Once you’ve made the decision to breastfeed your baby, whether or not you feel able to breastfeed in public can make an enormous difference to your quality of life.
Let’s face it, it can be daunting enough as it is to get out and about with a new baby, but if you feel you need to hide away at home or in a private room whenever your baby decides it’s feeding time then you’re likely to feel even more restricted in your movements, just when you could both benefit from getting out and about.
But it’s very natural to be a little hesitant about breastfeeding in public at the outset, particularly when you have a desperately shrieking baby and you haven’t quite yet mastered the art of the quick-release bra. So if you’re struggling with public feeding then here are a few ideas for making it easier.
Wearing the right clothes
Wearing feeding-friendly clothing is vital to being able to breastfeed comfortably and reasonably discreetly in public: When we say discreet we’re not talking about trying to hide the fact that you’re breastfeeding, but who wants to flash their postnatal tummy or acres of boob?
The basic essential is a breastfeeding bra which should allow you to quickly and easily drop down a cup at the front. There are a few different kinds on the market, so if you’re unsure then have a read of our nursing bra buyer’s guide.
Several companies offer specially-designed and clever feeding tops and dresses, for example, specialists such as Mothercare and JoJo Maman Bebe and even fashion houses like H&M. But you don’t necessarily need special feeding tops:
You may already have suitable stuff in your current wardrobe. Layering is the key here. Simple, stretchy vest tops (stretchy enough so that you can pull them down over one boob as well as up, so something with a high lycra content rather than plain cotton) are really useful to wear under other clothes to give you good boob and tum coverage when you open up or lift the outer top for access.
If you pull your outer top up for boob access then pull the vest down, and vice versa. Likewise tanktops worn over tops that you unbutton or pull down to get to your boobs can give you coverage above your boobs. Baggier tops are useful for allowing access while still giving plenty of coverage but they’re not everyone’s cup of tea.
Shirts can work in combination with a vest, tanktop or jumper but we personally find the unbuttoning a bit fiddly, particularly if you’re juggling a hungry baby with the other hand. In the summer you can also get away quite well with large, light, floaty tops which you simply feed your baby under, though this really only works with younger babies.
Ease yourself in to breastfeeding in public
One way to build up your confidence is to start out by feeding in public with other mums before going solo. A get-together with your ante-natal group is ideal for this, particularly if you know that other mums are breastfeeding. In the beginning you may also feel more comfortable with the company of someone else who boosts your confidence, like your mum, partner or a friend.
Know your rights
We can’t say it clearer than this: it’s actually against the law in the UK to stop a woman from breastfeeding in public.
Recognising feeding-friendly places
If you don’t feel very confident about feeding somewhere, and are consequently tense and uncomfortable, it’s not a good recipe for a settled, calm feed as your baby will probably pick up on your unease.
And, of course, an unpleasant experience can make you apprehensive about feeding in public the next time around, so finding somewhere with a welcoming atmosphere is important.
Other mums offer a wealth of information when it comes to finding places that are comfortable to feed in. It’s not just a question of places which don’t vocally object to breastfeeding, many shops and cafes are actively supportive of breastfeeding mums, offering special arrangements for them, as well as other conveniences that any parent will find useful, such as a baby changing room.
The NCT’s ‘Booby awards’ had high praise for Starbucks, Pizza Express Debenhams, John Lewis and Ikea. Of course those awards recognise large chains rather than your local independent cafes or shops which may be very breastfeeding-friendly.
We find most of the high street coffee shop chains and many department stores to be fairly comfortable for feeding, but do ask other breastfeeding mums for their location tips, and keep your eyes peeled when you’re out and about for other mums feeding – the best places will often have a few mums sitting together.
Plan your route
Until you’re a seasoned public feeder, and particularly before you and your baby have a feeding pattern established, it can really help to plan out your trips so that you’re never too far from a feeding-friendly place when you may need one.
