Breastfeeding in public: what is and what is not "appropriate"

I just read about a discrimination case in the San Diego area in which author/educator Rachel Rainbolt was told by her child’s homeschool teacher that breastfeeding was “inappropriate” behavior during weekly meetings.  Read more about this case on her site.

First of all, this sort of reaction to breastfeeding is not uncommon.  It reminds me of this cartoon, which points out some of the deep hypocrisy that pervades this whole issue, especially here in the US.

Second, this is obviously about cultural norms–and this includes ideas about what is and what is not considered “indecent” in public settings.  Part of the issue is who defines norms, and how certain activities (or parts of bodies) are deemed either acceptable or not.  The whole conversation about breastfeeding is entangled in all kinds of social and cultural ideas about human nature, sexuality, and how we think about individual human bodies in relation to the larger social body.  When a lot of people think about breasts (this includes men and women), they automatically think SEX.  As if that’s their primary reason for existence.

That’s pretty much the heart of the matter: women’s breasts are often defined as sex objects–and not much more.  And since sex is basically taboo in the public realm, breastfeeding ends up being perceived as some sort of indecent, out-of-bounds behavior.  When these sorts of culturally-based ideas about women’s bodies get codified and/or backed by laws, well, that when things can get worse.  Read: discriminatory.

Of course, Rachel Rainbolt isn’t alone here.  Just about a year ago anthropologist Adrienne Pine found herself caught up in her own breastfeeding controversy.  Pine’s decision to feed her child during a class lecture was met with charges that her behavior was “unprofessional,” among other complaints.  See Pine’s response to the incident on Counterpunch here.  I remember reading about that when it happened, and being surprised at just how upset some people were about the entire subject.  Talk about striking a chord.  Clearly, breastfeeding exposes some sensitive cultural boundaries–but why?  As the ironic cartoon points out above (here’s the link again), it’s pretty hilarious that Victoria’s Secret can display boobs in public and everyone is ok with it, but when a mother has to feed her kid in a public place it’s potentially a grave social offense.

Hmmm.

Anthropologically speaking, all of the negative reactions to breastfeeding are interesting in and of themselves.  Where do these reactions come from?  What fuels them–and what makes them so prominent?  Why and how did breastfeeding become so…taboo?  It’s important to look deeper at these kinds of social (and public) fault lines and ask ourselves what’s going on.

This led me to some of the work of anthropologists who take a closer look at breastfeeding and why it’s such a controversial and touchy issue for some folks.  Katherine Dettwyler has written a lot about the subject, and some of her commentaries are accessible online.  In one piece about the “cultural context” of breastfeeding in the US, she writes:

This isn’t a male versus female issue; most of the outspoken critics of breastfeeding in public, and breastfeeding older children, are women, just as women are the ones clamoring for their right to have their breast size increased through surgery. Likewise, some researchers have suggested that breastfeeding advocacy represents a call for women to return to their “traditional,” circumscribed roles as housewives and mothers. In this chapter, I explicitly reject this interpretation. Women should not have to choose between nurturing their children in the best possible way and pursuing other interests outside the home. Just as an earlier generation of women thought that they had to choose between having a family and having a career, today’s generation of working mothers often think they must choose between breastfeeding their children and having a career, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  It is up to us to change the cultural context of breastfeeding, and of work, in the United States, so that breastfeeding is compatible with the modern workplace. Rather than concluding that an advocacy of breastfeeding means a return to the days of “a woman’s place is in the home,” one can argue that an advocacy of breastfeeding means a change in a culture’s valuation of child rearing as an activity, and a change in the valuation of the important contributions that only women can make to the social reproduction of a society.

