Why don’t mothers breastfeed in public?

Like many things in our politically correct world these days, we say one thing but do another. Breastfeeding your child is advocated by all and sundry but how many women do you see breastfeeding in public? Despite all the benefits of breastfeeding, why are women still not breastfeeding in public places?

Since womankind has been on this planet women have breastfed their children. In times past breastfeeding was the only option available to feed and nurture your child. Women back then, just like now, had to work in and outside the family home, but unlike now, women would breastfeed their child wherever they happened to be. If a child was hungry, it was fed with the milk of its mother.

In our Western culture mothers have stopped nursing their children outside of the home, and when they do nurse outside of the family home, they are encouraged to do so in some little cubicle at the back of some shop, restaurant or workplace. Western society preaches the benefits of breastfeeding but it treats its breastfeeding mothers as an embarrassment at best, or as pariahs at worst. But it wasn’t always so. You don’t even have to go that far back in our history to when breastfeeding in public was commonplace and went without comment, unnoticed. To see public nursing, and with the same lack of public attention, you have to go to so-called less developed countries. In these countries women nurse their children how, when and where they see fit. There is no unheard, moral majority keeping them indoors at feeding time!

So why have we stopped nursing in public in our Western Society? There are many factors that can contribute to this abstinence but surely the two main reasons are sex and materialism.

Women’s breasts have become little more than sexual objects in our society. We are bombarded everyday with images of the female breast, and they are all of a sexual nature. In her article about “The Cultural Context of Breastfeeding,” Katherine Dettwyler compares the American preoccupation with the breast to the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding. For women in ancient China, the idea that tiny feet symbolized sensuality compromised their ability to fulfil the foot’s biological use – walking. Just as Chinese women were forced to hobble around because of a cultural belief about sensuality, modern American mothers are hobbled because the biological utilization of their breasts has been compromised by their sensual image.

Materialism has become so much a focus of modern society that women feel under pressure to resume work as soon as possible after giving birth. Of course some mothers enjoy getting outside of the home and living a ‘public life’ through work. Unfortunately, the work place in our society is not conducive for families. The work place is still seen as a male preserve, devoid of any reference to family or community. Many mothers, who would like to breastfeed at work, don’t do so, even if a ‘cubicle’ is provided. The western work place does everything to discourage the intrusion of family. Some mothers also feel perhaps, that breastfeeding is reinforcing the feeling of ‘a woman’s place is in the home’. By breastfeeding they condone that women belong in the nursery or kitchen. This is understandable, especially when one considers the long, hard path women have taken in order to take an equal place in all aspects of society.
But who will change our society’s intolerance of breastfeeding in public? The answer of course, is women. It is nursing mothers who have changed laws to protect a woman’s right to breastfeed in public. And it is nursing mothers who will ultimately change how breastfeeding is perceived. The breast doesn’t need to lose it sexuality, but society needs to learn and accept its other biological function. Breastfeeding must not be seen as something that keeps women at home.

Breastfeeding should be as comfortable for a mother to do in public and it is in her own home. Perhaps, with time, it will be.