03 August 2012

World Breastfeeding Week: Nursing in Public, Part 1

More and more state and local governments have been passing laws and ordinances protecting a breastfeeding mother's ability to feed her baby in public.  In Alaska, AS 29.25.080 states:

A municipality may not enact an ordinance that prohibits or restricts a woman breast-feeding a child in a public or private location where the woman and child are otherwise authorized to be. In a municipal ordinance, "lewd conduct," "lewd touching," "immoral conduct," "indecent conduct," and similar terms do not include the act of a woman breast-feeding a child in a public or private location where the woman and child are otherwise authorized to be.

Breastfeeding laws have been met with a wide range of reactions from the general public.  You have the people who think breastfeeding in public indecent, inappropriate, disgusting; those who consider it an invitation to voyeurism; those who support breastfeeding in general, but are made uncomfortable by actually seeing a breastfeeding mother; those who consider it normal, natural, and not something to be ashamed of; and those who militantly support it to the point of intentionally making others uncomfortable.

While the second response is clearly immoral and the last uncharitable, the other three are mindsets we need to consider and be aware of, both in ourselves and in others around us.

Those who think it indecent, inappropriate, disgusting.
- If this is the mother, she probably isn't the one breastfeeding.
- If this is another person, why might they react this way?  Do they belong to one of the generations which largely did not breastfeed?  If they did not breastfeed and have had little exposure to it, they may well have spent much of their life believing that breastfeeding is weird, abnormal, icky... They may even remember being told by their pediatrician, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, that breastfeeding isn't important, reinforcing their belief that a woman who breastfeeds in public must be doing so for some personal reason rather than for her baby's sake.  Being understanding is so important (although so hard!) in this situation, because it is a natural response for people to avoid, fear, and vilify things they don't understand.
Do they belong to a group or generation which places a very high value on modesty?  It is possible that their understanding of modesty has been influenced away from an authentic Catholic understanding by elements of Puritanical mores (Marc Barnes of Bad Catholic has discussed this here and here).
- How can this mindset be addressed?  Deeply held opinions against breastfeeding in public, especially those stemming from an emotional response, will not change quickly or easily.  Being knowledgeable and willing to share current information about breastfeeding, or even a simple "My doctor said that it is important to let my baby nurse when he is hungry," may help, and it is important to be open to discussion if the other person is willing to talk.  In an antagonistic situation, though, it will be better for your stress level (and by extension your baby's) to try to be non-confrontational and discrete.

(To be continued)

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