“Turn Around and Face the Wall”: On Responding to a Nursing in Public Objection and Normalizing NIP

April 2nd, 2012 by Dionna | 74 Comments
Posted in Breastfeeding/Lactivism, Compassionate Advocacy, Feed with Love and Respect, natural parenting

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Whenever I read or write a piece about normalizing nursing in public (such as 9 Ways Google Can Help Us Normalize Breastfeeding), there are the inevitable commenters that cannot believe this is still an issue.

Unfortunately, it is.

  • There are still occasional news stories and nurse-ins after businesses ask nursing mothers to leave or to breastfeed in a bathroom.
  • There are still nursing mothers who cover up at home because they can’t stand the thought of their other children seeing them breastfeed their babies.
  • There are still nursing relationships injured or destroyed by the very polite (and usually well-meaning) friends, pastors, and strangers who ask them to cover up, use a bottle, or otherwise breastfeed in a way that is not comfortable.

I know this not only because I am part of the breastfeeding community, but also because I experienced it myself this past month. Today I want to share two stories. Both happened while I was nursing Ailia – one experience was negative, the other positive.

Why do we need to normalize nursing in public?

“Because people don’t like to see weird things.”

Kieran started taking a dance/tumbling class when Ailia was almost three months old. On his third week, the teacher pulled me aside before class started. Here was our conversation.

Teacher: “I have a favor to ask of you. When you nurse your baby, would you mind turning toward the wall?”1

Me: “I’m confused, if I was using a bottle to nurse my baby, would you ask me to turn toward the wall?”

Teacher: “No, we have a couple of homeschooled teenage boys in the building, and they would not be comfortable seeing you breastfeed.”

Me: “I really would not feel comfortable turning toward the wall to nurse my baby during class. You know, I haven’t seen those boys very often, they’ve only walked through this room once in the past couple of weeks. Would it be possible for them to simply stay out of this room during the 45 minutes each week that we are here?”

Teacher: “Well, they do walk through sometimes, and you understand how teenage boys might feel – the teen years are so awkward, and they are learning how to control their bodies. I was a breastfeeding mother myself, and I know how you feel. But sometimes we have to do things that make us feel uncomfortable in order to respect others.

Me: “I guess I still don’t see why this is my responsibility. I’m simply trying to feed my baby.”

Teacher: “The mother is just uncomfortable with it. You know boys, they just don’t like to see weird things.

Me: “I would be happy to discuss this with their mother, but I’m really saddened by this conversation. If I were a new nursing mother who was unsure of myself, this experience could make me never want to nurse in public again. That could jeopardize my entire nursing relationship. I do not believe it is my responsibility to make those boys feel comfortable. I nurse very discreetly as it is.”2

Teacher: “Well, I’ll leave it up to you – you go ahead and do what makes you feel comfortable.”

This was a condensed version of the conversation, but it gives you the gist – the teacher was very kind, very polite, but very insistent that it was my responsibility to make everyone else feel comfortable. I responded in a very respectful manner – I never got angry or upset with her. All in all, it was a very civilized conversation, which made it that much harder for me to stick up for myself. It would almost be easier to stand up for my right to nurse if someone was being rude about it.

These are the well-meaning people who can unintentionally sabotage a breastfeeding relationship. For the record, I am an informed, confident breastfeeding mother. But as soon as that teacher turned walked away, i turned to my friend and promptly started to cry.

What if I was not sure of myself? What if I did not know the law? What if that was one of my first nursing in public experiences? The outcome may have been vastly different – in how I chose to respond to the teacher, in how I decided to nurse in class (I continue to nurse comfortably and as discreetly as I feel necessary), and in whether I continued to nurse – at home or in public.

So how do we normalize nursing in public?

By nursing. By explaining to our kids that this is one of the ways babies eat. By allowing each breastfeeding pair the freedom to nurse in whatever way feels comfortable to them.

And now for the positive story. A few weeks after the incident at Kieran’s class, we were walking through Costco. I was nursing Ailia in a Maya Wrap.

Two little boys, probably around seven and eight years old, were standing on a cart near me, and one of them spotted me. He asked his mother, “Mom, what is that lady doing with that baby?” His mom glanced at me and said – in this perfectly nonchalant way – “She’s breastfeeding her baby. I used to do that with you guys, I’d put you in the sling and nurse you and be able to walk around. It’s the perfect way to feed a baby and be hands free.”

And then the boy said,

“Oh. Ok.”

And that was that. It wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t an intricate explanation. Those little boys did not think it was weird, because (well, besides the fact that it wasn’t weird) their mom made it seem ordinary.

She normalized it for them.

It will be these small encounters that continue to normalize breastfeeding, especially for the next generation.3

What have you done to normalize breastfeeding – for yourself, for your child, or for someone else?

  1. By the way, turning to face the wall would have both ostracized me from the other mothers who I visit with during class, and it would have made it difficult or impossible to watch the dance class.
  2. I wear a nursing tank top (and have almost every day since Kieran was born over four years ago), so not a lot of skin is exposed when I nurse. Not that I think every woman should wear a nursing tank top, of course! It’s just how I feel comfortable nursing.
  3. And for any new breastfeeding mother who was scared by that first story – that is much less common than the second story.

