Caught between the ideal of breastfeeding and the reality of doing it

On a recent vacation in St. Lucia, I came across this mama nursing her babies. “Public breastfeeding. How great!” I thought. But, after posting this picture on Facebook, these were some of the responses: “Yikes! They need to be weaned!” and “they are pretty big to be still nursing.” This, of course, got my head whirling about people’s attitudes toward breastfeeding.

On the surface, there is support — breast is best after all, right? Not only does breast milk provide the perfect nutritional needs for a baby, there are also multiple health benefits to both mom and baby as well as the unique bonding that breastfeeding fosters. But when it comes down to it, the many challenges of learning how to breastfeed, having an adequate supply, incorporating breastfeeding with work, and the awkwardness of being out in public are glossed over. I’ve seen so many patients caught between their ideal of breastfeeding and the reality of doing it.

I vividly remember my own challenges with breastfeeding. I had all kinds of problems — latching issues, supply issues, going back to work issues, traveling issues. Thinking about the first time I tried to nurse in public, I still blush at how inept I was. My daughter was four weeks old, and I met a friend for lunch at a diner. As much as I planned that my baby wouldn’t want to eat while there, she had other plans. She started crying right when my salad was placed in front of me. With my special, should-cover-everything nursing shirt on, I attempted to nurse. We struggled with latching on as it was, and it was only made worse at the restaurant with my inexperience and anxiety about nursing in public. While I was fumbling, my friend said, “You are exposing yourself.”

Embarrassed, I quickly covered up and headed towards the only private place in the restaurant, the bathroom. Yes, the bathroom! Can you imagine eating your lunch on a toilet in a public bathroom? So there I was, sitting on a toilet, sweating, crying, and in an awkward position, I again tried to nurse unsuccessfully. My poor baby was hungry and fussing and I felt helpless. I signaled my friend and walked out of the restaurant, praying nobody knew me there.

Over time, I got better at nursing and more comfortable in public. In fact, I got to the point of not even thinking about it; nursing was just a reflex. I remember nursing in the Atlanta airport waiting for my flight to take off. My brother-in-law was with me (that was pre 9/11, when family could accompany you to the gate before your flight took off) and he looked uncomfortable. I realized he was looking to see if anyone was looking at me as I was breastfeeding my daughter! I checked to make sure I wasn’t exposed, but my daughter and I were well covered. Here was a man who supported breastfeeding but was still anxious to be with someone breastfeeding in public.

Recently, a patient was telling me that when she went back to work, and only was there no place to pump, she wasn’t given the time to pump. So when she could spare a few moments, she would sneak out to her car and pump using her handy car adapter for power. I was trying to imagine how she could relax enough to have her milk letdown while looking around that no one saw her pumping in her car.

Not everyone has issues, but I do my fair share of troubleshooting with my patients about how to continue nursing while working, while traveling, while outside the home. We, as a society and community need to buck up and truly support women who are breastfeeding. Don’t get all squeamish when you see someone nursing. Honestly, most women don’t really like to nurse in public, but sometimes it is necessary. To help, support businesses that have private places to nurse rather than having to use a bathroom stall. Support businesses that have designated pumping rooms and allow their employees to take a few minutes to pump when needed.

And breastfeeding moms, sometimes you may need your “cat” armor and not care so much about what people think of you nursing in public. I know it can be challenging, but like this cat, find a comfortable corner, in the shade, out of the flow of traffic and take care of your baby — and yourself.

Andrea Eisenberg is a obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at Secret Life of an OB/GYN.

Image credit: Andrea Eisenberg

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