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30 sept 2005

Breast Perspective
By Tera Schreiber

There is a lot of attention to breastfeeding in public lately. Many argue that they feel uncomfortable if they see a woman breastfeeding in public. Washington law exempts the act of breastfeeding or expressing breast milk from the indecent exposure laws. Despite this fact, it is difficult to change community perceptions about breasts. Many people feel that a breast is "indecent," even it is feeding a child.

Interestingly, a breast is defined by Merriam Webster's Dictionary as a mammary gland on a woman. A mammary gland is further defined as a gland that secretes milk. So, we are living in a time when people are seriously offended by women using their breasts for what we define their use, at least if they do so in public.

While I get that most of these people support the theory of breastfeeding (something that is hard to not support in light of the piles of research that show health benefits for mothers and babies). And I understand that those who are uncomfortable by the sight of a mother feeding her baby just want women to cover up, I wonder how successful they would be if they had to deal with the logistics of nursing a baby in public. Some mother and baby teams are VERY good at it. The baby is happy to nuzzle under a shirt or peacefully nurse under a blanket.  

Welcome to my world. My daughters both abhorred ANYTHING covering their heads while nursing. My baby refuses to nurse in the position you most commonly see women use (the cradle-hold), which is one of the easiest ways to cover up while nursing. She prefers the "football hold," which means that I hold her head in my hand and her feet toward my back. This is probably the way to create the most breast exposure while nursing. Lucky me! I try to cajole her into other positions in public, usually without success.  

I can handle the critics out there. With my background as a lawyer, I can argue with rude people who make comments to me about nursing in public. I work for an organization that provides breastfeeding support and advocacy. This surrounds me by a community of women and families who support and encourage breastfeeding and who are not phased by the inevitable breast-shots that they receive from nursing mothers. I have friends who are La Leche League leaders. I am firmly committed to breastfeeding as the best, and in most cases the only way, to feed a baby. If anyone should feel confidence while nursing in public, it's me.

But even I sometimes feel uncomfortable nursing in public. When I am sitting at dinner with extended family members who are not as familiar with the culture of breastfeeding....when I am sitting at a table with men that I have not met before.....when I am alone with my daughter in public....when I am in my own house and a handyman is working in the other room....when I am at a wedding reception....sometimes I hesitate for just a minute....and wish that my daughter wasn't hungry right at that moment. Of course, I feed her anyway. And I have nursed my children in places that I wouldn't have expected, such as in business meetings, in the grocery store, at the beach, waiting to board a plane, on hiking trails, and in even the snow. But the fact that I sometimes feel shy about it makes me worry about the rest of the women and their babies. How hard it must be for them if even I feel this way. How difficult it must be for them when they hear people say things that make them feel ashamed of what they are doing. And this is one of the reasons I do breastfeed in public, even when I feel a bit shy about it. If I can't do it, then who will?

We see breasts on TV, on billboards, in magazines, and in display windows in the mall. It's only when a breast is used to feed a baby that people don't want to see it. Wouldn't it be a dream if seeing breasts nursing babies was a mainstream as Victoria's Secret ads and beauty pageants?

There is hope. My 3 year-old daughter was arguing with a friend over a baby bottle for their dolls. There were two dolls and only one bottle. My daughter lost the battle. Rather than wait around to take a turn with the bottle, she simply said, "That's okay. I will nurse my baby."

Tera Schreiber is mother of two delightfully busy children and the Executive Director for Great Starts Birth & Family Education, in Seattle.

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