Bust mything

Reading the debate about breastfeeding in public, the same idiotic ill-informed comments as always appear, fundamentally suggesting that some people can’t distinguish between the human breast and a plastic bottle (a problem which, presumably, makes their shopping trips – let alone bedroom antics – fraught with embarrassing confusion).

So, as a former bottle- and breastfeeder, let me help, if you ever feel tempted to suggest these helpful solutions to the “problem” of feeding a baby while otherwise conducting a life.

1. “Express a bottle to take with you”

Excellent idea. Everyone’s a winner. The breasts stay – metaphorically speaking – at home; the baby is satisfied and silenced in public. Only: boobs don’t work like that. You can’t leave them at home, metaphorically or otherwise. I’m wary of drawing any analogy between breastfeeding and defecation (because, Lord knows, that’s not a new one), but it’s roughly akin to suggesting that public toilets would be unnecessary if everyone just went to the loo before they left home.

Expressed milk is an earlier feed’s milk. Human breasts are amazing, but they aren’t programmable. They expect to deliver the goods again one, two or three hours after the last time. They fill up. If you ignore them, they can (and given even the slightest chance will) rush headlong into blocked ducts, mastitis and infection. It’s a pain, in all senses. Expressing is no picnic, either. All of which means that the price of your comfort is bought at that of the mother, who will have to either find somewhere to express (a little backward, no?) or rush home immediately after feeding her baby that expressed milk. Which may be tricky if she’s on a plane, or waiting for an appointment or has, for some selfish reason, strayed more than thirty minutes away from her house.

Which leads me neatly onto:

2. “Time your feeds” (aka “I breastfed thirteen babies and never needed to feed in public”)

Well, lucky you. Some babies seem naturally to have a well-set body clock from birth onwards. Others respond instantly to some kind of routine. I’m not going to get into the whole routine argument, because I fall firmly between the two camps, but let’s just say that some babies won’t have a three or four hourly feeding schedule for all kinds of reasons. Insisting that they go hungry as a consequence seems a tad harsh.

There’s another aspect to this “never needing to feed in public”. A lot of the people I read making this comment tend to be women with grown children. And I wonder whether perhaps lives (both mothers’ and everyone else’s) used to be smaller? When I was very young, we walked everywhere. There was a row of shops nearby where my mum would take us daily to buy meat, groceries, vegetables (and also, probably, to get us out of the house). Church, play school, grandparents and school were all just a few minutes away. We didn’t have a car; we rarely went anywhere further than half a mile away from home. Our lives are different now; more spread out. We go further both for the basics: shopping, school, families; and for the “luxuries” of days out or other trips. All other things being equal, when you criticise a mother for feeding her baby outside of their home, you’re essentially committing an entire young family to a kind of purdah until the smallest is weaned.

And speaking of purdah…

3. “Cover Up”

Those cutesy ditsy sling contraptions weren’t around when my eldest was born. Some friends used blankets or muslins, but I managed pretty well (I think) with a combination of loose tops, vests and furtiveness. The most attention I ever drew to myself was misjudging the tension needed to refasten the clip on the feeding bra and punching myself hard on the jaw. Breastfeeding covers are fine, if they work for you, but they are discreet in the same way that those hideous maternity smock dresses used to be: by making something unmentionable unmissable.

I tried the muslin-on-the-shoulder manoeuvre a few times and it was invariably more of a show than when I fed normally. In between positioning the baby and removing the breastpad and tugging up the vest and smoothing down my top, it was just another thing to get wrong. Beneath the cover or not is a breast, not a bottle passively awaiting instruction. Especially in the early days, as a feed draws nigh, boobs get a bit carried away: they leak, they (whisper) spurt. The most discreet way to handle the whole damn thing is to calmly apply the baby’s mouth and let it handle it. Not to do some dance of the seven veils with umpteen pieces of fabric and only two hands. If you really want to remain unaware of breastfeeding in public, here’s a thought: don’t frighten and fuss mothers to such an extent. Being a bag of nerves never helped anyone perform with aplomb.

“Perform” brings me to my final point:

4. “Some women just enjoy showing off” 

This one possibly needs, for certain people, to continue in brackets “(but not the women I’d enjoy seeing show off”). 

There’s this creature, well established in urban legend. She has enormous boobs and a bad attitude. She can’t pass a cafe window, a prominent bench or a front row without establishing herself, whipping off all clothes from her upper body and clapping a child (probably her own, but not necessarily) to her breast. She has roamed the land for years, trouncing all efforts of other women to combine breastfeeding and a normal existence, with her one-woman production.

I’ve been a mother for eight and a half years. I’ve seen a fair bit of breastfeeding. I’ve yet to come across the flop-em-outer. Everyone else seems to have seen her, though, so she must exist. But here’s some advice. If you see her, just avert your eyes and comfort yourself that timing is on your side. She and her bosom have an extensive programme of outrage to deliver: she’ll be gone soon. In the meantime, if you catch sight of an inadvertent nipple or a crescent of flesh, pretend it’s in a magazine, and just look the other way. It won’t hurt you, I promise.

And try to remember that it’s just a baby, having its lunch; and a mum, doing her best.

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9 thoughts on “Bust mything

  1. How very sensible. I’m so glad I lived in Thailand when my children were born and never witnessed any kind of disapproval of my breastfeeding wherever I happened to be at the necessary time. I find it shocking and terribly sad that our breasts are no longer seen as baby feeding systems but are only worth anything when being viewed by men for their sexual gratification.

  2. I so agree. This is a separate issue from whether women should or should not breast feed and the debate around this, which can be too unkind and judgemental on both sides. This is about understanding breastfeeding. Having breastfed myself, the practice of breastfeeding brings its own rhythms and needs for both baby and mother- and one of them is, as you say the need to breastfeed on demand, for the sake of the baby and, as you say, to avoid mastitis etc. I am a v shy person and managed to discreetly breastfeed four babies. There is something wrong with a society which accepts Page 3 models yet has a problem with one of the most amazingly tender, gentle thing we can do. I so agree with this post!

    1. Yes, it’s the comprehension of what breastfeeding involves which is so often missing from the discussion about feeding in public. When people say “I don’t mind it, but…” it’s like saying “I don’t mind people walking down my street, as long as they do it on their hands”.

  3. I have to admit, once, to being “that woman”. I was sitting in the leisure centre cafe discretely nursing no 4, and ignoring the older woman glaring at me when I happened to glance down and realised that in his wriggling, baby had rearranged my top and indeed flopped out the unused one. Oops?

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