Dettwyler makes several strong points, and also helps add a wider perspective to the whole issue.  Specifically about the notion that breasts are simply objects of sex and desire, she writes:

I am not suggesting that it is wrong or immoral or perverted to experience sexual pleasure from manual or oral manipulation of the breasts as part of sexual behavior. I am insisting, however, that we recognize this as learned behavior, learned in a particular cultural context. I am not suggesting that men and women in any culture should give up this aspect of their sexuality; I am suggesting that they should recognize this role of the breasts as a very distant, secondary lagniappe. Can’t we “have our cake and eat it, too?” one may ask. Perhaps, I would respond, but with caution. Perhaps, but only to the extent that using our breasts for these purposes doesn’t lead to the excesses represented by female mammary mutilation, widespread dissatisfaction among women with the way their bodies look, men who judge a woman’s value on the size of her breasts, and widespread misunderstanding of the primary function of women’s breasts, which leads to breastfeeding being defined as sexual behavior. The costs of these cultural beliefs, in terms of women’s physical health and self-esteem, and children’s health, are, it seems to me, too high a price to pay.

It is a high price.  And it’s ironic that the simple human act of breastfeeding can stir up such controversy.  All of this makes me want to look further into when, why, and how cultural attitudes about breastfeeding shifted in the US, and how those changes are linked to the prominence of bottle and formula feeding.  It makes you wonder.

 

PS: Please post any related links or citations you have in the comments section.   I know there has to be a lot of lit out there about this, so please share any recommendations or suggestions. Thanks.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky.  He is currently in Yucatan, Mexico with his family splitting his time between writing his dissertation and being on baby duty.  He is the editor of the anthropologies project and also blogs at Anthropology in Public.  You can email him at: anthropologies project at gmail dot com, or find him on Twitter (@publicanthro).

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

26 thoughts on “Breastfeeding in public: what is and what is not "appropriate"

  1. Thanks for stopping by here Rachel. Ya, the whole ordeal with Adrienne Pine got pretty heated. I wonder how things have played out over time with all of that. From what I remember she wanted to avoid any big confrontations, but it sort of mushroomed anyway–and then I think the Counterpunch piece threw some more fuel on the fire.

    Here are a few more links I found that are accessible online:

    This one talks about some of the legal aspects:

    http://nurturedchild.ca/index.php/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-and-legal-issues/

    And another piece written for La Leche League by Judithe Thompson in 1996:

    http://www.lalecheleague.org/nb/nbnovdec96p164.html

    Also here’s the medical anthro wiki page on breastfeeding, with lots of good info:

    http://medanth.wikispaces.com/Breastfeeding

  2. This led me to some of the work of anthropologists who take a closer look at breastfeeding and why it’s such a controversial and touchy issue for some folks.

    Is it what I call the cell phone problem? I feel like American society hasn’t worked out where the privacy bubble is and who has the right to say it has been breached on this one. Several months ago I met an acquaintance’s infant daughter for the first time when I ran into them out together. For no good reason other than it being something one invariably says to new mothers where I am from, I asked, “Are you breastfeeding?” My acquaintance—a feminist social scientist—was visibly uncomfortable with my question.

  3. I have also wondered how much of the breastfeeding-in-public response is a displaced reaction to infants-in-public. We see more and more infants and children in workplaces when moms (rarely dads) had a problem with alternative arrangements that day, more small children in ‘nice’ restaurants getting evil stares from other customers, babies on airplanes, etc., etc — there has been a growing backlash that I won’t detail here, since I suspect everyone has heard the complaints about parents, especially young parents, who seem to think that everyone else is thrilled to see, hear, and often smell their spawn in public places [ 😉 ]. Lots of people understand that someone such as Prof. Pine might not have had any options that day except to bring her infant to work with her, so they are reluctant to criticize her for that, but they can leap on the breastfeeding-in-public instead, since there may be a cultural line that she crossed. I suspect that in many such cases it’s not really breasts that are the issue.

  4. That is such an excellent point that you have brought up Barbara, which I have to say, I also advocate about. The world belongs to all of us – infants and children included. I don’t think anyone wants to see, hear, or smell my children. My motivation for bringing them to a restaurant to eat is because we (and they) are hungry and the restaurant serves good food. I actually wrote an article about that too. Well, it was actually a blog post so it was more of an off-the-cuff rant. 😉
    http://rachelrainbolt.blogspot.com/2012/05/normal-0-false-false-false-en-us-ja-x.html

    Man I love all your anthropological perspectives! I need to hang out with more anthropologists.

  5. Matthew wrote: “Is it what I call the cell phone problem? I feel like American society hasn’t worked out where the privacy bubble is and who has the right to say it has been breached on this one.”

