Why women should feel confident breastfeeding in public

From the moment an infant is removed from the womb, whether through a natural birth or surgery, they are in for a bit of a shock. The comfortably warm and soft atmosphere is gone, only to be replaced with bright lights, loud noises, and a room temperature which is practically freezing compared to the 37 C pocket they were once nestled in. It is recommended for newborns to have direct skin-to-skin contact at this point, to keep them warm, as well as to initiate bonding between the mother and child. But the benefits don’t stop there. It has been found that direct contact immediately after birth has shown to give their transition into the world “greater respiratory, temperature, and glucose stability.”

In addition to immediate skin contact with the mother, breastfeeding within the first hour has shown to be incredibly important for other various reasons. An infant’s suckling initiates the release of the hormone oxytocin in the mother. This hormone is responsible for the release of milk from the mother’s breast, which is important for obvious reasons, and also helps to stimulate uterine contractions, which aids in decreasing heavy blood loss and reducing the uterus to a normal (prepregnancy) size. Oxytocin has been shown to have psychological effects as well. Commercially, it has been referred to as the “cuddle hormone” for its role in pair bonding and influence in social behaviours such as recognition and trust; taken together, this hormone helps to establish a strong mother-child relationship right from the beginning.

But breastfeeding within the first hour is not done just to benefit the mother. As the inside of the womb is almost sterile from bacteria, the infant needs to start building up their microbiome (the population of beneficial bacteria) immediately. Multiple studies have shown that an early introduction to certain microbes have had impacts much later on in life in reducing asthma, allergies, obesity, autism, and even cancer.

As some microbes are passed from mother to infant through breastfeeding, getting a headstart on this is never a bad thing. Breastfeeding is also known to be involved in passive immunity, which is the natural transfer of immune cells and antibodies. Since the infant’s immune system won’t be running effectively until at least 2-3 months of age, this process is essential for protecting the newborn from some of the more negative bacteria or viruses it might encounter early on.

As many people know, a mother’s milk is the best thing to feed a newborn. Due to the presence of specific proteins (antibodies, enzymes for digestion), fats (essential for development of nervous system and overall growth), vitamins, and sugars, breast milk is the best source of nutrition for our newborns. As some of these components cannot be replicated in artificial milk, it really is the best option to breastfeed unless external influences are preventing a mother from doing so. There are also great benefits to not only feed a newborn breast milk, but to do it through direct feeding from the breast. Using a bottle introduces the chance of ‘nipple confusion,’ in which an infant begins to prefer a bottle to their mother’s breast which prevents the important physical contact that helps establish bonding in the first few weeks of life. As well, it decreases the infant’s exposure to the good bacteria mentioned above, as bottles tend to be sterilized, whereas a mother’s skin is not.

All of these beneficial impacts carry on for much longer than during the first hour of life, when breastfeeding is first recommended. In fact, they carry on for as long as a mother chooses to breastfeed. This can last anywhere from 6 months (as averaged by US women) to two years (which is recommended by the World Health Organization and UNICEF). It is reasonable to assume that at some point during this time, a mother and her baby will want to go outside. This may even happen within the first few weeks after childbirth, at a period of time when her baby quite possibly needs to be fed every two hours. Hopefully you can recognize that the next logical step would be to feed the baby. However, this appears to be where our problem lies.

With the growing prevalence of using female sexuality to sell products in advertising, and gain viewers in media outlets, the exposure of the female body has begun to be associated with sex. The effects of this are seen in everything from restrictive high school dress codes to the coverage of female Olympians and their preferred athletic wear. It has grown to a point where society seems to have forgotten the biological point of the breast.

While I spend many late nights awake in bed grieving about the discomfort the general public must suffer at the hands of all the mothers who breastfeed out in the open, I believe they do not perform such an act for the sole purpose of making people flustered or uncomfortable. In fact, it has recently been suggested that mothers who breastfeed in public may be doing it to feed their child; and instead of finding a solitary place to hide for upwards of 45 minutes, it’s just more convenient and comfortable to remain where they are! Selfish, I know. It only takes 9 months to grow a human being before a mother either needs to push them out of her vagina or have her abdomen cut open to remove the baby. So why do new mothers deserve to be more comfortable than complete strangers? Is an average of four hours of sleep, continued bleeding and overall swelling and pains from labour for up to three weeks after childbirth really that bad? It’s almost as if mothers care more about their babies being fed, or their own comfort over the strangers who spend about 30 seconds walking past them, or maybe even an hour sitting next to them in public. After all, it is too much effort for an individual to simply turn their head about an inch to a different direction and carry on with their day.

Everyone wants a mother to do what is best for her child, and no one does more than the mother. With everything we know about the benefits of breastfeeding, there is a direct contradiction between what society claims as values, and how people act. Shaming mothers in public who want to feed their children because people lack the ability to separate women’s breasts from sex is disgraceful. Furthermore, it points out a deeper problem in our society.

Labeling mothers as inappropriate and obscene for feeding their children in public because it exposes their chest reveals how society views women, even when in the role of a mother. Instead of reacting to breastfeeding as a process in which an infant is being nurtured, and allowing a woman to be comfortable in her environment, the reactions many mothers face seem to suggest that a woman should feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public. Not only is that proposing that a woman should value how the public thinks over the health of her child, but it is propagating the idea that a woman exists in order to visually please a crowd. It is spreading the idea that exposure of a woman’s body is only necessary because it is associated with sex. And this is used to associate other products like cars or food with sex in order to increase consumerism.

According to society, once we take a woman’s body away from this association, it is no longer acceptable. But breastfeeding in public does not exist to please or draw people’s attention. It exists to fulfill the biological need of feeding a newborn. The fact that this makes some people uncomfortable more than it satisfies them, reveals the hideous flaw in our perception of a woman’s body and its role in a community. Society has stopped considering the intent of a mother’s actions, and has begun to view breasts as a commodity that exist so people can feel aroused when sexualized women appear in advertisements or in the media. This undermines and trivializes the role of a mother and everything that goes into it.

When my mother had my brother in between medical school and residency, she took 7 weeks off. When she had my sister during more medical training, she took off 6 weeks. When my grandmother had my father, she was in her third year of veterinary school and in the first class of women in Canada. She took afternoons off and graduated alongside everyone else. The mothers in my life are the hardest working people I know. They sacrifice and give everything they can, from their emotional and mental stability to their physical bodies, for the good of their child. It should not be expected of them to sacrifice one more small comfort in order to please the public eye.

A woman’s body does not exist to be visually appealing for you. It does not exist to sell products with sex. A woman does not need to hide herself so that you don’t have to think about sex in public. A woman exists for the same reason a person exists, not as a special piece of property that simultaneously belongs to every passerby. ‘The public’ is not a place that automatically gives permission for people to decide all the different ways a woman should provide for her child.

Our breasts do not exist for you to look at, or approve of, or utilize commercially. Our hands do not exist to cover ourselves up for you. Our heads do not exist to show obeisance. Our bodies hold a mind and a heart that sometimes, are too big for this world. But we are beginning to take our bodies back, and there better not be anyone in the way when we finish.