You survived childbirth and learned the art of a successful latch, but if you have decided to breastfeed your baby, there is one final frontier you will need to conquer: the art of nursing in public. “Breastfed babies, especially newborns, nurse frequently,” says Holly Robinson, a registered nurse and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. “No matter how well you plan, eventually you are going to find yourself out of the house with a hungry baby, so it’s important to be prepared.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months, and continued breastfeeding — along with the introduction of complementary solids – for one year or more. While not every mother chooses to breastfeed, those who do are likely to breastfeed longer and enjoy the experience more by learning to nurse in public with confidence and ease.
Practice makes perfect
For many new moms, breastfeeding presents enough of a challenge in the comfort of your own living room, so the thought of nursing in public- where other people might see you– can be terrifying. To boost your confidence, practice in front of a mirror so you can catch a glimpse of what others will (and will not) be able to see.
When you are ready to venture out of the house for the first time, consider attending a local breastfeeding support group or grabbing coffee with a supportive friend. “I started small– going to the same coffee shop every day– for practice,” says breastfeeding mom Rhianna Mathias. “It was a shop I’d patronized a lot before baby, so I was familiar with the staff and felt comfortable there. Nursing in a group setting (for us a mom’s group in the early days) was also a comfortable place to practice and gain confidence.”
Find your comfort zone
Some mothers feel totally at ease lifting their shirts to nourish their newborns, no matter where they happen to be. Others prefer a bit more privacy. No matter what your personal preference, be prepared when you head out in public by scoping out the setting as soon as you arrive. Look for a comfortable chair or bench where you will be able to sit and nurse when baby gets hungry.
If you are dining out and prefer to breastfeed discreetly, ask for a corner booth or table so you can sit with your back to other patrons. Many shopping centers and museums also offer private nursing stations as a courtesy to breastfeeding mothers.
“I found that corners were my friends because I could simply turn a bit to get her started,” says Melissa McAlpine of her experience nursing her daughter in public. “After the baby is latched on, there’s not really anything to see, so I could swivel back.”
Dress for success
The right clothes and accessories make all the difference when you’re out in public and baby decides it is time for a meal. Wear a stretchy sports bra that can be pulled aside as needed, or learn how to unhook and lower the cups of your nursing bra with one hand.
Many breastfeeding mothers like to pair a specially designed nursing tank top with a cardigan or loose blouse, since the top can be lifted up while the tank still covers your middle (where many of us have stretch marks we would prefer to keep hidden). Other mothers prefer to simply unbutton a few top buttons. A fussy baby is what draws attention, so wear clothes that make it easy to get baby latched on quickly.
A few key accessories can also make nursing in public easier. Learn how to nurse while carrying baby in a sling or baby carrier. Try wearing a fashionable scarf or poncho that can double as a cover when baby is breastfeeding. Mom of two, Melody Meiners, is a fan of nursing covers, specifically the kind that have weights in one side or that tie around your neck and tent up. “It makes switching sides so much easier if you prefer to stay covered,” she says.
Know your rights
Keep in mind that, when it comes to nursing in public, the law is on your side. According to a database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, forty-six states have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. Twenty-nine states exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws, including Michigan, as The Breastfeeding Anti-Discrimination Act was signed into law in 2014.
Also be aware that, sensationalized news stories aside, most people genuinely support your right to nurse in public, and mothers do it every day. “I never had any rude comments in ten years of nursing, only supportive ones,” says breastfeeding veteran and mom of four Jennifer Heffern.
Martine Samocha, who also breastfed four children, adds that “even though you think everyone is watching you, you are mostly being ignored.”
Fake it ‘til you make it
If you are feeling nervous about breastfeeding your baby in public, you are not alone. “The first few times can seem uncomfortable,” admits mom of two Tammie Egloff, “but it gets easier.” You will gain confidence gradually, so in the early days and weeks, smile politely at passers-by and rest assured that the more you nurse in public, the less self-conscious you will become.
“Eventually,” says Robinson, “you will appreciate the freedom that comes with knowing that, no matter where you are, you always have the perfect food ready to feed your baby.”
Alyssa Chirco is a freelance journalist and mother of two from St. Louis, Missouri.