When I was 15, I saw a woman breastfeeding her baby in a restaurant. I looked away quickly and thought, “What is she doing? Does she know that people can see her breasts?”
About 15 years later, I became that mom. I breastfeed my 7-month-old baby in public because babies need to eat often. If I didn’t nurse her on occasion in public, I would never get to leave my house.
Recently, my baby was fussy at a wholesale store I was visiting. I found a secluded patio furniture set to nurse on and used a nursing cover. After 30 minutes, a manager came by and “invited” me to use the lactation room. She said she would go grab the key. When she came back I asked, “Am I not allowed to nurse here?” She said that a customer complained because my nursing made that person feel uncomfortable and could I please follow her to the lactation room.
I decided to leave the store instead.
I am not angry at the manager for handling the situation as she did. I think she was trying to appease everyone. However, I believe several reasons justify why this type of experience should not happen again to any nursing mother.
First, in North Carolina, breastfeeding anywhere is a right, protected by law (see N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-190.9). While seeing a mother breastfeeding might make some people feel uncomfortable, other customers’ comfort levels should not play a role in whether that right is respected.
Second, I applaud the store for having a lactation room for nursing mothers to use, since I assume many stores do not. However, a lactation room is not meant to be used because a mother is making other customers uncomfortable. It is there as an option for mothers to use should they choose it. I probably would have used the lactation room had I known about its existence because my baby is easily distracted, and it would have been quieter than the patio furniture department. But I did not see any signs for the room and with a fussy baby, I did not have the wherewithal to track down a manager, ask if there was a lactation room and then wait for the manager to get a key.
Thinking back to my experience as a 15-year-old, I understand why people might feel uncomfortable when they witness mothers breastfeeding their babies. Many people are not regularly exposed to nursing mothers. In my opinion, this is a situation that needs to change.
Breastfeeding is hard enough without mothers being shamed about doing it. It is very unlikely that anyone breastfeeds her baby to show off their breasts. A hungry baby needs to eat and nursing is one of the most natural ways to keep a baby happy.
The more women nurse in public, the more normal nursing will become. Nursing mothers should be able to feed their babies where, when, and however they wish to. Employers should have a clear policy on what to do if a customer complains about a nursing mother that will not alienate women whose right to feed their baby is protected by law.
And to the public who happen to see a woman breastfeeding her baby, smile at her and give her two thumbs up! Together, we can normalize breastfeeding so that mothers, employers and customers become gradually less uncomfortable with this perfectly natural public health-recommended situation.
Yael Symes is a doctoral student at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.