74 Responses to:
"“Turn Around and Face the Wall”: On Responding to a Nursing in Public Objection and Normalizing NIP"

  1. Our Muddy Boots   ourmuddyboots

    Oh, Dionna- how well you shared that feeling of knowing that you are saying appropriate things and that the one standing in front of you is wrong, but turning around and crying anyway.

    This perfect illustration reminds us- in a very strong way- why we need to prioritize normalizing breastfeeding.

    Though I know you know this already, let these words be a written reminder of how very many people were standing with you that day, and every day :)

    Thanks for this important piece, Dionna.

  2. Courtney

    Wonderful article and stories to follow. Just had to add my own. I didn’t do anything extraordianary except nurse my children wherever and whenever they needed it including nursing at home with no cover for my 5 year old boy to see. I did find out that my children or at least my oldest son see it as perfectly normal though. Last summer (he was just turned 6 years) we were at the park and a mother started nursing her child on a bench while watching her older children play. One of my son’s friends looked at my son and said “what is she doing to her baby?” my son looked at him and said “feeding her silly.” friend “but she doesn’t have a bottle?” son “she is feeding her from her boob like my mama did.” end of conversation and neither boy had any idea I heard the whole thing. Almost made me cry!

  3. Jill

    Please keep nursing in public. A mom who nursed in public is the reason I even knew breastfeeding existed. She nursed her baby while sitting in on her 8th grade daughter’s gym class one day. All the girls in the class talked about it later. I wasn’t even in that gym class, but I heard about it and was fascinated. Wow! I never imagined moms could do such a cool thing! Because of that mom, I went on to nurse all my children, including in public. In my experience, kids don’t think nursing is weird, not even teenage boys. But their mothers might.

  4. Tara   Wolf_Mommy

    I nurse in public uncovered to promote breastfeeding. I genuinely believe the more women see breastfeeding in public, the more they will breastfeed in public.

    I’m also active in LLL and advocate for breastfeeding, specifically breastfeeding in public.

    Of course, as some of you might know, I also call out people who make discriminating remarks about breastfeeding on Twitter. People need to know it is not OK to make a woman feel embarrassed or shamed for feeding her child.

    It made me so angry just reading this. I applaud your ability to remain so calm and collected, I would have had great difficulty doing so. I can’t think of any other group in 2012 that people feel so comfortable discriminating openly against as breastfeeding mothers. Even a racist wouldn’t walk up to a person of colour in the middle of a gymnastics class and ask them to face the wall for fear of offending some teenagers who think that black skin is weird. And no one would dream of telling a disabled person to cover up their wheelchair because sometimes we have to do things that make us feel uncomfortable in order to respect others. Its just as ridiculous to treat a breastfeeding dyad in the same manner, yet people feel they can do it.

    As long as things like this continue to happen, ESPECIALLY when they happen in such a polite and cordial way, it is clear there is a lot of work to be done to normalize breastfeeding and confront this kind of bigotry.

    Interestingly, your second story illuminates how easy it is to just accept it as a normal part of our biology and our lives. I bet I’d never see those boys making lewd and disparaging remarks about breastfeeding on Twitter, or claiming they’ve been scarred for life at the site of a mother feeding her baby! Kudos to that Mama!

  5. You know, when I lived in England, I tended to wear shirts that I could pull down to nurse in. I sat in the front at Mass, and breastfed like that. But it still wasn’t always obvious, I guess, since one of the monks didn’t seem to realise I was breastfeeding. It was easiest for me, so I did that. After my run-in with a lady telling me to cover or move (this is in the US), I did compromise and often wear a tank now, but not always. I prefer to only do at if it’s a shirt I have to pull up, really. And some of my maternity shirts aren’t conducive to pulling up, so I just pull those down like normal (yes, I’m pregnant and still nursing in public; my daughter loudly proclaims her desire for Mummy milk, so it’s easier to nurse her than not)

  6. Exactly! I obviously prefer to just feed where I am, without a cover, but others don’t, and that’s fine.

  7. What is “weird” is our lack of awareness of ourselves as human creatures and the way we have allowed the most base and prurient aspects of our personalities to sully what should be regarded as sacrosanct: a mother feeding, nurturing and sustaining life under her care.
    Only BOOBS see breasts as BOOBS. Respect should be given to those who do what is best for their children – not to some dirty-minded lunkhead who views God’s creation and design as some form of pornography. For shame!!!!!!!

  8. Bridgett

    I loved the second story. I’m very fortunate for not having had a bad experience, and my daughter is almost a year old. We live in an area with a very heavy immigrant population, and nursing is not a big deal with them.
    I have had one super positive experience that got rid of any concerns/anxiety I may have had though. I took my daughter to church a lot when she was super little. She couldn’t get through mass without fussing, so she’d nurse nearly the whole time. One of the older ladies that sat behind me came up to me and said, “I love it when you feed your baby. We just see her legs kicking out to the side, and it’s so cute!” It was exactly what you said- normalizing public breastfeeding. It helped so much.

