Lactivism, yes. Nursing nudity, no.

I used to think that my (albeit softcore) lactivism necessitated approval of immodest breastfeeding practices. We’re all in this together, breastfeeding moms, and we need to show the world that breastfeeding rocks. Maybe that means leaving the nursing cover at home and breastfeeding publicly without shame?

After all, every breastfeeding mom has gotten her share of infuriating reactions. Like being asked by the staff of a department store to nurse in the bathroom instead of in the comfortable chairs in the shoe section. Or being eyed with uncomfortable disgust in a waiting room, as if something perverted and gross is going on underneath the nursing cover.

These types of negative reactions make me want to flaunt my nursing as I stand on a soapbox, giving my thoughts on the sacrifice and beauty and healthiness and naturalness of breastfeeding, and the sickness of a culture that scoffs at nursing.

Well, in many places in Europe, women have discarded the nursing covers altogether. I’m not sure whether to attribute it to less cultural emphasis on modesty or to more progressive mothering ideas. You sociologists can make that call. But here in England, wherever there are nursing mothers, there are exposed breasts, bellies, lovehandles, hips, shoulders, armpits, you name it. The mothers take no care to cover up—shirt comes WAY up, nursing vessel flops out, and that’s that for the next 20 minutes.

I am proud to be a woman. I am proud to nurse and support nursing. But I do not enjoy seeing all that. Who would?

This isn’t about men being grossed out by breastfeeding because they prefer to view women as sterile objects of sexual gratification. This isn’t about women being uncomfortable with their bodies or ashamed of their womanhood in a patriarchal culture. This isn’t about being anti-life and against the mother-child physical bond. This is about modesty and discretion. This is about respecting the dignity of motherhood and of nursing by acknowledging the bashfulness that should accompany every sacred, life-giving physical act.

When I’m nursing, I look down and see, almost entirely, the face of a beautiful nursing baby. When I nurse 8 times a day, it can seem almost as commonplace as washing my hands. Why cover up? But when I’m carelessly uncovered, those around me see WAY more than the face of a beautiful nursing baby, and my nursing isn’t commonplace at all to them. It’s good to respect the rightly-held sensibilities of others. There are many natural, physical acts that must be concealed in public, from the most routine to the most sacred. We even cover up within our home, to shroud our own bodies and to show respect for our family members.

Modest public nursing will do wonders for a cultural respect for breastfeeding. I think it’s enchanting to see a mother take out her nursing cover and nurse unashamed, wherever and whenever her baby needs to eat. Anyone who sneers at this should, upon a moment’s reflection, realize the wrongness of his attitude. But baring all while nursing may justifiably offend, and may alienate some people from the conversation about reforming cultural attitudes toward breastfeeding.

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  • Kathleen

    Agreed! I keep covered in public for the sake of all. I have to say, I find the double standards of the culture rather annoying in the States. IT’s perfectly acceptable for women to walk about in bikinis and daisy dukes, sports bra and shorts or have their breasts heaving out of a strapless top, but a mother nursing? Forget about it! Regardless, you make a great point. Nursing mom’s should be good examples of charity in this department by breastfeeding modestly. Things like layering with nursing tank tops to protect your “love handles” from over exposure, and those awesome Baby Aulait type covers make it easier.

  • molly

    I totally agree. It makes ME uncomfortable when I see women nursing without a cover in public, so I can’t imagine how it makes men feel.nnHere’s a question: What do you ladies do about active older babies? Mine is now 9 months, so nursing in public is like a game to him–a game of, “bat away the cover.” It’s gotten so that I avoid nursing in public for fear of being exposed. Any hints?nnAlso, does anyone know what women did before now, in terms of public nursing? Did they use covers? Not? Did they just not go out in public when they had nursing babies? My mom said something to me about her (devout) mother telling her that mothers were not expected to go to mass as long as they were nursing. That sounded crazy to me! But it does remind me of another question–what do you ladies do about very small babies who need to nurse during mass time? It felt inappropriate to me to nurse in church with a cover, so I always found an empty classroom in the school connected to our church, but I wondered what women did at churches with no extra space.

  • Kj_marshill

    I’m not a fan of the cover…partly because I require one hand catching my crazy milk flow and the other holding the baby. I can nurse very discreetly while wearing a nursing tank and people rarely notice you are nursing. Unless someone were standing right above me, they wouldn’t see anything. I do take care to find a corner or some place quiet, but I do find acover inhibiting.

