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'Telling a breastfeeding woman to be modest shows you value your comfort over a baby's.'

Another day, another breastfeeding scandal in our backyard. The story of Christie Rea humiliated by staff for breastfeeding at the National Gallery of Australia last week made my blood boil.

Stories just like Christie’s cycle through our media all too regularly, and despite the laws protecting breastfeeding mothers, negative attitudes to public breastfeeding are still widespread and are no doubt a contributing factor to low breastfeeding rates across Australia: With around 15% of babies still breastfeeding at five months, we fall well short of the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for exclusive breastfeeding until six months.

I am currently breastfeeding, and like many other mothers, have experienced anxiety around breastfeeding in public since before I gave birth. It seems like everyone has an opinion on public breastfeeding, whether they have breastfed or not, and the discourse around it does little to encourage or support new or expectant mums.

public breastfeeding
"I've experienced anxiety around breastfeeding in public since before I gave birth." Image via iStock.

The first experience I had with the discussion came at my antenatal class run by the midwife at the hospital where I gave birth. She told us the story of a young mum she had cared for who was accosted by an older couple at a local shopping centre for breastfeeding in public. The poor mum was mortified, but another woman overhearing the exchange came to her defense and kindly brought the attackers up to speed with the rights of a breastfeeding mother.

“Moral of the story” our midwife said “you are by law, entitled to breastfeed your baby wherever you need to, and as a society we need to stick up for other breastfeeding women”. Empowering stuff I thought, until she added this barbed caveat “but don’t be provocative about it”.

This baffled me. How can you be provocative with breastfeeding? Don’t’ be sexy about it? Don’t rub your nipples and offer everyone else a suck? Don’t hover over your infant on your hands and knees and then allow them to latch on like a cow does with its calf? If that’s what she means, yeah sure, I won’t be provocative about it.

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public breastfeeding
"Asking breastfeeding women to be modest is saying that you value your comfort over the needs of the mother and her child." Image via iStock.

In re-telling this story, I have been surprised by the number of women who agree with the midwife: Public breastfeeding is OK, as long you’re modest. Use wraps and scarves to cover yourself and your baby, turn your back to passersby and use the pram to shield you. Only shop at large shopping centres that have parents’ rooms, or otherwise feed your baby before you leave and be home before the next feed to save you from having to use a bench or café.

The same women who gave me this advice, went on to share their horror stories of being stuck for a suitable place to feed in public, and resorted to taking their screaming, hungry babies to either public toilets or their hot cars.

By not following these precautions, and therefore being a provocative and attention-seeking “lactivist”, It seems that the worst thing that can happen to people around you is that they catch a glimpse of your bare, female breast or a rogue nipple and it *gasp* makes them feel uncomfortable.

It’s ridiculous that men can bare their entire chest without anyone batting an eyelid, but a woman breastfeeding is a free-for-all for criticism.

The inequality goes even deeper: Asking breastfeeding women to be modest is saying that you value your comfort over the needs of the mother and her child.

Would you let someone dry nurse your baby? Listen on Mamamia Out Loud. 

As women, we are conditioned to value everyone else’s needs and comfort above our own, and so I feel an odd sense of ambivalence when I breastfeed in public: I’m potentially making people around me uncomfortable, but at the same time, if I hide away, I’m doing nothing to help normalise breastfeeding.

I look forward to the day when there is nothing remarkable about a woman breastfeeding in an art gallery.

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