    Good question, Matthew. It’s interesting to think about this in terms of privacy, since it’s actually the sense of privacy of OTHER people that often gets upset when it comes to breastfeeding (not the mother and child). Interesting.

    Barbara: that’s another good point–that some of this could be about people actually being averse to babies in all sorts of public places. Breastfeeding, in that case, would basically be the easy scapegoat, since many perceive it as having crossed a social/cultural line (of privacy, or intimacy, or whatever).

    Both of your points make me wonder about how these attitudes toward infants/babies and breastfeeding developed. When, for example, did it become socially proper to limit babies to certain private places, and expect them not to be in restaurants, on planes, or even at places of work? I honestly don’t know since I haven’t read much about this–but this thread is making me want to go look into all this even more (esp now that I have a little 5 month old of my own).

    Rachel: I like how you bring up the idea that kids and babies are just as much a part of the world as everyone else–and therefore entitled to the same public spaces as everyone else. It’s interesting though that around the world (and even within the US) there are definitely different ideas about where kids and babies should be allowed, or what parts of the adult world they can be a part of. Also, I do think that some folks forget that parents do in fact take their kids out to eat in public places not to show them off or share their cuteness, but instead to do something pretty normal: EAT!

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

  6. Mothers in North America are currently caught in the middle of tremendous cultural and political contradictions over breastfeeding.

    First, they are exhorted from the public health / cult-of-good-motherhood angles that they MUST breastfeed because of its many benefits and because good mothers should uncomplainingly do whatever it takes to give their babies the best. But they aren’t effectively supported to do so, because breastfeeding is still framed primarily as a personal choice and burden, not as a societal good or a reproductive right.

    Then, they are sabotaged right out of the starting gate in their efforts to breastfeed, because of the immensely medicalized way our healthcare system manages childbirth and the immediate postpartum period, and because of the deep inroads formula marketing has made into that very same healthcare system.

    Then, right around the time they and their babies might hopefully be getting the hang of breastfeeding, most USA mothers are heading back to work, because paid maternity leave is for the privileged few and even then is doled out in weeks, not months or years like the rest of the developed world (and much of the developing world!) Without adequate workplace lactation accommodations, most mothers wean soon after returning to work.

    If by some miracle mothers haven’t given up and weaned from pain, frustration, exhaustion, or anxiety, if they then dare to leave their homes and nurse their babies, they quite often meet with shaming, hostility, and discrimination from ignorant, modesty-policing community members and service providers.

    The incidents of harassment of mothers who breastfeed in public are so numerous, so constant, that breastfeeding advocates are challenged just to keep track of them. In the decade or so that I’ve been doing volunteer support work, advocacy, and anthropological research on breastfeeding in North America, I’ve seen several organizations or campaigns focused just on this issue come and go. Awareness has been raised, laws have been passed, but the harassment continues — and it may be increasing.

    The vitriol that mothers have encountered for the simple act of feeding their child in the biologically normal way in the presence of other people is deeply puzzling. It is tied up with the sexualization of female breasts (and female bodies more generally) and the normalization of bottle-feeding, to be sure. I think it also is a flashpoint or trigger site for our society’s profound lack of consensus about women’s roles, the construction of personhood within mothering, and the enduring masculine character of the public sphere.

    I think, however, that it is also worth pointing out that nursing in public harassment is primarily a middle-class, white women’s issue. These stories get a lot more media and activist attention than, say, the prison system’s treatment of pregnant or lactating prisoners, or the ways that most workplace lactation accommodations that do exist only apply to white-collar office jobs, not the retail, service, or manufacturing sectors, or the ways in which women of color are often discouraged from breastfeeding by care providers or by their own community, or the refusal of most high schools to accommodate breastfeeding by student mothers. (Of course, the lack of such accommodations for most school TEACHERS demonstrates that not all middle-class careers are created equal on this front, either.)