  • Mama A

    I love the common-sense approach to nursing, Juris Mater!nnMolly, I usually nurse in church with a cover when the baby is very small. I concluded that it draws less attention than making “the walk” with a screaming newborn. There’s no cry room or classrooms attached to our church, so the moms I know usually nurse young babies right in the pews. When baby is older, we time mass around feedings. nnAs for the older baby dilemma, I am also at a loss. I stopped nursing in public around four months with my daughter because she would be on-and-off so much! Feedings took forever, I was self-conscious, etc. I would either go somewhere private and quiet, or I would pump ahead of time. Some mamas try a nursing necklace, maybe that would help?

  • JMB

    Hilarious! “nursing vessels flops out”! Love it. I could never do the public nursing thing, I always felt that people were staring at me – even if they weren’t. I’m very shy though and don’t like to be the center of attention. I stayed home a lot when I was seriously nursing a baby – the first few months I suppose. I did go to my parent’s house and my in-laws and friends homes, but I didn’t venture too far into the public realm, which would include Mass I suppose. We tagged teamed a lot for Mass with an infant. If I did go with an infant, I probably nursed before Mass. I honestly don’t remember what I did.

  • Erin Groeber

    My babe is 5 mo, and NOT a fan of the nursing cover. When he was little I would just use a receiving blanket instead of a cover, which worked pretty well. Now that he’s a bit bigger and active, I do the nursing tank top under a t-shirt in public. With the tank top covering the belly area and the t shirt over the top, hardly anything is exposed. And I am a huge fan of nursing in public–but in order to make it more acceptable, we do have to be cognizant of the people around us who aren’t used to it. rnrnI am always surprised that our Grandmothers’ generation, and some of our mothers were told not to nurse. Its hard to find someone older than my mom who actually breastfed their babies. I keep that in mind when getting strange stares in public– a whole generation or two of women forewent this experience and are not familiar with it. They may not be staring out of disgust, but a bit of curiousity.

  • Gabie

    Perhaps I’m one of the offenders, but having nursed my little buddy for three years now – ok, that’s another debate – I’ve necessarily nursed him in about every public arena you can come up with, as our crazy life-style requires, especially on airplanes, where your seatmate may as well be sitting in your lap with your child. I have almost never used a nursing cover – I find them awkward and my son plain refused from the start to have something over his head. When he was tiny we sometimes managed a receiving blanket, and for ages I nursed him in the Ergo – hood up or down, depending on the situation. When he was in a highly distracted phase, I would sometimes find a quiet corner somewhere so when he pulled off to look around I didn’t flash the room. I’ve always tried to be discreet but I’ve never made a big deal of it one way or the other and I know that it is possible to nurse without drawing a lot of attention to the fact. I’ve never actually met with any negative reactions. Discretion is great, respect for those around you, sure, but I just can’t agree that a nursing cover is the answer for everyone. I sometimes find it somewhat incongruous to see this huge, flowered sheet come out and a lot of flurry going on underneath. But hey, nurse that baby where ever you need to – whether you remembered your cover or not, whether you are in mass or not (this hesitation is very hard for me to identify with). Living here in Africa, you may pass a beautifully dressed woman standing on the street, waiting for a bus and she will just whip out her breast and start feeding. Nobody blinks. Cultural sensibilities will always vary from place to place, so you do your best to be respectful but then just relax – I think the more at ease you are, the less likely you will draw undue attention to yourself and your breasts…hmmm…reading this over, I realize that I am probably “that woman” but here are my two cents…

  • Meg

    I agree modest nursing is best, but I don’t agree that a nursing cover is required for modest nursing. I have never used one, but always make sure that I’m covered.n

  • an old mama

    Years ago, I lived and studied in Trastevere, in Rome, and often shopped at the tiny cave of a pharmacy attached to an old church: Santa Maria della Scala Farmacia. I think the pharmacy was built in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. In any event, last year I was blessed to return to this old neighborhood, not as a young student but as a middle-aged stout mama who left her three youngish children at home in upstate NY. There, above the pharmacy’s cash register, I saw something I really couldn’t believe I had forgotten was there: a large, old image of our Blessed Mother with Jesus on her lap, her dress open, her breast popped into the mouth of her beautiful smiling son. What I noticed immediately was Jesus’ age and smile: not an infant, not even a crawling baby. This ancient image depicted a young child, well beyond infancy. That caught my heart because I have nursed my children until they were *well* beyond infancy, and nursed them everywhere. We nursing moms in this culture don’t often–ever??–encounter such charming, encouraging, inspiring images of a mama nursing her happy little guy. But that’s not the fault of our Church, who planted these images centuries ago all over the place to encourage us. And to remind us–and this so important–of the Holy Family’s humanness. Don’t ever take your eyes off that core truth of our dear Lord and his mother. Go into any museum that houses European paintings and you will see the same astonishingly odd paintings–odd to us, but not to the Church.

