Nipplephobia: Why We Need to Normalize Breastfeeding in our Culture

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I admit it.  I'm one of the breastfeeding mothers out there who has allowed cultural norms to get in the way of what I believe is best for my child.  I've ended feedings prematurely to avoid breastfeeding in front of others, even in my own home.  I've "wasted" precious breastmilk I had pumped by bottle feeding even when we were together, just to avoid nursing in public.  I've breastfed countless times in dirty bathrooms, and tried to hide the fact that I'm nursing at all from some people to avoid the taboo topic of "extended breastfeeding" (she's 19 months).  And now? I've finally had enough.  We need to normalize breastfeeding in our culture, and this post is my first attempt at doing my part. "Why not just cover up?" a lot of people might say.  Well, for me and my daughter that just didn't work.  I tried a nursing cover, but like so many other new moms and babies, we were struggling with our latch and it was painful and difficult enough to get her positioned without a cover.  So during the countless visits from family and friends during our early breastfeeding relationship, I took the baby to another room to feed her, rushing her through the feeding so I wouldn't come across as "rude" to our guests.

The first time we were out for dinner, as my baby cried with hunger and I struggled to get her latched beneath a cover- not able to see what I was doing, my daughter getting more and more impatient, both of us getting frustrated- my husband turned to me and asked if I could just feed her in the bathroom so that no one would catch a glimpse of my breast.  I couldn't believe that this was his primary concern in this moment, and yet- I gave in easily.  I didn't have the confidence to break the cultural norm, fearing what others would think or say about my breastfeeding in public.

"In what species besides our own would adult males or females harass a mother in the act of nourishing her young? Such behavior would not occur to any other creature."

-Ina May Gaskin

Another low point came when I developed an incredibly painful thrush infection that caused searing pain every time my daughter latched on... while on a weeklong family vacation spent mostly at a theme park in extremely hot and humid weather.  As I sat on toilets in busy bathrooms, I tried desperately to keep my distractible six month old latched on, as she startled with each and every loud toilet flush.  I'd calm her and then try again, only for her to pop off again with wide, scared eyes the next time a stall turned over.  Once night fell I gave up, and finally found what appeared to be a safe, dark alleyway behind a building where I sat on the pavement and nursed hidden with my back against the wall- until the theater doors unexpectedly flew open and people poured out into the alleyway.  I frantically covered myself and scurried away hoping no one "caught a glimpse".

Bathroom breastfeeding hasn't gotten any easier.  If I sit on the toilet, my toddler's hands immediately find the toilet seat.  If I sit on the floor, well obviously, that isn't much better.

"Why are you still breastfeeding a toddler anyway??" some may say.  "Why wouldn't I?"  would be my response.  While I understand that each mother needs to feed their child in the way that is right for their family, and I am aware that not everyone who sets out to breastfeed for whatever duration is able to continue, I have worked VERY hard to reach my breastfeeding goals.  Through lots of literal blood, sweat and tears, I was able to triumph over several intense challenges to get to the happy nursing relationship we have today.  I am not going to stop providing the well established benefits known to come from breastfeeding to my daughter just because our culture is uncomfortable with women breastfeeding beyond X arbitrary months.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months and that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mutually desired.  In keeping with the recommendation of up to two years and beyond that the World Health Organization recommends, the The American Academy of Family Physicians Position Paper on Breastfeeding goes as far as to say that a child younger than two years of age is at increased risk of illness if weaned. And according to this article published in Pediatrics Child Health, "Natural weaning occurs as the infant begins to accept increasing amounts and types of complementary feedings while still breastfeeding on demand. When natural weaning is practiced, complete weaning usually takes place between two and four years of age."

Every woman should have the right to decide for herself how short or long her breastfeeding journey will be without judgement, but shouldn't we as a society do what we can to support and encourage moms who are trying their best to follow these health recommendations?  I don't think expecting moms to cover up or hide in the bathroom is supportive in the least.

When will I stop breastfeeding my daughter?  When the timing feels right for us, and not a moment sooner.  Will I still breastfeed in the bathroom?  Not again, not ever again.  My daughter deserves better, I deserve better, and the other moms that may "catch a glimpse" deserve better too.  Here's hoping they get the message.

I am a fan of indiscreet breastfeeding; the more people see babies at the breast, the more normal it will become.

-Jack Newman

Written by Angie Traska of Align Doula Services, providing intuitive, attentive doula support that aligns with you.  Serving Madison, WI and the surrounding areas.  Looking for doula support or lactation counseling in Madison?  Contact me here.