Maternity Leave

The Big Cover-up: On the Politics of Breastfeeding

A YouTube ad for the Slurp & Burp breast cover..

My husband, Bill, tells Ike every day, "Sir, we have your favorite table waiting."
That would be the baby-friendly pillow in my lap (great product, bad name: My Breast Friend), where young Isaac Stewart Wolff dines seven or eight times a day. I've made the commitment to use these knockers, cans, bra buddies for their natural purpose. With questions about formula (see today's New York Times headline on the sweetener in organic formula) and the immunity benefits for a baby, I never really considered not breastfeeding.

However, I do find myself questioning when and where it is appropriate to whip out "the boob." As some of my more straitlaced guy friends have visited, I've found myself using a very cool coverlet that was a gift. (Thanks, BPP-er Caitlin Kenney!)

Lactivists will likely see my covering up as selling out. I've been sort of shocked by how adamant some lactivists can be and how dismissive some in the traditional medical community are of lactivists. One lactation consultant I encountered in the hospital practically chewed me out for improperly identifying a type of breast milk. (Yes there are types — who knew?) A medical practitioner told me not to allow myself to become a "human pacifier."

I've come to learn that breastfeeding is a political issue. Remember when Bill Maher angered a lot of women and received the Stinky Diaper award from Baby Talk magazine for saying on his show that women who don't cover up in public are "too lazy to either plan ahead or cover up" and that they're just seek the spotlight for something a dog can do?

What do you think about breast feeding in public? And why has it become so politicized?

Bonus: The Easy Expression bustier.



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In the airport, in the airplane, at McDonalds, it's all good. There are some great tops that covers up the top, with the baby covering up the bottom.

Our country is both overly sexualized about the breast and then Puritanical about its exposure for its genuine purpose.

Sent by Matthew Scallon | 11:30 AM | 5-19-2008

Weirdest place I ever breastfed my baby? How about the front pew in church the day she was baptized? She started getting fretful, so I thought I'd better take care of her. She was happy, and everybody marveled at how calm she was during the ceremony. Nobody ever knew why...until now!

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 11:59 AM | 5-19-2008

Great post!
My wife and I have an almost 7 week old baby and girl and it was decided well before she was born that she would be exclusively breast fed. My wife never covers herself when we are around family and close friends. In public however, she does wear a shawl.
Neither of us are concerned with how others perceive breast feeding in public (after all, I think every "able-breasted" woman would breast feed their baby, if only for a short period, if they knew all of the benefits). For us, it's the same reason that we do not change our baby in public: you can never be sure if there is someone with ulterior motives (i.e. sex offender) watching.

Sent by Nick Giuliani, NPR | 12:07 PM | 5-19-2008

I like Richard Feyman's quote, "What do you care what other people think?" I don't see why breastfeeding women should be responsible for other people's prudery.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 12:29 PM | 5-19-2008

I gotta admit, I hate it when people breastfeed in public without covering up. With some kind of covering, no problem. But without it, I just feel like this really intimate part of someone else's life is being put on display when I just don't want to share in it.

I don't think it should be illegal or anything, but I do think it's discourteous.

Sent by Maura | 12:40 PM | 5-19-2008

"lactation consultant" And I thought I had to come up with a fancy title to try and justify my job.

I suppose I would treat the subject the same way I do when I see people swapping saliva in public (or worse). I'm a particularly private (and traditional) person and tend to believe that there are certain things better left outside the public realm. So I tend to roll my eyes and find something interesting to study away from them as a recourse. Not that yelling at someone is going to do any good, in either case.

Sent by Leigh Cutler | 12:43 PM | 5-19-2008

Yes Maura :D I totally agree.

More than that, it doesn't seem like either extreme in the public breastfeeding issue takes the mother's comfort level into consideration. It's either "do it out in the open all the time and force people to be comfortable with it" or "do it in a room far away from anyone else and make sure the room has no windows." Seriously, I wouldn't breastfeed my hypothetical unborn baby in public without a covering or even around parts of my family or my husband's family. It seems way too personal.

