Thursday, June 17, 2010

Morality & Breastfeeding in Public

A recent comment from a relative that even with nursing clothes and discretion "just because you can [nurse in public] doesn't mean you should!" set me to thinking quite seriously about the morality of breastfeeding in public, and here's what I came up with:

I believe based on the scientific research and anecdotal evidence I've seen that breastfeeding is the best choice for babies' mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Because of this, I think I have a moral duty to breastfeed.* And I believe other mothers do too, unless it would be an unreasonable hardship or otherwise impossible. I don't think mothers who can't breastfeed should feel bad or are doing anything immoral by formula feeding though, of course! Or say, a mother who has to take a medication for a serious condition that is not safe for breastfeeding babies and has to use formula- I definitely don't think that's immoral! I do think that if a mother is reasonably capable of breastfeeding safely, she has a moral duty to do so and provide her child with the best nutrition and comfort available. Anyway, there are a couple of other moral duties I've been thinking about with this too.

One is that as a Christian, I think I have a moral duty to behave modestly. In life in general for me, this means not wearing low cut tops, not posting sexy pictures of myself on Facebook, and a myriad of other things. So how does this balance with the moral duty to breastfeed? I think I ought to breastfeed modestly. I don't think that breastfeeding is in any way obscene, but I do think that due to the oversexualization of our culture, many men would be prone to sexual thoughts if they saw exposed breast, and I don't want to elicit sexual thoughts in anyone other than Hubby!

To help me nurse modestly, I got a few super-cute nursing tops from Motherwear that allow me to nurse without revealing any of my breast except maybe when Baby's first getting attached and when he's done. And I try not to flash anyone. Baby won't tolerate a blanket over his head, so I don't bother even trying that anymore. For other moms who can afford it, nursing tops, etc are great. But I certainly don't think any mom should feel she has to make expensive purchases to breastfeed. Simply exercising reasonable discretion with what she can afford is all I think is necessary. But even with that being said, Baby's needs come first, and if that means some breast is exposed to public view, I don't think that's bad at all!

I also think the general population has a duty in regards to breastfeeding, and that is to mind their own business. I know that some people are creeps and might be trying to check me out. But beyond attempting to be modest in my feeding Baby, it's really not my problem. I cover up in hopes of not tempting anyone/causing anyone to sin by lusting after me, but I think that's as far as my role goes. My obligation to my baby comes before any obligation to the general public, including the obligation to modesty.

This goes for church too as far as I'm concerned. While I try to nurse modestly and quietly so I'm not a distraction, I think it's ultimately the responsibility of the other people in attendance to ensure their own focus is on God and not on the people around them, including me and my nursling.

What are your thoughts on the morality of nursing in public?

*"Duty" tends to have a little bit of a negative connotation in some contexts, so I just wanted to state for the record that besides thinking that I should breastfeed, I also love breastfeeding my son, and while I consider it a duty, I certainly don't think of it as a chore!


  1. I agree with you 100%. I 100% support nursing in public and I 100% think we need to be modest. A nursing tank and a conservative shirt does the trick. :)

  2. I really like how you put this. I'm not as conservative as you but I do think you hit the nail on the head when you say that "it's ultimately the responsibility of the other people in attendance to ensure their own focus is on God and not on the people around them." Have you been asked not to nurse in church though? (Or anywhere else for that matter) Would your feelings change if you were?
    Great post!! Will share. :)

  3. Oooooh. More later as I am using my iPod an typing is a chore, but I love your profile paragraph. Substitute "Anglican" for "Catholic" and it is me! Oh, and East Coast instead of Midwest.

  4. First of all, I love your tone in this. "Polite and respectful" gets big big points with me. There's a great line in Kingsley Amis' hilarious novel, Lucky Jim, where something happens that confirms our hero's theory that "nice things are nicer than nasty ones." Same goes for public discourse about breastfeeding (or anything else): nice people are nicer than nasty ones.

    Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. Anglican breastfeeding co-sleeping, etc., mom here, too. I've nursed my kids everywhere, including in and around church. I tend to dress fairly "modestly"-- breastfeeding or not-- because of my own comfort level, but, like you, if it comes down to being "modest" or the needs of my child, my child wins every time.

