It seems like I hear more stories about mothers being given a hard time for nursing in public in the summertime.  Just in the past month, there was the story about the mom on the bus, the mom at the YMCA, and the mom at Whole Foods.  I posted a link to the Whole Foods story on my personal Facebook page, and a friend commented:

So she was not asked to stop just show some modesty about it… I know I’m probably asking for trouble here but why is that not an acceptable compromise? Personally I have no issue with babies eating where they or the mothers please and take no notice of or issue with BF in public but understand why in a public store a degree of modesty would be requested. Its not like she was exiled to have to do it in a dirty bathroom or asked to leave (which I do think would have been very wrong) rather it seems to me she is looking for a fight. If it was simply that her baby needed to eat then and there she could have done so but acknowledge the request for modesty caused by the discomfort of another shopper. Her right to feed her baby was not taken away.
This is a common question, so I would like to address it.  I’ve already addressed what’s wrong with telling a mother to “just pump a bottle” instead of nursing in public.  What’s so wrong about requiring a nursing mother to just cover up, to show some modesty or discretion?

  1. The law is on the side of the nursing mother. There is no legal obligation for her to cover.  In my state, the law reads, “A woman may breast feed in any public or private location where she is otherwise authorized to be, irrespective of whether the nipple of the mother’s breast is uncovered during or incidental to the breast feeding.”
  2. The nursing mother has no greater moral obligation to appease the bystander than the bystander has to appease the nursing mother. And it follows that the discomfort of the bystander does not have greater importance than the discomfort of the nursing dyad.
  3. Discretion

    This wasn't discreet enough for some because her head wasn't covered

    is subjective and means different things to different people, ensuring that it is impossible to mandate.  It can mean anything from covering the nipple to covering all flesh to covering the entire baby.  Whose definition of discretion should be used? The nursing mother should cover to the level that SHE is comfortable with. That choice is up to her and nobody else.
  4. Discretion is often used as an excuse when the real problem is with breastfeeding itself. Mothers have been told not to breastfeed their babies in public even when completely covered by a blanket, or otherwise not showing any skin (such as in my case).  It’s not just that those people don’t want to see you breastfeeding, they don’t even want to know you are breastfeeding.
  5. Many mothers who are trying to be discreet feel that using a cover draws MORE attention to themselves. It says “Hey! Look at me! I’m nursing under here!” If a mother just casually lifts her shirt, she is likely to draw less attention to herself.
  6. Covers can be impractical.  Many babies refuse to be covered and will just pull a cover off anyway. When my baby was little, I wanted to be able to see her and check on her latch.  In the middle of July, in the heat wave we’ve been having, it is too warm to be covering baby’s head unnecessarily anyway.
  7. Modesty refers to “Behavior, manner, or appearance intended to avoid impropriety or indecency”.  To say that a breastfeeding mother is not modest, says that breastfeeding itself is inherently improper or indecent. When strangers, particularly those with some kind of authority, tell a nursing mother to cover up, they are attaching a negative stigma to breastfeeding. They are implying that there is something dirty, shameful, or wrong about it.
  8. Fear of nursing in public is one reason many women cite for weaning early or choosing not to breastfeed at all. In order for breastfeeding to become normalized in our society, we need to remove the stigma that says that breastfeeding is improper.
  9. Bottle-feeding should not be socially preferred over breastfeeding.  My wish is that breastfeeding mothers be able to feel comfortable feeding their babies in any place, and with as much “discretion,” as would a bottle feeding mother.  Suggesting that a nursing mother needs to cover up while a bottle-feeding mother would not, implies that bottle-feeding is more appropriate than breastfeeding.
  10. It is good for society to see uncovered breastfeeding.  Breastfeeding needs to be seen in order for it to be normalized compared to bottle-feeding.  We also need to see examples of breastfeeding in order to learn it ourselves because we learn by seeing it modeled. I believe that a major reason why mothers today have so many more problems with breastfeeding than they have historically is because they have had little exposure to breastfeeding.