Elizabeth Elizabeth is a divorced mother of two elementary-aged boys. She is a former English professor and lay minister who now manages the office and communications for a local church. When she's not working or writing, you'll usually find her cooking for her loved ones or hanging out at coffee shops and bookstores. Contact her by e-mailing her at Elizabeth@mumblingmommy.com.

Here we go again. Another celebrity — this time Olivia Wilde — posts pictures of herself nursing her baby. Once again, I look at the pics, and I think, “Wow, this is beautiful! Good for her!” And once again, someone makes the comment, “She should cover up breastfeeding in public.”

Domenico Panetti: Madonna breastfeeding child, 1510

No. I’m sorry, but no. If a woman wants to cover up to nurse, that’s fine. But the pressure to cover up reflects a larger social discomfort with breastfeeding that our society needs to get over. Today I read a fantastic post by my friend Rachael bemoaning the fact that, thanks to toys, books, and good old marketing, her toddler thinks all babies are bottle-fed. That’s become our cultural norm. Time and time again, we hear stories of women being harassed because of breastfeeding in public: in a mall; in a Michael’s craft store; in Target; in a courtroom; the list goes on and on.

Recently we were at a park with our kids, and a mom and baby sat next to us on the bench facing the playground. It was 93 degrees outside and very muggy. The mom had a toddler boy who played with our boys, and she nursed her tiny baby without a cover. She looked nervous. Her husband stood nearby, looking protective and worried. I quickly told her that I’d nursed my babies, and that I thought covers were miserable in the heat. They both relaxed immediately, and we had a great conversation about parenting two boys. The sad thing is that they were nervous in the first place.

Leon Augustine L’hermitte: Harvester’s Country, 1882

The supposed “middle ground” is that women should be encouraged to nurse, as long as they use a blanket or cover. Interestingly, I’ve only heard that argument from men or from women who either didn’t nurse or who nursed in the distant past and have forgotten the finer points. I nursed both of my kids into toddlerhood, and I’ve done it with blankets, covers, and without either. From the outside, a cover looks like a simple solution, especially one of those fancy, adjustable ones. But they really just make everything more difficult and less comfortable for mother and baby, which is why I resent the belief that women “should” cover to nurse. Let me demonstrate by walking you through the experience to cover up breastfeeding and not to cover up.

Nursing without a cover:

  • Sit in a comfortable spot
  • Arrange a pillow or diaper bag under your arm to help support the baby
  • Lift up shirt from the bottom and unclasp nursing bra
  • Attach baby, allowing shirt to gently cover the top of your breast
  • Switch and repeat when ready

Cover Up Breastfeeding Tactic:

  • Sit in a comfortable spot
  • Arrange a pillow or diaper bag under your arm to help support the baby.
  • Take out your cover, place it over your head, and adjust the straps.
  • Lift up shirt from the bottom and unclasp nursing bra with one hand while holding the cover down with the other.
  • Place baby under the cover and attempt to help your baby latch while unable to see what she is doing
  • Drape the cover over the baby.
  • Untangle the cover from the baby’s clenched fist because she’s pulling so hard your neck hurts.
  • Drape the cover over the baby.
  • Untangle the cover from the baby’s clenched fist because she’s pulling the cover off of herself and thus, off of you.
  • Drape the cover over the baby.
  • If it’s above 70 degrees, and/or humid, attempt to use the neck of the cover to wipe your sweaty face. Use the rest of the cover to wipe the sweat off of your baby, who is basically roasting in her little tent.
  • Start over on the other side.

Which one sounds more convenient or comfortable to you? And which one is the easiest choice for feeding your baby “on the go,” possibly while also watching an older child or two? Which one makes a nursing mother feel normal and/or accepted, and which makes her feel like she must hide something shameful?

It would be one thing if the cultural norm in America was that women cover their breasts in public. That would be repressive, sure, but at least it would be consistent. No, we Americans love breasts! Well, not quite: we love them when they’re shown to be sexy; when they’re functional, they’re suddenly “obscene.” There’s a fantastic comic that shows exactly this hypocrisy.

Orazio Gentileschi: The Holy Family Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1628
It wasn’t always this way. Before the invention of formula, children were nursed. Yes, “back in the day,” upper class women could farm this out to a wet nurse, but those babies were still nursed. People were used to seeing women expose their breasts in public to nurse their babies. No one told them to cover up breastfeeding, a natural occurrence. It was normal and not interpreted as “sexual” or “dirty.” One way we know this is because it’s very common in art history. A popular way to depict the Madonna and Child (Mary and Jesus) in the Middle Ages was to show her nursing her baby. That image emphasized her motherly love for her child and their human bond. It was not pornography.

You can see this in secular paintings, too. Nursing mothers were so common you often see one in a crowd scene, unembarrassed and exposed. In public! Near men! And no one told these women to face a corner, use a blanket, or leave the room. Ironically, we live in an era where women in Western countries have more freedom and opportunity than at any point in history. And yet, we also live in a time when we are shamed for using our bodies to feed our babies, something we are biologically designed to do. This is more than offensive; it’s a matter of rights and public health. So the next time you see a nursing mom, please don’t tell her to cover up breastfeeding. Give her a smile to let her know she should feel unashamed for what she’s doing. It’s not shameful: it’s natural.

Elizabeth is a full-time stay-at-home mom, part-time professor, and loves to cook with her family. Contact her by e-mailing her at Elizabeth@mumblingmommy.com.

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Category: Breastfeeding

Tags: breastfeeding