Sunday, June 26, 2011

Breastfeeding in Public: The Irish Edition

The current received wisdom is that breastfeeding is best for baby and mother. The benefits are numerous and include: Safe, healthy food for the child since you don’t have to worry about baby bottle contamination; Convenience and money – no weekly purchase of formula required, and you don’t have to bring prepared bottles around town with you; reduced colic; a perfectly adapted food source for the infant; reduced ear infections for the child; weight loss aid for mothers post-partum; decreased risk of obesity for children who were breastfed; and I could go on.  

photo by Koratmember
Despite this being the message people like American First Lady Michelle Obama are spreading, modern society is not really doing a huge amount to support breastfeeding mothers. If babies should be breastfed for their health, the health of the mother and the health of society, then they’re going to have to be breastfed in public on occasion. Mommies have to get out of the house sometimes, you know. We need to go shopping, run errands, stop by the post office, take baby to Gymboree class and so on.  And when we go out, so do our babies. And they need to eat. Often.

While I’m sure we would love to be able to squeeze our errands into 90 minute slots between feeds and be comfortably seated on the sofa before baby starts to howl for a suckle, it rarely works that way.  So, often, we are in the coffee shop or the playground with our older kids or maybe out shopping and, boom, feed time comes ‘round. Or, maybe the kid just wants to eat early – they’re not robots, you know. So, we feed them. This may have to be done, as a friend did recently, in the dressing room of a clothing boutique, or as others have done, in a toilet stall. Sometimes, though, you just have to feed them in front of others in a restaurant or city park.

I’m done with breastfeeding, but back when I was breastfeeding, I never cared what anyone thought. Once, my baby started howling during a doctor visit so I just picked him up, pulled down my top, stuck him on the breast and kept talking. Once I was at a pub lunch in the Southwest of Ireland with some visiting Americans. Zach – about a month or two old at the time – started howling for a feed. I picked him up and breastfed as long as I needed to. The waiter came and went, staring at my boob out of the corner of his eye. I didn’t care. And I didn’t care if anybody else cared.  Zach needed to eat. Babies are part of society. They get to eat while out mixing with society.

Some women would like to be more private about it, and I totally understand this. They’d like to sit comfortably not in a toilet stall but perhaps on a chair with a cushion and feed the baby. There are rarely any such conveniences available when you’re out and about, though. Even if you want to be discrete (not me, mind you, I couldn’t care less) but you, you well bred, polite and discrete lady – even if you wanted to be discrete, you couldn’t be half the time. You have to feed in a corner of the cafe.

Breastfeeding rates in Ireland are still amongst the lowest in Europe. According to a 2010 article in the Irish Medical times, “If breastfeeding isn’t considered the culturally accepted method of infant feeding and not perceived traditionally as the norm, then it tends not to be the highest rate of infant feeding. This is the generally accepted situation in Ireland.” Let’s face it: You do feel really awkward trying to get your baby to latch on in public. The whole vibe and atmosphere around here is that it should be done behind closed doors. But if you want breastfeeding rates to increase – and all the doctors and midwives and public health nurses say this – there has to be a cultural change, not just more clinics as suggested in the article.  In order for the culture to change, more women have to get out there and breastfeed in public, as needs dictate. If you’re willing to warm a bottle in a cafe, you should be willing to breastfeed. Use a shawl or large t-shirt or a baby blanket to cover up while you’re helping the child latch on. Once you’re both comfortable, you could consider opening your shawl a bit or adjusting the baby blanket so that the child’s face is visible to you.  Turn away when you’re putting the baby on the breast. Have a friend or husband stand up and cover you both while you settle in. Like most things, it’s the beginning and the end that can get awkward or embarrassing – the latching or the buttoning up when you’re done.

If you choose to bottle feed, you’re set. Society loves you. As long as your baby doesn’t make too much of a fuss (though you know she will) you’ll have an easy ride out in public. But, if you need to use your breasts to feed the baby, as has been done since the dawn of time, you may be in for an awkward ride. But stick with it. It’s worth it.


  1. I'm with you. This is something I've been on my soap box with for a while. I find it so odd that people might be offended by a nursing mother. Or that women would think they should put the comfort of strangers in a cafe ahead of their babies. Fair enough if the baby is going through a distracted phase or if a nursing room has comfier chairs, but in a toilet stall? That's just gross. One of my favourite moments was feeding my little man on a sunny day in Merrion Square when he was 3 months.

  2. I totally agree with you Lory - there has to be a cultural change. In a lot of ways, I think it is like the attitude to drink-driving in Ireland. 20 years ago the advertising campaigns started to educate people and slowly but surely change their attitudes with the "just two will do" campaign, and nowadays, especially with the younger generations drinking and driving of any kind is just not tolerated at all.
    For many Irish women, their mothers and their grandmothers all formula-fed, so a huge amount of knowledge and understanding has been lost, and replaced with myths, general misunderstanding, and plain mistruth about breastfeeding in many cases.
    I found it difficult to breastfeed in public - I was nervous about it, and I found it hard to overcome my shyness about "getting my boobs out" in public! But I tried it a few times! And I like to think that if ever we had another child, I would be more confident about it. As you say, if we want breastfeeding rates to increase, there has to be a cultural change. And that starts at home! Or in public as the case may be!

  3. 'Zach needed to eat. Babies are part of society. They get to eat while out mixing with society.'
    Oh Lori, what a great piece! So good, I wish I'd written it!! I love this sentence, soooo perfect!

    'there has to be a cultural change'
    Alleluia! Yes there does...not sure how/when/if that's gonna happen though : (

    'you may be in for an awkward ride. But stick with it. It’s worth it.'
    Absolutely! It is so worth it. I'm like you were, not that bothered about covering up, well not overly anyway. I have a few tricks up my sleeve for latching on & things but during I figure well, the baby covers me! Of course I was nervous at first but you become a pro over time!

    Thanks for a great read, lots of fantastic points : )

  4. This blog is very informative and effective is well.I learn a lot of stuff from this Blog.Baby Clothes Ireland and Kids Clothes Ireland


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