How to React when someone Makes a Disparaging Comment when you are Breastfeeding in Public

For many mothers, choosing to breastfeed is a difficult decision to make. One of the fears many new mothers have of breastfeeding is having to do it ‘in public,’ which means outside the home, which is unavoidable with a newborn baby as regular patterns of feeding, even sleeping and waking take some time to emerge. A breastfeeding mother cannot, and should not have to, stay confined indoors to avoid worrying about when the next feed will be. Yet few mothers feel confident about feeding their hungry babies in public places such as parks, cafes, on buses or trains, and this can also become a significant deterrent from breastfeeding, which impacts the mother’s ability to maintain a social life.

A mother who is doing what is best for her baby should never have to put up with criticism from other people such as disparaging comments from members of the public related to breastfeeding, but the sad reality is that it does happen. Therefore, breastfeeding parents must be prepared for such situations, so that they know how to react when they occur and are not put off from feeding their babies outside the home again in future.

Keep perspective

An important thing for the breastfeeding mother to remember is that we live in a society where breasts are associated primarily with sex. Breasts are displayed on the covers of men’s magazines or ‘lad’s mags,’ used to sells products in advertisements, and it is seen as normal and acceptable to show them off in public for sexual purposes. However, the other primary function of women’s breasts, which is to nurture babies in their first years of life, is not celebrated in our society, and not even widely acknowledged by many people. This means that people are used to seeing breasts in sexual scenarios, but not necessarily in motherly nurturing ones. Therefore, they have uncomfortable reactions to seeing a newborn being fed at the breast, and they might react to such a scene with revulsion or anger.

Respond calmly

In such a situation, there are several things that the mother can do. One is to calmly point out to the person that what s/he is seeing is natural, by saying something like ‘yes, my baby is having her/his lunch right now.’ This might help to remind the person that what s/he is seeing is perfectly natural, while also reminding the commenter that it is rude to stare. Although upset and anger may be the mother’s natural – and justified – reactions, a calm response will go much further in dealing with the situation than responding with anger will.

Be proactive

It is also important to use a situation like this as a means of feeling empowered, rather than feeling cowed by a disparaging response. If the mother was feeding in a café, the first point of call is to speak to the manager of the outlet. In many countries including the UK, all food providers legally has to ensure that discrimination against breastfeeding mothers does not occur on their premises. A good café owner should therefore offer the mother an apology, speak to his/her staff about the incident to prevent it from happening again. A café owner may even choose to confront the abusive customer if possible, and take further measures to ensure that the same thing does not happen again. For example, ‘breastfeeding friendly’ window stickers are available for free online for cafés to display in their windows, which helps to normalise breastfeeding and also to act as a warning to potential customers who know they have an issue with breastfeeding. Chances are, a good manager will not want to encourage such custom anyway.

If the incident occurred somewhere more public like a park, it is still worth letting the authorities know, or posting the information in an online breastfeeding forum, as it may be that the perpetrator of the disparaging remark is unaware that s/he is engaging in hate crime. If s/he is well known to other breastfeeding mums, it can help to band together and confront the individual regarding his/her behaviour, to prevent further unpleasant incidents from occurring.

Get support

It is essential for the breastfeeding mother to become part of a network of breastfeeders local to her area. This way mothers can become part of a strong community based on knowledge of good places to breastfeed, and where support can be provided when incidents occur. It is essential to have an outlet to discuss incidences such as disparaging remarks. Due to such comments from certain individuals there has been a recent resurgent of breastfeeding support groups emerging with activities such as ‘feed ins’ and mass public breastfeeding flashmobs in some cities. La Leche League is a breastfeeding charity that has great networks throughout the country, but there are plenty of other excellent and free resources available online as well, for those who prefer to form communities digitally.

Feel empowered

Although easier said than done, this is the best way to maintain a positive outlook regarding breastfeeding in public. Feeling mentally positive about breastfeeding is the biggest factor for any mother’s ability to cope with disparaging remarks while doing something that can make her feel vulnerable. A shift in perception is required here; in Mongolia it is common for mothers to breastfeed each other’s babies and to express milk for older children in full view of the community. Breastfeeding is seen as not only natural act but an empowering one for both the mother and the child, and therefore it is cause for celebration in Mongolian culture.

Breastfeeding is not an easy choice to make in this culture, but if a mother is confident that she is doing the best for her baby, she is likely to stick at it when the going gets tough. It was not so long ago that it was seen as a privilege in the UK to have a wet nurse for one’s child. There is no question that breastmilk is superior to artificial milk, which is called ‘formula’ milk because it is an attempt to replicate the miracle formula that breastmilk naturally is.

Some people will always take issue with anything outside the norm, and western culture in general has a long way to go before breastfeeding becomes mainstream and acceptable to do anywhere and at any time. In the meantime, every time a mother chooses to breastfeed in public, she is making a powerful statement and doing a radical act. She is helping to change society’s perception of breasts, to  challenge individuals who have only ever seen breasts in the context of sex, and to encourage other mothers not to hide indoors or in locked toilet cubicles when baby needs a feed.