When a friend of mine had her son almost a year ago, she asked everyone what they feel comfortable with as far as boob exposure so she wouldn't make anyone feel too uncomfortable in her presence when breastfeeding. I think that's the way to do it in your private life. I also think that when a mother goes out with the baby and may end up breastfeeding in public, it's a good idea to bring a covering just in case she is asked, for whatever reason, to cover up. And preferably do it without putting up a fight; in the grand scheme of things, public breastfeeding is such a minor issue in the ocean of issues we have to deal with on a daily basis.

Sent by Sarah Lee | 1:30 PM | 5-19-2008

My goal is to feed my child, not make a statement. Thank you so much for including the video for Slurp & Burp. I love the idea of being able to maintain my modesty with covering my baby.

Sent by Dehlia | 1:53 PM | 5-19-2008

I always asked before breastfeeding around friends or other people that weren't my husband. But I think what most people are missing is that it's not a sexual thing. I mean, yes, making out in public can be gross, but feeding your child? No one would say that if it was a bottle instead of a breast. Why should my baby be covered up in the heat of summer because someone else is uncomfortable with the human body and what it was made to do? Ridiculous.

Sent by Megan | 3:12 PM | 5-19-2008

When I was breastfeeding, I certainly tried to be sensitive to the people around me and didn't just pull up my shirt with no warning when I was around those whom I sensed or knew would be made uncomfortable.

But parenthood is never a controlled situation (@Nick Giuliani, those public diaper changes are gonna come one day). I made a point of getting out and about with my baby, because we both enjoyed it. And there were times when the kid needed to eat, and we were out in public, and whatever I rigged up to cover me might slip for a second or whatever.

I trusted that most reasonable people in the world could just look away if they were grossed out or offended or whatever until the moment passed, and that they probably had more important things to worry about.

The pity is that some women might be so worried about offending people that they don't breastfeed even if they want to. And that is too bad.

My hope is that we can all just act like grown-ups and go about our business while the kids get fed.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 3:33 PM | 5-19-2008

You should watch the video my wife and I put together for our Dirty Diaper Diaries vlog on the subject. She always intended as just being some advice on how to become comfortable with public nursing and not making it into a big deal, but the YouTube version of the video has generated nearly 200 comments from people debating the issue.

Sent by andy carvin, npr | 3:41 PM | 5-19-2008

Alison, you've buried the lead here: there are DIFFERENT TYPES of breast milk? How does that even work?

Sent by Stewart | 5:44 PM | 5-19-2008

All babies are different and in my experience how easy it is to be discreet and not appear like I am seeking the spotlight has less to do with me than with my baby's temperament. My first baby was a dream to feed. In public, she was fine with being covered up, and she ate until she was finished. We could be quite discreet. My second, however was a different story, he never liked being covered up and wanted to take breaks every 30 seconds to look around. So it wasn't me searching out the spotlight it was my need-to-see-the-world, slow, picky eater.

However, I wasn't about to loose the ease of portability over the fear of exposure or someone taking offense. I never really understood mom's who used bottles so they didn't have to breastfeed in public. You are taking out the whole part that makes it great when you baby is so little, you are conveniently portable. No cooler bags, no bottles to fill, nothing just you, the baby and a diaper - what could be easier? Okay, maybe not that easy but at least I didn't have one more item to forget when I went out with my baby.

Sent by robin | 6:04 PM | 5-19-2008

Types of breast milk? Right and left?

Sent by Dave Wiley | 10:38 PM | 5-19-2008

Women have to do what women have had to do since the dawn of man. It is far easier for a squeamish prude to smile then look down or away than it is to ask a woman to inconvenience herself. And what if you make a woman feel embarrassed or ashamed by something you say to her, or even a dirty look you give out? That wouldn't be good.

