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Monday, 21 October 2013

Comparing apples to chicken giblets: Why public breastfeeding is nothing like public urination

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... or public nose-picking, defecating, spitting, farting or even having sex.

Hello there, this is a post dedicated especially to enlightening those of you who struggle with the concept of breastfeeding in public. This is for those of you who jump onto comment threads, frustrated and declaring that breastfeeding is natural, but so are lots of other things best kept behind closed doors. Those of you who might say:

"Sure it's natural – but so is urinating, and you don't see me piss in public, do you?"

I want you to walk with me, here. I want to share something with you. Because I don't want you to have your eyes closed forever—you're missing out.

Let me begin by saying yours, or versions of yours, are probably one of the most commonly cited arguments in response to some kind of breastfeeding discourse.

Funnily enough, I can actually understand how some people might see it this way. Given that open-mindedness about and knowledge of human lactation is still limited to a minority of the population, as well as our culture of breasts-as-sex-objects before their primary mammalian function, although I don't condone these opinions, I do feel a kind of pitying sympathy for the ignorance of your viewpoint. You're just a product of your culture, of your statistically very likely bottle-fed upbringing. (And I don't intend that as a dig at bottle-feeding—it's a simple fact. Most of us were bottle-fed.)

For example, today The Daily Mail Online posted an article featuring a collection of breastfeeding portraits by photographer Stacie Turner. Whilst the point of the photography collection is quoted to be aimed at breaking taboos around public breastfeeding, it also presented a shining opportunity to bring out the antiquated, but unfortunately not uncommon, opinions of you and your cohorts who feel squeamish at the sight of a woman breastfeeding her baby or child.

Don't worry, you needn't feel so uncomfortable! Stick around and prepare to relax.

Let's start with a few basics. Biology 101: the difference between secretion and excretion.

Secretion noun. a process by which substances are produced and discharged from a cell, gland, or organ for a particular function in the organism 
Excretion noun. the process of eliminating or expelling waste matter

Breastmilk is a secretion. It has a function in the human organism. It is a clean, whole, life-giving substance that not only contains the building blocks essential for human cellular development, but it also contains anti-infective and anti-bacterial properties that mean, on the exceptionally rare event that you might get some on you, you might actually be better off. Cleaner, healthier. Thanks, Mama!

Urine and faeces are excretions. They are waste products expelled from the body, containing bacteria and toxins. Quite simply, there is a reason we have toilets—because to ablute away from others is clean and safe and our bodily waste is supposed to be removed from our immediate environment. Which is why cats poop in their litter tray, horses often trot to a particular corner of their paddock to lift their tail, and your dog might try and bury it under your neighbour's rose bushes.

You with me so far?

Now, here's the low-down on what breastfeeding is: Breastfeeding is nothing more than the act of a baby or child taking in nourishment and fluids from her/his mother, releasing essential, comforting, feel-good hormones such as oxytocin (the love hormone) and prolactin (the tender, mothering hormone) and cholecystokinin (CCK—the sated, sleepy hormone) in them both.

In other words, breastfeeding is in the same category as eating, drinking or cuddling a loved one. And none of those things offend your eyeballs too much, do they?

Have a think about this: Does anyone insist a mother bottle-feeding her babe cover up or move somewhere private? No. What does this demonstrate? Could it be that it's the baby sucking at a bare breast that offends your sensibilities? Why is that?

Humans, by the time we've reached some semblance of cognitive maturity (upper pre-school age) understand waiting for appropriate places to urinate or defecate, or to ask for a tissue for their nose, or to pass wind silently and point at the dog. Moreover, adults also understand that sexual acts are private (for the most part) and are also capable of something called delayed gratification—quite simply, the ability to wait for something your really, really want.

Young children, babies most especially, are incapable of delayed gratification. They simply cannot wait for something they really, really want—and when it comes to the comfort and sustenance of breastfeeding, why should they? Why make your (supposedly adult) inability to work through your misguided discomfort a problem of an infant or small child?

To compare the biologically unremarkable act of providing clean nourishment to an immature human incapable of delayed gratification to the excretion of waste, to a private sex act, or to to just a downright lack of manners such as nose-picking or loud farting, is not only ludicrous, it demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the human body. I'd also hazard that your misguided assertions are a cover for a deeper, more insidious prudishness about an inability to see breasts as anything other than sexual. In other words, when you see boobs, you think sex. And a baby sucking on a boob causes all kinds of freak-outs in your head.

But it doesn't have to be that way. You need to understand—breastfeeding rates are increasing. Breastfeeding is protected by law. If you don't want to keep feeling confronted, please try looking inward.

If you feel uncomfortable when a woman is simply mothering her child in the most biologically normal way possible, have a think about why it bothers you. And then open your mind.  You might surprise yourself. Welcome to a better world.

Peace and love to you. xo


  1. Thank you for this post! It was very helpful in a few recent breastfeeding debates :)

  2. You are completely missing the point when people compare public breastfeeding to other "natural" bodily functions.

    Imagine if at a restaurant instead of having restrooms they simply had a toilet or urinal in corner. The waste would be disposed of in a completely safe manner, yet everyone else in the restaurant would be extremely uncomfortable while the urinal/toilet were in use. Luckily, we have all decided that such "natural" functions are private. A large part of this decision is due to the fact that these functions come from "private" organs that have a dual sexual and waste excretion function. More realistically, passing gas poses no public health risks. Yet when in public, people try to do so discreetly as to not make others uncomfortable.

    Breasts too have a dual purpose. While needed for nourishing children, they also have a sexual function. To deny either function would simply be ignorance. Moreover, Western society has, by and large, deemed that covering breasts is modest and similar to covering the vulva or penis. Part of participating in society is limiting your actions to make others comfortable.

    Personally, I have no problems with public breast feeding. The sight doesn't offend me in the least. But when I needed to publicly breast feed my son I did so discreetly. Not because I was ashamed of feeding my son, but out of courtesy to others. I was NEVER in a situation where my son was so desperately hungry that I had to breastfeed immediately. I was always able to excuse myself and find a more discreet area. There was no good reason to expose my breast to the public.

    The vast majority of women who publicly breastfeed otherwise cover their breasts. It's like they can acknowledge that most of the time breasts should be covered, but for some reason the need to feed their child suddenly exempts that rule.

    Nobody should be ashamed of their body. Nor should anyone deny their child breast milk. But women who insist on public breastfeeding without discretion are simply being ostentatious to prove a political point that doesn't need proving. Nobody (or at least very few people) are trying to shame you for feeding your child. Instead they're asking you to have same consideration you do with your other bodily functions.

    1. Hi Judith,

      Thanks for your comment. I'd love to know where these "ostentatious" women who breastfeed so blatantly in public are. I've been breastfeeding for 7 years, and have many breastfeeding friends, yet so far I've never witnessed a woman using her breasts as some kind of mammary political point-scoring. (And to be honest, even if she did, I'd probably applaud her.)

      As adults, we should be capable of understanding that the presence of babies and small children adds a caveat to many instances of adult social etiquette. Certainly, flaunting one's bosoms in a restaurant is unadvisable, however the presence of a child's mouth over the nipple renders that breast mostly covered. More so than the lingerie advertisement in the shopping centre window, or the woman walking by in a low-cut top.

      You might find it helpful to re-examine your feelings on this topic.

      Warmest regards,
      Kim xo

  3. What an amazingly clear explanation. You have a much clearer head on explaining the topic than I ever could. Thanks for this great post!

  4. Kenna Roundtree31 March 2016 at 16:52

    This was such an excellent and well written article. Thank you!