  • Maria

    Nursing covers usually end up causing more flesh to show if I use them, then if I forgo them since all my babies have hated them. The fighting entailed in trying to keep a blanket or cover over the unhappy baby usually ends up flashing more boob than I like, plus the flailing arms and legs are kinda like a neon sign saying “Look at me, I’m nursing!!!”. So I just double layer tops (a nursing tank or stretchy tank top with a nursing bra with my regular shirt over that) and pull the top layer up and keep the bottom layer down. The coverage is fairly good, and it makes for a peaceful nursing session for everyone. After four kids, I’ve never recieved any negative comments.rnrnWhile I think striving for modest breastfeeding is the best thing to do for the mother and everyone around her, I’ve never been put off by someone who shows a little more skin, especially when nursing a baby under one. The child needs to eat and some moms are better at nursing modestly than others, depending on the anatomy of the mother and nursing style of the baby. The one time I was a little put off was when a mother nursed her probably four year old son during Mass. I don’t have a problem with extended nursing, but a four year old can go an hour without nursing!

  • Anonymous

    I think women choosing not to breastfeed is a bigger problem than women who show too much skin in their efforts to make the best choices for their baby. While I realize some women are not able to nurse, I think our shame at a nursing woman’s breast is the result of a culture obsessed with sex. I’ll never forget an image I saw of a poor South American woman approaching the Pope with a totally uncovered breast while nursing her baby. nnA baby needs to eat and his meals should never be relegated to a public restroom (one of the dirtiest places in the world!) While I regularly wear a cover when nursing, and I do feel very called to nurse modestly, I really respect those who make the choice to nurse in public w/o a cover.nnI was once told that my nursing infant was not welcome at a Catholic wedding ceremony (no kids means no nursing babies!!!). Talk about a complete failure to understand the nursing relationship of a mother and her child! I was of course unable to attend (as were several other guest with infants). So my basic point is cover or no cover, nurse your baby and praise God for the beauty of breastfeeding mothers!

  • Mary Alice

    I really prefer to nurse in private whenever possible, it is funny, but I would rather nurse in a bathroom stall then in public, or go to my car, and I have done both. This has little to do with exposing my body and more to do with the intimacy of the act and wanting quiet time alone with my baby. I try hard to stay close to home during the first few months when nursing will be most frequent and unpredictable, but even at home I often go into my room to nurse alone.nnI do think that the newer nursing bra tank tops make it possible to nurse fairly discreetly even without a cover, and I would do this in the playground. nnI nursed twins simultaneously, though, and there is no way to do that discreetly, so I just got used to being at home for feedings and began to prefer it. Now, the busier I am, the more I cling to that time, because with so many older children in the house nursing may be my only bonding time with the baby.nnI suspect that the answer to what women did a few generations ago is that many of them did not nurse and also they did not leave the house much — they called this a time of confinement. My grandmother was just telling me that it was a long time before she went back to mass, and it was common for mothers to not even attend the baptism. They would have been horrified at our taking our babies so much into public, not to mention ourselves.

  • Marcy K.

    I nursed my son for a very long time. When he was little and nursed a lot I would just discreetly lift my shirt and latch him on, but never showed anything. I never used a nursing cover, as I thought it was like a huge sign “Hey! Nursing over here!” nnI nursed pretty much everywhere. If I was in Mass, I nursed in the cry room. I have even nursed in Confession – hey if the baby is crying to eat, you do what you have to do! When he got older we never nursed in public, he was old enough to wait until we got home and nursing was more a comfort/love thing anyway. Only once was a told I could not nurse my son somewhere and that was an art museum showing a Vatican exhibition of all things. What did they think I was going to do while I was walking around with the baby in the baby sling nursing? If my son was difficult when nursing that would have been different, but he was very placid and it was easy. I did not show skin. If someone was offended that was their problem. A nursing baby is a beautiful thing and unless the mother is not discreet they need to get over it.