    One campaign to follow is the movement to get Facebook and other social media sites to stop punishing women who post photos of themselves breastfeeding their children — http://jodinesworld.blogspot.com/

    Best for Babes, an advocacy organization, has a tips sheet and a hotline for women who are harassed over breastfeeding in public — http://www.bestforbabes.org/take-action/what-to-do-if-youre-harassed-while-nursing-in-public

    One current advocate who is especially active on Twitter — she calls out strangers who tweet hostile or discriminatory statements about breastfeeding mothers! — has a cultural anthropology background — http://www.nursinginpublic.com/about-me/

    A spoken-word poet in the UK reminds us that this isn’t just a North American hang-up, and connects some thoughtful analytical dots — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiS8q_fifa0

    For more global and historical depth on the anthropology of breastfeeding, I recommend the work of Penny van Esterik, as well as other writings by Kathy Dettwyler.

  7. While I agree that a related issue is the increasing presence of, and some degree of backlash against, babies and young children in public places, I think it is very important not to lose sight of the specificity of most breastfeeding-in-public harassment.

    Parents are not ejected from restaurants for bottle-feeding their babies. Parents who bottle-feed in public are not removed from airplanes, approached by shopping-mall security, asked not to attend religious services, removed from courtrooms for disturbing its good order, or forcibly covered with blankets by strangers. I’ve never heard of a bottle-feeding mother being humiliated by the people around her covering their children’s eyes or confronting her with the inane question, “How am I supposed to explain to my child what you’re doing??”

    All of these things are regular reactions specifically to BREASTFEEDING and not merely to the presence of a baby. I find it very hard to imagine that Ms. Rainbolt’s son would be denied equal educational access had she bottle-fed his younger sibling in that teacher’s presence.

  8. Both of your points make me wonder about how these attitudes toward infants/babies and breastfeeding developed. When, for example, did it become socially proper to limit babies to certain private places, and expect them not to be in restaurants, on planes, or even at places of work?

    My intuition is that there is a ton of class-based stuff going on here. Lower income parents do not fly, and middle and upper middle class parents are more likely to have moved away from a family support network and thus not have anyone to babysit for them so they can go to restaurants or cinemas by themselves. (Having been raised by my grandparents and great-grandparents as much as by my parents, the idea of two parents trying to raise a child with no other family around strikes me as a frightening task, regardless of the love and commitment involved.) The notion of accommodating extended breastfeeding is also something of an upper middle class concern. I really think that most lower income mothers would jump at a $40–$100K a year job if it meant weaning after a few weeks. I get that in an ideal world no mother should have to make the choice; all I am saying is that at some point it is important to factor class, privilege, and performativity into the analysis of breastfeeding politics.

    Rachel: I like how you bring up the idea that kids and babies are just as much a part of the world as everyone else–and therefore entitled to the same public spaces as everyone else.

    I’m totally cool with this as long as the parents take into account and accommodate for the fact that their child’s prefrontal cortex is not yet fully formed.

    Also, I do think that some folks forget that parents do in fact take their kids out to eat in public places not to show them off or share their cuteness, but instead to do something pretty normal: EAT!

    I think sometimes they do (take them out to show them off). Again, my intuition is that there is some class stuff going on here. I love babies. I don’t mind hearing them cry. But regardless of whether I mind, when someone’s little one is really pitching a fit s/he wants to leave!

  9. Thanks for the excellent comments and links Rebecca, and for your last point. I think you are definitely right to point out the very specific responses to breastfeeding in public. So while some aversion to children/kids/babies may be a related issue, there is indeed a reaction that’s specifically linked to breastfeeding. And you make your point quite well by reminding us that parents who bottle feed do not face the same problems.

    Yep. Good point.

    Also, I think it’s important that you highlighted the race and class dimensions of this as well. That’s a key aspect of all this that can all too easily be swept aside. Thanks again for the comments.

  10. @MTB:

    “My intuition is that there is a ton of class-based stuff going on here…”

    Ya, definitely. I am glad you and Rebecca are bringing this to the discussion. I agree with you that much of this is about class.

    “I’m totally cool with this as long as the parents take into account and accommodate for the fact that their child’s prefrontal cortex is not yet fully formed.”

    Haha! Touche. I think it’s definitely good for parents to keep this in mind and not act as if everything little junior does in public is a work of art.

    “I think sometimes they do (take them out to show them off). Again, my intuition is that there is some class stuff going on here. I love babies. I don’t mind hearing them cry. But regardless of whether I mind, when someone’s little one is really pitching a fit s/he wants to leave!”

