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The fear of the breastfeeding stigma may be more powerful than any actual opposition

You're more likely to get a nosy stranger lecturing you about bottle-feeding than trying to make you cover up.
Rally At New York's City Hall Celebrates Public Breastfeeding Law
Kiki Valentine breastfeeds her 9-week-old son, Hart Valentine, on the steps of New York's City Hall during a rally to support breastfeeding in public in 2014.Andrew Burton / Getty Images file

The experience of being a new mother is incredibly isolating; you’ve been through an enormous physical trauma, then spend weeks and months sleeplessly caring for a defenseless small person. Your normal routine is totally turned upside down: You’re away from the office, and likely have few friends to commiserate with and no time to do it, even if you have them. Being confined to the home because your baby is nursing every 90 minutes — or in a bathroom when you actually make it out of the house — makes it that much more isolating.

It’s no wonder then that many mothers, for a host of reasons, decide to cease breastfeeding and put their baby on formula instead. According to the CDC, only 25 percent of babies are still exclusively breastfed at six months of age; and at three months the numbers is about 46 percent.

So, when I first became a mother, one of my #squadgoals was to attend a nurse-in. They’re like a La Leche meeting, but in public; half protest, half playdate with your mom friends. They usually get started because woman has been harassed in public for breastfeeding — perhaps by the manager of a restaurant or gym she’s at, perhaps by a fellow customer — and is told to cover up, move to a private location (often a bathroom), or leave. She takes to social media, and soon, a crowd of like-minded mothers congregate at the location and exercise their right to feed their babies wherever and whenever, making clear that their infant is not expected to eat in the same place that people defecate.

Image: Women breastfeed their children outside City Hall
Women breastfeed their children outside City Hall during a rally to support breastfeeding in public on Aug. 8, 2014 in New York City.Andrew Burton / Getty Images file

The impulse is understandable: Women and babies have the right to feed and be fed anywhere, anytime. The laws in 47 states allow women to breastfeed anywhere, with or without a cover, exempt from indecency laws. Many are unaware of that fact, and thus, despite the fact they don’t have to, bring a bottle in public, don an uncomfortable and intractable nursing cover, or sit in a public restroom feeding their baby alone.

Plus, bloggers often cover these stories, and local news sometimes show up as well, photographing how a crowd of women have asserted their rights and the rights of their babies against discrimination

For those mothers active in breastfeeding awareness and promotion and those who attend nurse-ins, a primary objective is to raise the rates of breastfeeding. So what’s funny about the nurse-in phenomenon is how counterproductive the move may be for promoting breastfeeding among the majority of U.S. mothers who aren’t ideologically married to breastfeeding as part of their mothering identity.

Ironically, the only time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable or judged while feeding my children was while giving my baby formula in public.

American mothers stop breastfeeding, as USA Today explains, “If moms don't have a supportive work environment or supportive caregivers, it can be difficult for them to meet their breastfeeding goals.”

The article added: “(Support is key even for moms who don't work and simply need to get out of the house. While breastfeeding in public is legal in most states, societal stigmas still discourage it.)”

Still, while it’s impossible to obtain actual data on the topic, anecdotally, mothers in my social circle (from my hometown of upstate rural New York to suburban New Jersey and Long Island to New York City) have universally told me over the years they have had few, if any, actual confrontations over breastfeeding in public. And I have breastfed three babies over the course of four years across the country (from New York City benches to California beaches to rest stops in rural Illinois, Michigan and New York and across my suburban New Jersey neighborhood) and have never even once been subjected to a sideways glance, let alone a confrontation or request to cover up or move elsewhere.

But while almost none of these mothers have been intimidated for choosing to nurse in public; almost all were anxious — especially in the beginning when they didn’t know better — that it would happen to them because of the focus given by the media to the one-off incidents when it has happened. They’ve then chosen to either stay home, feeling isolated, or switch to bottle-feeding (either with expressed milk or formula).

Women should feel comfortable feeding their baby however and whenever they’d like.

Both staying home for the six months of parenthood and bottle feeding increase a woman’s chances of deciding to cease breastfeeding.

Ironically, the only time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable or judged while feeding my children was while giving my baby formula in public. And, over the years, I’ve heard several stories of total strangers approaching bottle-feeding mothers to inform them (as if they weren’t already aware) that many people have an opinion about what she should be feeding her baby, and it isn’t formula.

Women should feel comfortable feeding their baby however and whenever they’d like. While there are certain health benefits to breastfeeding, the militancy that some breastfeeding advocates have adopted can backfire, whether by intimidating bottle-feeding mothers into staying home, or making breastfeeding mothers scared of backlash that, in 2018, they’re unlikely to experience. Instead of organizing a nurse-in, wouldn’t it be nice to just all go to the park, hang out and support each other; no matter what we’re feeding our kids?

Bethany Mandel is a senior contributor to The Federalist, an editor at Ricochet, a columnist at the Jewish Daily Forward and, in her spare time, a stay-at-home mother of three.