  • Hillarious, Maria! I too, had the flailing arms and legs, like a neon sign, whch attracted more attention than if I’d tried to breastfeed without a wrap. I had once seen a mother of eight breatsfeeding with a wrap, so thought it had to work, right? Wrong. Wth my second, I didn’t bother with the wrap. I did use the breast-feeding tank tops each time, whihc helped a lot, and a bubba moe sling for the first few months, which was also very discreet.rnrnI agree with some of the comments here that discretion is always desirable, and I have tried my best to maintain as much discretion as I can, but it’s not always possible. And my baby’s needs must come before my own (and the general public’s) ideas of modesty. I was once out on a small boat with my two month old daughter, my husband, and our closest male friend. We were still 20 or 30 minutes from shore when my baby started screaming for a feed… so, I fed her. My husband put a jacket around my shoulder, I was wearing a breastfeedng tank top, and our friend, who was sitting on the opposite side to me, steering the boat, did not look in my direction out of respect. That’s not an ideal situation for me, but I had little choice.rnrnWhen we are in the company of guests and we have a small baby, I usually have a rule that I will feed in front of female friends, but if a male friend is around, I will take myself off to another room.rnrnI look at art over the centuries, and the images depicted of breastfeeding mothers, and they capture something beautiful. Like most (or all?) women, I prefer to be discreet with my feeding sessions, I don’t enjoy the flesh-flashing that can happen when your five-month-old is pulling on and off again, but it keeps me humble!

  • readingmama

    I will nurse anywhere in reason with a cover. I will nurse in the cry room at church or in the body of a crowded church, but not right up in the front row. I feel like a cover is better p.r. for nursing than to go without a cover. The cover can be a pain and I think it actually draws more attention to what I am doing but at least I don’t have to worry about flashing people. I have no doubt people can nurse very discretely without a cover. I know women who can latch a baby on with absolute modesty BUT I think people uneasy with nursing would feel more comfortable around a woman with a cover. I have only been asked to move once when nursing and it was with a cover…at the JPII cultural center in DC of all places!!! I went demurely but I was rather bitter. If someone were to give me trouble about nursing in public with my cover again I would probably ask them to please hand out t-shirts to all the women in cleavage bearing tops for consistency’s sake.

  • Tree

    I agree that modest public nursing is the way to go! I always use a cover, but for those who can nurse modestly without a cover – go for it! Love the nursing tanks too (for those who may be wondering about these… I think Target’s are the best). I just read a blog post the other day ranting against those who wear covers… I don’t understand that perspective.

  • Erin

    Earlier this summer we went to Costa Rica with my husband’s family–and our 2 y.o and 6 week (!) old in tow. Upon landing at the Costa Rican airport, which was essentially an open-air warehouse, I had to sit down on the concrete floor and nurse the little guy in the corner. I didn’t care about the conditions, but I didn’t know what the cultural norms were and didn’t want to offend anyone. Sure enough, within 5 minutes a (male) police officer came over and starting talking quickly at us in Spanish, which we couldn’t understand. I kept trying to tell him I have a baby and had to nurse him before we could get in line for customs. FInally I lifted up the blanket to show him the baby nursing. He sighed and walked away. A minute later he came back with another police officer, and I thought we were for sure going to get in trouble for breaking some protocol about getting in line for customs. The second officer spoke english and was brought over to translate for us. He said the first officer was saying when you are done nursing, come with us to the front of the line, you will go first because you have a baby. What a wonderful surprise! What a beautiful, natural, protective instinct these men had to help me, the nursing mother, not only let my baby finish his meal, but accomodate us afterwards! THat was one of my favorite nursing-in-public stories.

  • Anonymous

    I think the cover is pretty important for purposes of modesty, especially when nursing around men. It’s very difficult to have a conversation with a woman nursing sans cover–there is always this uneasiness that at any moment the shirt will move out of place or the baby will pop off. It’s very distracting. Particularly for men, I’m told. A cover gently tucks away the graphic details of the nursing while still allowing nursing to happen anywhere.nnKathleen, I love how you put it–the double standard is horrendous (near-porn images of breasts on billboards, but disgust at a mother nursing her child), but we’re not to lower our own standards of modesty to prove a point. Instead, we practice modesty and charity to hopefully elevate cultural notions of the body, sexuality, and motherhood.

  • Mama A

    It is interesting what is considered culturally “normal.” I know that there are many topless beaches in Europe- do you think this has something to do with the nursing mothers there being more willing to “let it all hang out” so to speak?

  • Texas Mommy

    I’m really fascinated by the idea of the time of confinement/purification. Like AWOL, I tend to think that many of the things done in years past can be somewhat of a good guide for what is best. Of course, in the chaos of today’s world, this is not possible, but I have friends here whose families come from other countries (Lebanon, India) and their parents fly around the world to take care of their grandchildren, cook, do housework, for the first few MONTHS after their child has another baby. It is really beautiful to watch the sacrificial gift of the grandparents. However, I can imagine some women may benefit from resuming “normal” activities asap, especially extrovert prone to baby blues.