How to Help a Breastfeeding Mother when she gets Confronted for Nursing in Public

You’re sitting in your favourite cafe, enjoying a nice coffee on a warm summer day.  You’re staring out the window thinking it’s nearly time to go home and thank the husband for an hour of MommyTime when you hear it.  You look over to see a woman standing over another woman who is sitting down.  She’s saying, “Go somewhere private and do that!  I’m here with my son!”  You take a closer look and sure enough, “that”  is breastfeeding.  The mother is sitting at her table, nursing her baby in public.  The mother has a look of hurt and anger on her face and she looks down at her sleepy nursling and you can tell she had tears starting.

What would you do?

Thankfully these situations are fairly rare.  Of course if you follow me on Twitter you see how many people are saying negative things about nursing in public, but most of those people would never dare say anything in real life.  If you just tweet about a nursing mother, you’re just a jerk, if you confront her in real life, you’re harassing someone.

In my opinion, people who confront nursing mothers are bullying.  The mother is vulnerable.  It doesn’t often happen when women are in a group of friends or with their own mothers or husbands.  It tends to happen when they are alone.  The perpetrators of this harassment realize that.  The nursing mother is an easy target.  Perhaps they are not bullies, but they are certainly engaging in bullying behaviour.

I think many people know it’s not OK to discriminate against mothers who are just trying to feed their babies.  But, obviously there are some people who feel so outraged at the site of a breast in public that they cannot control themselves.  Some mothers, particularly those steeped in the Lactivist community, are more than capable of dealing with this kind of situation on their own.  We have a list of witty retorts prepared in the back of our minds for just such a circumstance.  I think most of us hope it will we will be the one accosted, not some new mother who is struggling with both learning how to breastfeed as well as sleep deprivation.  We’d love to give these ignorant asshats a piece of our mind.  But sadly, more often than not, it’s not us that gets confronted.

And it’s not that women are naturally victims. That’s hardly the case.  It’s simply that when you are breastfeeding a baby, especially a new baby, you are vulnerable.  You’re somewhat immobilized by the baby, it’s not easy to move (and you shouldn’t).  You don’t want to expose your nursling to the vitriol being directed at you and you just want the situation to go away.  Maybe you’re still adjusting to your new role as a mother, especially as a nursing mother.  I know I was intimidated about nursing in public at first.  I knew there was nothing wrong with it, but to just be in a room full of people and have my breast out, even if just to feed my son, was a bit scary.  I’m not sure what I would have done if someone confronted me during those early days.  With all the postpartum hormones I had flying around, I probably would have broken down in tears.

Quite honestly, even now as a breastfeeding advocate, were I nursing my baby alone in public, I would appreciate a little help if someone accosted me.  Especially if I was nursing my newborn.  Plus, I think it sends a strong message when other people stand up for the victims of harassment and let the perpetrators know, “This is NOT OK.  Society does NOT agree with your discrimination, nor your bullying behaviour.”

Some important things to keep in mind when helping a mother nurse in public:

  • Don’t do anything to escalate the situation.  The goal is to quickly resolve the situation so that the mother can go on feeding her baby in peace.
  • Stay calm.  It’s emotional for the mother and probably the harasser, but don’t let it be for you, work to facilitate quick resolution.
  • Only help the mother re-locate if she asks.  Let her know she doesn’t have to move, but don’t argue if it’s her choice.
  • Don’t follow the harasser once they have left the scene.  Again, the goal is to let the mother nurse in peace.  The person doing the nay-saying has already received a strong message that their behaviour is not OK.
  • Don’t make it personal.  Keep the conversation focused on the fact that the action of accosting a breastfeeding mother is unacceptable.
  • Keep it simple.  Don’t launch several different ideas at an agitated person.  Say what you need to let them know it’s not OK and that they need to move along.
  • Reassure the mother.  She’s going to need it.

I would do one of three things to help a mother protect her right to nurse in public when publicly confronted.

Scenario 1

I would go and sit with her.  I have done this quite a few times when women I don’t know have garnered unwanted attention from a male suitor.  You know the scene, the guy is hanging over her, the woman clearly looks awkward and is trying to rebuff his advances but the idiot is either drunk or stupid, but either way, keeps trying to get her number.

I would walk over and say, “Oh how adorable!  How old is your baby?” and put myself right in between the mother and the bully.  If they bully even dares to continue with their actions, they have to deal with me, not the nursing mother.  In most cases the person will just leave at that point, especially if you just pointedly ignore them and continue to talk normally to the mother.

Scenario 2

I would let the bully know her statements are inappropriate.  It’s very important to stay calm when doing this.  You’re not trying to get into it with the harasser, you’re trying to get them to leave the mother alone.  “Excuse me, this mother is exercising her legally protected human right to feed her baby in public.  It is legally and morally wrong for you to interfere with her, please leave her alone immediately.”  Say it clearly, say it calmly, look them right in the eye and have a very firm but unemotional tone of voice.  You’re tone should be saying “this is not up for discussion.”  Most people will back off quickly.  If they don’t, don’t escalate it.

Breastfeeding is Not a Crime

You could also try saying, “You’ve said what you had to say, now you need to move along.”  And then turn your attentions to consoling Mama.

This is why I actually prefer scenario 1, because then you can just sit there in solidarity with the mother, interacting with & reassuring her and ignoring the harasser. You can still choose to sit down with her or just stand there and let the harasser point their ire at you.  I would rather take their aggressions than let a nursing mother & her baby bear the brunt of their ignorance.  I would just keep reasserting that they are in the wrong and they need to keep moving. I would try to move the harasser out of the nursing mother’s vicinity.  Not with physical force, but by providing them with a moving target for their words (me).

scenario 3

Compliment the mother.  Sometimes these things happen quickly.  The harasser may just say something to the mother in passing and quickly leave or they may say it and then sit nearby giving her nasty look etc.  In this case I would go out of my way to tell the Mama what a wonderful job she is doing and how much I appreciate seeing mothers nurse in public…that it inspires me to do it as well.  Nothing balms the soul more than sincere compliments, especially when someone has just been publicly shamed.  Even if the perpetrator is still standing there, putting yourself between them and loudly saying just this thing may do the trick to get the harasser to move along.

Of course you may well end up doing a combination of these things or maybe you have some other ideas.  These situations are all pretty contextual and as long as you keep in mind that you don’t want to escalate the situation, you want to stay calm and your goal is to get rid of the person doing the harassing, you are probably doing the right thing.

Usually these people are cowards at heart, as anyone would have to be to approach a vulnerable mother and her baby.  Just letting them know you and probably the rest of the cafe disagree with their actions is enough to send them away in a self-righteous huff.

It’s important to take action in some way.  Lack of public support is one of the many reasons women don’t achieve their breastfeeding goals.  Sadly it can still be an uphill battle and women need to feel free to exercise their legally protected human right to breastfeed their young in public.  Even if that action is simply letting the mother know that you support her breastfeeding in public, it’s important to do.

Then maybe buy the mama a coffee.  She needs it!

Babies have a right to eat.

What would YOU do?  Please feel free to leave comments with your ideas or experiences with this.  Let’s all work together to protect nursing mothers for bullies!