  9. Amy   Amy_willa

    I’m so glad you shared these stories, Dionna! I myself have had a couple of experiences, good and bad, and I feel like it’s just so important to support all moms and nurse our babies as we feel comfortable doing so.

    One of my good friends and neighbor’s little girls were bottle-fed after their mom was unsuccessful with bf. They are now 6 and 8 years old, and we met them last summer. I was feeding Joe at the park while Abbey played, and the girls came up and asked if they could say hi to Joe. They thought he was sleeping. When they realized he was breastfeeding, they asked what he was doing, and I said “he’s eating. I’m feeding him milk from my breast. Your mom may have done this for you when you were a baby.”

    They went home and asked their mom about how they were fed and the next day reported to me that they were fed “milk” from bottles. I explained that both bottle and breast are ways of feeding babies, and the older sister said “It looks like he likes drinking from your breast. He’s so happy!”

    Throughout the summer and fall, she would ask if she could sit next to me while I nursed Joe. When Joseph would cry, she’d say “Ms. Amy, I think Joseph wants you to nursery him.” LOL! I will NEVER forget that! It was so cute.

    Now, a year later, neither one of the girls bat an eye when I nurse Joseph around them. It’s totally normal to them now because they’ve been exposed to it and not “protected” from it.

  10. Rana

    I nursed my twins until they were 2 years old. And now they are 9 today. Whenever we see a nursing Mama or a friend that nurses, both of my kids go up to them and say I used to do that too. Your baby is getting good Mama milk.

    I think we have had good experiences because my mom who nursed my sister and I until we were 2 & 3 respectively never made it an issue it was just the natural thing to do with your babies. Now my sister is a natural NIP she nurses everywhere we go, the library, shopping, the conservatory. This was a great post and I’m going to share it with my friends.

  11. Laura

    My daughter was born 13 weeks early. After a rough 3 months (2 months in the NICU and 1 month at home), she finally learned to nurse and self-weaned at 22 months (I cried b/c I wasn’t ready!). We nursed anywhere and everywhere, in spite of making my parents uncomfortable and in spite of medical “professionals” who wanted her to put on weight faster. Now, at 4, we are not really around nursing moms, so I am sure to remind her (during teachable moments) that she drank milk out of my breasts and that I worked hard to make sure she got what was best for her. She doesn’t react ideally (I hear a lot of “ewwwww”) but I will keep talking about it!

  12. Jamie

    I plan on breastfeeding my baby and I plan on doing it whenever, wherever. Thank you for being an inspiration!

  13. Trilby

    Thank you so much for sharing your stories! I am in my third trimester with my first baby and I am planning on exclusively breastfeeding him, so it is so nice to here about other mother either advocating or normalizing breastfeeding to their children at a young age. I wish all parents would do this! Also, thank you for sharing about your negative experience, because that way people who are new to breastfeeding can feel confident, even if they experience a few negative interactions from ignorant people.

  14. Thank you for sharing your stories! I am been pretty confident in my nursing rights and abilities pretty much since the beginning, but I don’t think I would have been able to keep my composure like you did in the first story! Way to go, Mama!
    My favorite nursing story happened at my SIL’s house. I was feeding my 10 month old and had a blanket draped over him (because if I don’t he will be so distracted he won’t eat) and my 4 year old niece was ‘helping’ me with keeping the blanket on and burping. After he was done on the first side I switched him to the other side and she asked me, “You have milk on that side too?!” and I said yes, and she replied, “That’s awesome!” I am so glad I get to breastfeed in front of my nieces and nephews as they were all adopted and bottle fed and I’m sure bottle feeding is what they’ve seen the most.

  15. Monique Moya

    As a mom of 6 boys ranging in age from almost 22 to 5 weeks old, all of whom were/are breastfed shame on that momma! I have NEVER covered up, even when my teen boys had friends over. My oldest 2 boys actually used to give their friends a hard time if they caught them staring when they were teens “Dude, what’s the matter with you? Stop staring! That’s what they are made for you idiot!”
    One of my boys at age 12 ferociously defended me when a woman was nasty about me nursing in public; and all of my boys that are old enough have said “their wives” will nurse their babies (and cloth diaper, cosleep and babywear but thats a different story). This is what normalising breastfeeding does.

  16. Christie-Childhood 101   childhood101

    I love the mother’s response in the second example :) And I am so sorry to hear about the conversation with the teacher, wow, I feel so fortunate that I never faced anything like that when I breastfed Immy. Though it makes me wonder if it will be the same second time around, especially with Immy at kindy part time and involved in more activities. We will see, I guess!

  17. As a new breastfeeding mother (our little Pierogie is 7 weeks old), the first story would have mortified me – but I applaud you for keeping your cool. I don’t think I would have been that polite! A friend of mine recently told me that she will only nurse her baby with a cover – even at home, in front of her husband, because she was embarrassed. How sad that society has put this sort of image into her mind, that it’s embarrassing to feed your child in the most natural way possible.

  18. Cynthia C-D

    Seeing you feed your child would be a “weird thing” for the boys? If those teenaged boys have not yet learned how mammals feed their young, perhaps the homeschooling parent needs to re-evaluate his/her curriculum.

    I’m just sayin’.

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