If you find yourself in a place where a woman has to feed her child, think of it as a positive reminder about life and take the time to think about family or friends, or the future that babies represent.

There's an anti-war breast feeding group; I forget their group's name. They show up at anti-war rallies and feed their babies en masse.

Sent by Brian | 2:05 AM | 5-20-2008

The only two types of breast milk I know of are colostrum, which is the first kind you make right when the baby is born--a kind of super-concentrated, thick version, and regular ol' milky milk.

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 4:10 AM | 5-20-2008

The "it's natural" argument and the "it's not dirty" argument don't hold water for me. There are a lot of natural, normal functions we carry out but in private (think of all the things you do in the bathroom, and not just the ones with numbers). I don't think turning away or covering up in public is a lot to ask: it's recognizing that nursing is a private function.

Sent by Marc Naimark | 7:14 AM | 5-20-2008

My wife will have a fourth child later this year. The first three nursed a couple of years. My wife was initially insulted enough by some of "those looks" out and about that she is also now a Le Leche League International leader -- a support group for nursing mothers.

This must be some carryover from some Elizabethan cover-up protocal where a natural process of feeding an infant (that's what they're there for) became blasphamous then and still seems to be that today.

This is one area where science hasn't done better even though advertising certainly has claimed it is.

Sent by Anthony Hunt | 11:07 AM | 5-20-2008

I agree with Maura, I prefer that a woman (when in public) cover up with a blanket. It seems the polite thing to do. But I don't get upset when a woman doesn't use a cover. I don't think "working breasts" (as my friend called hers during the period she was nursing) are a sexual thing when feeding a baby, so why get all worked up about it.

My other point would be that if I have a choice between a cranky, hungry, crying baby and a happy, well fed, smiling baby; I say whip out the boob and feed that baby!

Also, Mazel Tov Alison!

Sent by Ethan | 11:12 AM | 5-20-2008

I'm curious what the reaction to breast feeding is over in Europe. Exposed breasts are much less (if at all) of a taboo in a culture where sunning topless on the beach is a normal occurrence. There is definitely some truth in the notion that the US is still very puritanical in its views regarding sex and nudity -- which I would argue is the sole reason we are having this discussion. In reality, there is nothing remotely sexual in the act of breastfeeding except that it involves the breast (a body part which in this country has much more of a sexual connotation than in many other parts of the world).

At the same time, however, as Marc mentioned before -- there are plenty of very natural body processes that are considered socially unacceptable in public... urination being a prime example. Is it really that much of a surprise that a publically exposed breast might draw a few gasps? I'm not sure I agree that it is some kind of divine right of a mother to breast feed her children in the full view of strangers. Covering up when breastfeeding shouldn't be obligatory... but it would be the polite thing to do.

On a lighter note... as long as we discussing public nudity we really should address overweight (or normal for that matter) men who walk around in public without a shirt on. That faux pas seems much less defendable to me!

Sent by Dan | 1:54 PM | 5-20-2008

Glad to see the coverlet is working out. I can't wait to meet the little guy!

Sent by Caitlin Kenney, NPR | 7:57 PM | 5-20-2008

Two kinds of milk foremilk and hind milk.

Sent by Jennifer | 9:08 PM | 5-20-2008

thank jennifer for jumping in....
the fore milk is thinner, a bit watery--described to me like skim milk..then the hind milk (richer, more good fats, thicker---whole milk if you will)
which comes in after the kid has been feeding for a few minutes. hydration and nutrition in one shot!
then there's this stuff called colostrum...see tricia's post...(sorry for all lower case...sleeping baby in the other hand)

Sent by alison stewart-npr | 9:48 AM | 5-21-2008

Colustrum, foremilk, hindmilk, whatever... give me my chocolate milk!