It’s not a pleasant experience as a a new mum to be clutching your hungry and screaming infant on the high street while trying to rack your brains for somewhere that will pass muster for a feed, take it from us.
If you’ve travelled somewhere by car then, in a pinch, you can always retreat back to the car if you feel you need a bit of privacy.
Once you have a good idea of when your baby will want feeding it’s far easier to plan ahead a bit and make sure that you’re somewhere suitable for feeding before the hunger wails set in.
Breastfeeding in public – putting it to the test
Mum Siobhan O’Reilly decided to test how people would react to her breastfeeding on the bus, in the doctor’s and, gulp, at a theme park. Here’s how she got on…
Breastfeeding at the doctor’s
My baby’s check-up is an ideal chance to try out waiting room breastfeeding. Things start badly, as my 5-year-old hisses, “Please don’t show everyone your boobies!” This from a child who asked if he could photograph them to show a classmate.
I ignore him and discreetly latch Jamie on. The man next to me gets up and walks away. Then an elderly lady walks up, and I’m convinced she’s going to be rude. She smiles, and says, “Now that’s contentment!”
Breastfeeding on the bus
Well, I now know how to get a seat to myself on the bus! As I feed Jamie, three separate people go to sit next to me but choose not to when they see what I’m doing. I found this really embarrassing, and it’s not an experience I’d care to repeat, but at least I have somewhere to put all my shopping bags.
Breastfeeding at toddler group – part 1
Amazingly, this is where I have my worst experience. While I’m feeding, a child toddles up to look at Jamie. I smile and say hello, but his mum drags him off. I then see her whispering to her friends and giving me dirty looks.
Breastfeeding at toddler group – part 2
Despite my first toddler group experience, I try a local NCT ‘Bumps and Babies’ group. This is very different – lots of people are feeding their babies, and posters everywhere tell me breast is best. It’s great, but it makes me wonder if I’d actually be worried about bottlefeeding my baby in a place like this!
Breastfeeding at university
I have a teenage sister, so I ask her if I can hang out in her university canteen and breastfeed there. She’s horrified, but when I offer her £10 she gives in, as long as I sit at a separate table and pretend not to know her.
I have an amusing half hour watching teenage boys pretend they can’t see me, while going red and staring into the distance. A group of girls, however, say “Ahhhhh! What a cute baby!” It seems there’s a gender divide among teenagers when it comes to breasts at lunchtime.
Breastfeeding at the theme park
Jamie has a cold and can’t breathe through his nose, which makes it hard to feed him, so I spend the day trying to feed him all over the place – on benches, in the canteen, and, at one point, in a sandpit. I’m not happy, so when someone with ‘Ranger’ on his t-shirt tells me, “Sorry, but you can’t do that here”, I amaze myself by snapping, “Actually, I think you’ll find I am doing it here.” He slopes off and mutters to his colleagues, but I’m left alone, and pleased that I refused to be cowed, I cheer up and enjoy my day.
How did it the public breastfeeding go?
What this week brings home to me is that a lot of people are still uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public, and that it’s not the norm to see women doing it in the UK. It’s a shame we need a law to protect our right to do it, but if that’s what it takes to help women feel braver and happier about doing something natural and beneficial for their babies, then it must be a good thing.
Whether it’s the size of your bump, the amount of clothing your baby’s wearing or how and what you’re feeding, from the moment you’re visibly pregnant there will always be some people ready treat you as public property and spout their unsolicited opinions on everything you do – or don’t do.
If you’re a new mum then it’s easy to be unnerved, or even angered by this, particularly with all the hormonal upheaval you’re experiencing, but do try not to take any of it personally.
If you think that someone is looking askance as your public feeding then try to be impervious and stay calm. Keep in mind that breastfeeding is not only best for your baby, but it’s also perfectly natural and there’s nothing remotely inappropriate about it: If anyone has a problem with your feeding then it really is their problem, not yours.
And if you’ve got other tips for making public feeding as headache-free as possible, and particularly specific location recommendations, then do chip in on our forum.