    That being said, the reason I keep putting "modest" in quotes is that it is such a profoundly subjective and culturally relative term. I think we need to be very careful when we make statements like "we have a moral duty to X" when X is something particular to our own cultural location. To wit, if you were to attend a church service in Uganda or Nigeria or Rwanda, you would more than likely see mothers nursing their infants with pretty much their whole breast exposed-- and this is normal. They aren't surrounded by men ogling them or thinking lustful thoughts; that's just how mothers feed babies and nobody thinks it's a big deal, KWIM? They aren't considered to be behaving immodestly; they're just doing what mommas do.

    I think part of the problem for us in the US is that our culture has so totally bought into the implicit premises of pornography-- that women's bodies are primarily sexual objects, that men relate to and think about women in primarily sexual ways, and that even good guys are hounded by lust and need all kinds of cultural restraints (i.e., the self-policing of women regarding their own appearance) to keep ahead of that hounding lust. To which I say, hogwash. Lust is certainly a problem for some people, but it's not a problem for everyone, and I don't think that respectful, self-respecting men and women need to go about fretting that they are going to cause someone else to sin. If I sin, that's a choice I have made; nobody else makes me do it. You know?

    Anyway, my two cents. Or, uh, few dollars. :)

  5. I agree with you 100%. I am a preachers wife (and a midwife myself) and have always breastfed in church and don't put a blanket over the baby. I remember once I was breastfeeding whilst standing up and talking after church. An eighty year old man came up and asked how I was doing as he patted my baby's head, he never even realised I was feeding and rather than embarrass him I just continued talking without letting him know.
    I have always found that wearing a low cut singlet top under my shirt keeps me decent. I just lift my top up and pull the singlet top neckline under my breast that way not much shows. That way you don't have to change your wardrobe and only have to buy a few singlet tops if you don't already have some.

  6. Thanks for the comments!

    @Recovering Sociopath-great points! I definitely meant this in the context of our US culture, and specifically the Midwest culture I'm a part of, which tends to be very concerned with it's definition of modesty! I would be very interested to hear about how breastfeeding and modesty are thought of in cultures I know less about, like Muslim and Asian cultures.

  7. This is a great post. I went and bought some tanks and cut holes or slits right at the boobs and can just wear them under any shirt. I nurse her everywhere now and it's so much easier than a bulky cover. We try to be modest, but like you said, my daughter's needs come first. So far I've never been asked to cover up or nurse somewhere else and I'm in the Midwest as well.

  8. Hi there! Thanks for your post. It's something I've been thinking about for the past few months. My son is nine months old, and he always yanks the blanket off when I'm trying to keep him covered. I don't have any nice nursing tops, so I generally do what Anonymous does -- pull the top shirt up and the camisole down.

    There are lots of women in my church who breastfeed, but most of them use big nursing capes (we call them hooter hiders), which I don't really like. If I use anything, I use a little receiving blanket. It's tough, though, because I have one friend who is so "modest" that she even uses her nursing cover when we're in our all-women small group -- which makes me feel like I should cover up too. I don't know anyone personally who nurses "indiscreetly," but it would probably give me a lot of courage if I ever saw it! For now, I just keep calmly pulling the blanket back up when he yanks it off.

    As far as the comment about lust/pornography, the fact is, I DO personally know people who have struggled with that in a very big way, and when it came to light, it rocked our entire church family to the core. I try to be sensitive to that simply because I've seen how destructive and insidious it can be. Honestly, though, I don't know that it relates very much to breastfeeding. There is so much available on TV and the Internet, that any guy who wants to get a fix can certainly do better than oogling a breastfeeding mom! And another blogger made the very good point that we have such a double standard when we tolerate all kinds of immodesty and trash on daytime TV and then ask breastfeeding mothers to cover up.

    Sorry for rambling, but like I said, this is something I've been thinking a lot about. Thank you very much for your thoughtful post.

  9. I'm currently working on a post with some similar thoughts in it. I think breastfeeding in no way is immodest, but I believe I should try to show as little as reasonably possible. If I lived in a culture where no one cared, I wouldn't either. And the baby's needs come first. If they need the whole breast out, then that is just fine. And if they mother prefers to have the whole breast out herself, I am fine with that, too.

  10. Yes! Agreed, on all points. My responsibilities are to God, my husband, my child, and others -- in that order!

    I'm very comfortable with how I nurse in public. I don't just flop my boob out (which is not modest in our culture), but I also don't try to hide or cover with a blanket, as I think that would send the message that breastfeeding is shameful.

    I've never had anyone say anything to me, but if they did, I could honestly say that I've talked to God about it, and I'm at peace with my decisions.

    You're spot on in saying that at some point, others have their own responsibility to look away if they are disturbed by something that is not morally wrong.


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