Sent by Marc Naimark | 12:53 PM | 5-21-2008

Great post! I'm with you - I'm all for breast feeding and if a woman wants to whip 'em out in public she should be allowed to, but I personally don't want to go all topless for all the world to see. I feed my daughter (7 mos.) in public (church, restaurants, etc. as needed, like I did with my first (who is now 3), but I know it makes other people uncomfortable and it makes ME uncomfortable if I'm not as covered as the squirmer will allow. But it has amazed me for over 3 years now the politics involved, how you're supposed to be this militant "lactivist" and if you ween before 4 years you've sold out, or if you have to supplement every now and then (as many working moms do, that breast pump just doesn't do it always), then you've failed. Sheesh, as if pregnancy, labor, delivery and raising kids weren't hard enough without all that! :)
Btw I have a "breast friend" too that I love!

Sent by Gillian | 8:23 PM | 5-21-2008

Congratulations Allison!

I am a very modest person- I never even wear shorts in public. And when I started breast feeding my now four month old daughter I tried to be covered up all the time, even at home. But my daughter hated it and would scream instead of eating. Now I just try to be as covered up as possible, I think less people notice or even look at me when my boob is hanging out then give me nasty looks when she is screaming.

Don't let the lactivist people bother you or the ones who think that nursing is gross and inappropriate. To many people turn motherhood into another opportunity to judge other women instead of helping each other with an extremely difficult and challenging period.

Sent by courtney | 9:17 PM | 5-21-2008

I was a the "Container Store" looking at some plastic food containers when the woman next to me who had a crying baby just pulled out one of her breasts and started to feed the little noise maker. I being a man was briefly taken aback but then noticed how all was peaceful...

What a great solution for screaming babies.

Sent by A BACK | 4:23 AM | 5-22-2008

@ Leigh Cutler--As funny as the title sounds, IMHO it makes a difference if a person is a trained board certified lactation consultant. I found someone GREAT and her in-home instruction and good humor made a huge difference in our lives. She writes for if anyone is interested.

Sent by Alison Stewart-NPR | 9:32 AM | 5-22-2008

We need to stop saying "lactivist" like it's a pejorative term. Why is "activist" such a dirty word? If you think about it, mothers are the greatest activists of all time. From standing up to the bully who took their daughter's lunch money to changing and creating laws, mothers act on behalf of their children and themselves in revolutionary ways. If it weren't for activist mothers who both peacefully and "militantly" fought and continue to fight to change the social construction of motherhood and breastfeeding, we wouldn't even be having this conversation, especially in a public forum.

Sent by Larissa M-L. | 2:51 PM | 5-22-2008

Chiming in from Europe here (well, Sweden at least). Earlier commenters are absolutely right about the attitudes toward nudity being far more relaxed. From what I've observed of breastfeeding Moms here, the choice to cover or not to cover is more about their own personal level of modesty (generally not very high) and the baby's comfort, rather than any reaction they might get from the public...which is usually zero, with the possible exception of groups of adolescent boys. ;^)

Sent by Shazzer | 5:46 AM | 5-23-2008

Why do people think that breastfeeding is always such a personal thing, i.e. for intimate bonding with your baby? Sometimes my baby and I gaze lovingly at each other when he is nursing; other times it's just a meal. Sometimes my husband and I prepare grand dinners for one another, other times we just try to feed our hungry bellies with whatever we have in our fridge. Feeding one's child isn't always an intimate event; sometimes it just needs to be done whenever they are hungry and wherever you happen to be.

Sent by Susan | 12:13 AM | 5-25-2008

I just wanted to add that sometimes it is necessary to nurse in public places, and your child isn't always cool with being covered by a shawl. My first son was, and my second wants to be out in the fresh air. On a recent airplane ride back east he literally trashed and arched his back until I took the silly contraption/shawl-thing my husband bought me for the trip. The person in the next seat didn't mind at all when I uncovered because he is perfectly at ease with breasts being a source of food for infants and hasn't been told it is shameful. Of course, he is my 2 year old.....

Sent by kristin | 10:30 PM | 6-22-2008