example, but don’t worry — it doesn’t happen to most breastfeeding mamas! And the other good news is that the more we all breastfeed in public, the less and less frequently such ignorant encounters will happen at all, because people will become used to seeing what is a normal and natural process.
You can make nursing in public comfortable and easy for you, given enough practice. And by “enough,” I mean within days of birth, even if it’s your first baby. That’s because babies nurse so frequently and so many people love to visit them, you’ll undoubtedly have almost instant and constant practice at trying out nursing in public!
What are your favorite tips for new mamas just starting out nursing in public?