    I agree that there is a social aspect to bringing the kid out public, at least sometimes. At the same time, I think sometimes parents just need to go eat somewhere, and they bring the kids. But then, sometimes it can be a combination of things going on. My wife and I are currently in Mexico for fieldwork, and our little guy is with us. We often have to travel back and forth between where we are living and closest city, and this means there are some days when we end up eating out. So the little dude comes with us out of necessity. However, I will admit that it’s sort of fun when people acknowledge him and think he’s cute and all that kind of stuff. I helps balance out the times when he’s not into the whole “sitting down” thing and one of us ends up going for a walk while the other shoves food in their face as quickly as possible!! Haha–that happened a lot when his little teeth were coming in. Overall though, you’re definitely right that there are times when the show is over, and baby is ready to leave the public sphere for a while. It is indeed painful when parents ignore those cues. Still, sometimes–like on a 737–there is no convenient exit!!

  11. However, I will admit that it’s sort of fun when people acknowledge him and think he’s cute and all that kind of stuff.

    In my experience in Latin America people are a lot warmer to children in public. But then again, in Latin America I got less of a proprietary vibe from parents. In the U.S. you always run the risk of getting the stink eye if you try to engage someone you don’t know about their child, or worse yet, if you try to engage their child.

    Still, sometimes–like on a 737–there is no convenient exit!!

    As an old paratrooper once told me, no one ever got hurt jumping from a plane, though the landing has caught a few of them over the years. ☺ And as I once heard Sherman Alexie say, human flight is a deeply unnatural act. It’s asking a lot of adults!

  12. Ryan, how old is your little guy? One of Ruth’s and my favorite memories is arriving in Taipei with eight-week old Kate in 1976. One of our first stops was dinner at the Hunanese restaurant in the old China Hotel across from Taipei Station. We had no sooner sat down than a waitress asked if she could hold our *yang wawa* (Western baby). We handed her over and the waitress disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. We nervously ate our dinner. Then, when we arrived at the cash register to pay our bill, there was Kate waiting for us in the arms of another, clearly entertained, waitress. During that year in Taiwan, that pattern became so familiar that it was a bit of culture shock returning to the U.S., going to a restaurant, and discovering that no one was going to take care of the baby for us.

    Kerim, can’t help wondering if Taiwan has changed in this regard.

  13. Ryan: You ask “When, for example, did it become socially proper to limit babies to certain private places, and expect them not to be in restaurants, on planes, or even at places of work?”

    I think it is the other way around: when did it become socially allowable for babies to leave private spaces and appear in restaurants, on planes, or even at places of work? Those of use who are well past child-bearing remember that American parents used to be reluctant to bring kids into public spaces that were not specifically designed for them, and activities such as airplane travel were, in addition, expensive enough that few people would consider taking a child along. (Those were the last days of the road trips, when the car was both cheaper for a vacation and was a small private space). So it had been, I suspect, among middle and upper-middle class families since Victorian times.

    In other words, if we are in a period of transition, it is one of transitioning to greater public visibility of small children, not the reverse. A friend of mine pointed out in a radio interview recently that some 30 years ago those little square yellow signs started appearing in car windows: Baby on Board. Of course, that was less of a warning not to hit the car than it was a public announcement of parenthood, and many of us back then thought “oh no, a generation of spoiled kids is coming along” 😉 Well, Ryan, you’re one of those former spoiled kids (again, a ), who now has one of his own, and asks, in effect, since when is it improper to raise a child the way I was raised? It’s an interesting period, and I suspect that it will take a couple more generations before those of us who are grandparents cycle out and you and your kids, and theirs, re-think the meaning some of these cultural sites (restaurants for my generation are an escape, not a destination, and — my own adult children will hopefully understand — an escape from children as much as an escape from daily grinds such as cooking and cleaning)…

    Rebecca, gosh your point is terribly important, and I would not want anything I have written here to distract from the essential point that a wide variety of social changes have made it critical that we find ways to accommodate child rearing practices including breastfeeding. I’ve worked for years in West Africa, in communities in which it is so perfectly natural for moms to nurse their infants that I have always found our own restrictions to be neurotically puritanical.

