by Kelly Warner, Whole30 Certified Coach and mom of 3. Connect with Kelly on Instagram or her personal website. Kelly shares her public breastfeeding experience in her own words. Find more about her journey on her blog.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines breastfeeding as “the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development” (1). However, I’ve found that breastfeeding is not always considered normal in the United States. Only 57% of mothers attempt breastfeeding after birth (2), and only half of those babies are breastfed past 6 months, compared to a global age of 3-4 years (3). Socioeconomic status and race are a contributing factor to breastfeeding success rates. It is clear that there is a racial and economic disparity in breastfeeding support and education available to women (4).
I have also found in my personal experience that breastfeeding is not always considered normal in this country. I have received ignorant comments from random strangers and close family members about breastfeeding. Heading into the holiday season, you may be feeling apprehension about entering into family situations and facing criticism or judgment for your choices. Today I’m sharing a few tips for what to do when you encounter naysayers. If my struggles resonate with you, then I hope my story will inspire you to persevere through your own challenges.
My journey to motherhood …
My husband and I struggled with infertility for five years, followed by two years of recurrent miscarriages. During that time we attended a nondenominational church in Houston. Two of my close friends were pregnant. I watched their bellies grow while listening to their conversations about childbirth, breastfeeding, and raising kids.
Once those babies were born, I observed my friends openly yet modestly breastfeeding. This was the first time I saw breastfeeding modeled, and I decided that I wanted to breastfeed my future children. I’m so thankful that our community in Houston quietly and consistently normalized breastfeeding for my husband and I because it laid the foundation for my success and my husband’s unwavering support. In my own breastfeeding journey, when I wanted to give up and felt exhausted, my husband was right there by my side at midnight feedings, encouraging me, praying for me, and reminding me of the many benefits breastfeeding provides for our babies and for me (5).
… and into breastfeeding
We moved to St. Louis, and welcomed our first child in January 2014. After a long and exhausting labor, I struggled to get him to latch. After the first day, my lactation consultants, doctor, and family members quickly began pushing me to use formula, rather than exhausting every resource to support my breastfeeding goals. We found out much later that my son had an undiagnosed upper lip tie. It was evident that at that hospital and in my local circle, breastfeeding was not normal. I was infuriated that no one seemed to believe in my innate ability to nourish my child.
With the support of my husband and long-distance friends in Houston, I was able to breastfeed my son for 13 months (6 of which I was pregnant with my daughter). I breastfed my daughter 19 months, and am currently nursing my third child, at 17 months old. In fact, I have been nursing for 49 of the last 57 months. While it has been very natural and normal for me, I have continued to face criticism and resistance from others. Here are my three tips when facing criticism for public breastfeeding.
With my first, I registered for a cute nursing cover and I assumed it would be the perfect accessory to nursing my child. But, let’s be real … I felt like I was trying to nurse my baby in a steam room. My baby fought them, as well, so the nursing cover went into storage.
While attending a family gathering a few months after my son was born, my filter-less family member (we’ve all got one, right?) told me to “put my goons away” while I openly breastfed my baby in my mom’s living room. Completely taken aback by the comment as a nervous, first-time mom, I froze, unable to challenge the ignorance … or at least provide a sassy comeback. I’ve grown in confidence over the years, and I have found that people are less likely to say anything to me if they just see me confidently breastfeeding like it’s normal. I hear you asking, “But what about when they do say something?” That’s a great question, because, unfortunately, it does happen! My next tip addresses this.
Focus on your baby
Six months after the incident at my family gathering, I was on a date with my husband at a coffee shop and began to discreetly feed my son. A young girl at a table nearby said, “Is this lady serious?” and made a crude comment. Having gained more confidence with breastfeeding in public, I commented back with something less snarky like, “Wow, that’s really mature of you,” and turned back to my baby, soaking in those sweet moments of connection with him.
Although it was still disheartening to deal with criticism, I was proud that I had grown in confidence and continued to be firm in my conviction to do what I deemed best for my child. You are responsible for your baby and no one else. Stay focused on what you are doing (feeding your baby) and remember that criticism from others is a reflection of their upbringing, worldview, maturity, and education. This has nothing to do with you or your baby.
Don’t let others shame you
Based on my experience with my friends in Houston, I assumed my experiences with nursing in church in my St. Louis suburb would be similar. I feel it’s important to share, while expressing that I love my church and want to tread lightly. During a conversation with my husband, however, one of our elders mentioned that church members were concerned about me openly breastfeeding my infant in the service. We were encouraged to use the Cry Room or a nursing cover in an effort to preserve modesty. My amazingly supportive husband stood up for me and explained all of our reasons for wanting to normalize public breastfeeding. We had several meetings with our pastors, went through months of intense emotions, and even considered leaving our church.
Feeling self-conscious, embarrassed, and ashamed, I ultimately decided to feed my baby in the Cry Room. Many weeks I cried in that room while I looked into my daughter’s big blue eyes as she nursed. I was being faithful to what I believe is God’s mandate to care for her, yet I felt shamed into hiding. I don’t harbor bitterness, but I do wonder how we are to ever change our culture if the women brave enough to nurse in public are continually shamed into hiding. While I love my church and am committed to it, I also think it’s important to share the truth that breastfeeding is not sexual in nature, but has been oversexualized because of the objectification of breasts. You have nothing to be ashamed of when feeding your child.
If you are a nursing mama, I hope these tips provide you with the encouragement and support you need to carry on. I’m so thankful that I had friends who normalized public breastfeeding for me because otherwise I might have been the person making a rude comment to a stranger. Even if you’ve never breastfed, I’m sure that you have faced judgment over some of your parenting choices. We are all doing the best that we can, and working to raise our children according to what we believe is best. May we as mothers band together to support each other in our varied choices and strive to educate others so that we can all “know better, do better, be better.”
Kelly Warner is a stay-at-home mama of three from St. Louis, MO, who believes that the path to whole living starts with changing the food we consume. Having experienced the power of Whole30 first hand, she has completely changed her relationship with food, developed healthy habits for herself and her family, and lost 75 pounds by completing multiple rounds of the program. She has also mastered the art of meal prepping while babywearing, learned how to cook nutrient-dense meals while diffusing a toddler meltdown, and has successfully stayed compliant while traveling and attending social events. When not in the kitchen or caring for her cubs, she loves to spend her time reading, songwriting, singing at church, and dating her handsome husband.
3 Nancy Mohrbacher, Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple