Breastfeeding in Public: To Cover or Not to Cover?
Recently there was a news story about a coffee shop in our city that had come under fire after a barista (who turned out to be one of the owners) offered a female patron who was breastfeeding a towel to cover up. Another woman who was with the mother wrote a scathing review on social media, and soon the coffee shop’s Facebook page was blowing up with negative reviews. As I read the comments, I realized there are two camps: the people who believe that women should be able to breastfeed any time and anywhere without being compelled to use a cover, and those who think that that women should use a cover when breastfeeding out of respect for others who may be offended or bothered by the sight of her breasts.
With my first child, I used the cover religiously. I would not have felt confident enough to breastfeed in public without it. Using a cover is a tricky issue for some mothers, including me. Because I’m disabled (I’m a triple amputee), it’s difficult for me to use a cover while breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is important to me, but doing it in public, without my nursing pillows and from my wheelchair is really difficult. It’s harder to get baby latched because I only have one arm, so if her clothes ride up or her hand is in the way, I don’t have another hand to move it with. It’s tiring to hold her with one arm through the entire feed, and trying to finagle a cover in addition to all that feels like too much. Plus, it’s hot under there! Seriously, even though the cover is thin, it gets really warm with a nursing baby against your breast. I’ve heard other women say that their babies refuse to nurse if they try to use a cover. So, now that I’m breastfeeding my second child, I don’t always use a cover. I’ve decided that I don’t have to do something physically excruciating to feed my baby just to make other people feel comfortable.
My husband prefers that I use a cover. When he’s with me, he can help me get situated with a cover and it’s not a big deal, although it’s still hot. He says he doesn’t want men staring at my breasts if I don’t use a cover (I have never seen anyone staring at my breasts while nursing in public). The truth is, breasts are meant for feeding babies, but they can also be sexual. It makes him uncomfortable for him to think about anyone else seeing a private part of me that I only share with him. I get it. Importantly, he respects my choice not to use a cover when I opt not to, but I usually do try to use the cover when he is with me.
The comments on the coffee shop’s Facebook page elicited a lot of reactions. Women get so many mixed messages – you should breastfeed your babies but not show your breasts. Except women’s breasts are shown all the time in non-breastfeeding situations, say on the beach, or in advertisements. I was interested to read a few comments suggesting that that asking a breastfeeding woman to cover up is “against the law.” An Internet search will quickly yield your state laws related to breastfeeding. Texas law is simple: “Tex. Health Code Ann. § 165.002 (1995) authorizes a woman to breastfeed her child in any location.” It doesn’t say anything about covers, and Texas is not one of the states to exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws.
Women who breastfeed are trying to feed their babies the best nutrition possible. This endeavor should be respected. Breastfeeding is hard enough without feeling self-conscious or judged. If a woman doesn’t use a cover, that’s her choice. There may be a very good reason she chooses not to. Regardless, if someone is uncomfortable, that is his problem, not the nursing mother’s. Happily, the coffee shop made strong efforts to address the breastfeeding backlash. They held a “nurse-in, welcoming breastfeeding mothers and donated a percentage of all their sales that day to a breastmilk bank. Good for them!
UPDATE: Since I wrote this 3 months ago, I have abandoned the cover completely. I'm totally comfortable breastfeeding in public without it now. I haven't asked him, but I sense my husband is more comfortable with it too. Social media is blowing up about women's right to breastfeed. The new thing is the "brelfie," a selfie taken while breastfeeding. There's also the hashtag #normalizebreastfeeding. I love it, and I've been posting photos of my breastfeeding my baby daughter. It feels great.