  14. All the discussion of young children pitching fits and disturbing those nearby is actually quite ironic in a discussion about public breastfeeding. Almost always, a child at breast is a happy, contented, quiet child. I have heard of modesty-policing strangers telling a mother that they’d actually PREFER to hear her baby cry than see her breastfeeding.

    What we risk losing sight of when we focus the question of the appropriateness of public breastfeeding around manners and being considerate of others is that babies NEED to breastfeed, for nourishment, for comfort, for help getting to sleep — and they are physically and neurologically too immature to wait any real length of time for that need to be met.

    The idea that a baby’s need to breastfeed should be put on the same level with, say, an adult’s PREFERENCE not to witness the act of breastfeeding — as if they are commensurate concerns with equally valid claims on what is moral and worth accommodating — is simply ridiculous. (Not that anyone in this thread is making such claims! Just that the conversation is at risk of overlooking the major differences between a nursing baby and a rowdy weaned older child.)

    Since U.S. society is now so strongly geared around mother-baby separation, bottle-feeding, and scheduled feeding and sleeping times for babies, we as a culture have lost sight of a basic truth about our species: babies need to be with their mothers and they need to breastfeed frequently. It’s about being a primate, not about being inappropriate or selfish or spoiled.

    Mothers who breastfeed in public are responding promptly and appropriately to their nursling’s expression of need. If that were more broadly understood — and not lumped together with inconsiderate parents who make no effort to quiet or entertain their rambunctious toddlers in public — this harrassment wouldn’t happen.

  15. John wrote about the pleasures of built-in childcare in Taiwanese restaurants in 1976. We experienced the same thing in Vietnam in 2004, when traveling with a Semester at Sea tour group and our then 2,5-year-old son. The meals were prearranged at expensive restaurants, the type of place we had hardly set foot in since our very active son started walking.

    A staff member took him from my arms the moment we entered the restaurant. My initial culture-bound reaction was, “Where are you going with my child! I don’t even know you!!” Throughout the meal, he was occasionally carried through the dining room, probably to reassure the obviously twitchy foreign momma that he was OK, and later on when he needed me, they brought him to the table and handed him over.

    It was, for me, an unforgettable lesson in what Americans have lost with our worship of individual responsibilities and freedom and the neoliberal restructuring of the nuclear-family household, with (often) no extended kin for poorer families and no hired help for wealthier ones. It’s no wonder our mothers are among the unhappiest and most stressed in the world.

  16. Barbara, my anthropological travels have been primarily in East Asia, where breastfeeding is under attack by some of the same forces of modernity as here. In 2010 I had the chance for the first time to visit a truly breastfeeding-normal society, with six weeks in Ghana. I saw babies and young children everywhere, typically on someone’s back or in arms, and often at breast. I almost never heard one crying.

  17. Since U.S. society is now so strongly geared around mother-baby separation, bottle-feeding, and scheduled feeding and sleeping times for babies, we as a culture have lost sight of a basic truth about our species: babies need to be with their mothers and they need to breastfeed frequently. It’s about being a primate, not about being inappropriate or selfish or spoiled.

    Mother-baby separation and breastfeeding have been (and I assume still are, in some place) accomplished simultaneously via wet nurses, of course.

  18. Matthew, sure — babies can be breastfed by lactating women who aren’t their biological or social mothers. Both wet nursing and cross-nursing (which is an informal non-economic-transaction arrangement among kin or friends) can keep a baby breastfed in the absence of its mother. But oy! if you want to talk about breastfeeding as a social practice shaped by class privilege! well, yes — wet nursing. And there are other complications, too, due to current cultural ideologies that make lots of people really, really squeamish about sharing either milk or breastfeeding duty.

    More to the point, in the context of contemporary U.S. society, when fewer families have the extended-family support and deep community roots that facilitate cross-nursing, let alone the financial means to hire a wet nurse, this is not a solution to the problem under discussion.

    The double-electric breast pump and safe milk storage practices are the primary solution now to the reality that breastfeeding mothers and their nurslings often have long hours apart. Again, people tend not to realize how much work and time it takes to express, store, and transport one’s milk while away from one’s baby. If they did, they would understand why mothers don’t “just pump and use a bottle” (another common exhortation from the modesty police) when out and about in public.

  19. Babies need food! Breastfeeding is one of the few situations where public sexuality is actually justified by the need to survive, but our culture is so vain that they may have forgotten that survival is what it’s really all about.

  20. But oy! if you want to talk about breastfeeding as a social practice shaped by class privilege! well, yes — wet nursing.

    I’m not proposing it as any sort of solution for mothers and infants today. My point was more to the evolutionary implications of the statement that “babies need to be with their mothers and they need to breastfeed frequently. It’s about being a primate.” Yes, Antebellum and Victorian wet nursing was about class privilege. That has not been so throughout human history.

  21. John: our son is 5 and a half months old. We have had a few similar experiences here–in several restaurants the staff has asked to hold him etc. At first I thought it was strange since I doubt anyone in a US restaurant would even think of doing that. But we have also had the little guy passed around in the pueblo where my wife has been working–we show up to visit and someone asks to hold him and the next thing we knew he was being passed around to everyone in the household. We were not ready for that at first either, but got a bit more used to it over time. That’s just what happens here–babies get passed around, talked to, and cared for by a pretty wide range of people.

    Barbara: I think you’re right and I was looking at things a bit backward, based upon the assumptions of a kid who grew up thinking that going out to eat was perfectly normal. A good case of a bias/perspective based upon recent experiences. Thanks for adding your insight and comments. I think you’re also right that some of the roots of this lead back to the Victorian era. It is an interesting period–and it’s interesting to think about how ideas about public space and babies/infants/children have changed over the long haul.

    Rebecca wrote: “All the discussion of young children pitching fits and disturbing those nearby is actually quite ironic in a discussion about public breastfeeding.”

    Ya, it’s actually sort of interesting that both these issues are coming up here. I think the two do get conflated a lot, and I agree with you that it’s important to sort things out. Breasfeeding isn’t about kids pitching fits in public.

    “What we risk losing sight of when we focus the question of the appropriateness of public breastfeeding around manners and being considerate of others is that babies NEED to breastfeed, for nourishment, for comfort, for help getting to sleep — and they are physically and neurologically too immature to wait any real length of time for that need to be met.”

    One issue here–possibly–is that many people simply do not think of breastfeeding as something that’s necessary or vital. Right? I think there’s a pretty big disconnect here, and many people just think of it as some sort of trendy thing some mothers are doing. Maybe? And that serves as a way to dismiss it outright and insist that women wait until they are in the “proper” setting to feed their babies. But…I’d actually like to see more info about exactly how people explain their reasons for being against breastfeeding in public.

    “Mothers who breastfeed in public are responding promptly and appropriately to their nursling’s expression of need. If that were more broadly understood — and not lumped together with inconsiderate parents who make no effort to quiet or entertain their rambunctious toddlers in public — this harrassment wouldn’t happen.”

    I agree that knowledge of the real importance and value of breastfeeding would go a long way. But I’m not sure that would end the harassment, especially since there are other issues (as you have highlighted) that are part of this (like the sexualization of women’s bodies, etc).

  22. Rebecca: You are amazing.

    I just have to say that this is the most intelligent, well-informed, helpful in moving the conversation forward comment thread I have ever read on an online article so thank you all for this experience.

    I also want to add to the breast pump point that the costs of a breast pump and all of the supplies (bottles, nipples, storage bags, sterilizer, etc.) is very steep and not all women’s bodies will release “letdown” milk for a pump.

  23. It is wonderful to see a logical approach to the cultural issues surrounding public breastfeeding (and breastfeeding in general). It is important for people like yourself, along with the thousands of breastfeeding activists around the country (we affectionately label ourselves “lactivists”) to continue to question the double standard surrounding breastfeeding and the female body. This is not just an issue for mothers who want to nurture their children. This is an issue that should cause concern for all women. We should all question a society that values and promotes sexualization of the female body yet persecutes women who stand up against objectification. This is the same society that lambasts a teenage pop star for her “extreme” sexuality yet spends millions of dollars on pornography and cosmetic surgery.

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