The Semantics of Breastfeeding: Why “Discreet” and “Nursing” Don’t Belong in the Same Sentence

Welcome to the July 2010 Carnival of Nursing in Public

This post was written for inclusion in the Carnival of Nursing in Public hosted by Dionna and Paige at NursingFreedom.org. All week, July 5-9, we will be featuring articles and posts about nursing in public (“NIP”). See the bottom of this post for more information.

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Sadly, I have no NIP photos of my own yet.  Thanks to my friend Lauren for allowing me to use hers.  
Photo credit goes to her awesome, NIP-supporting dad.

It was the end of teacher work week and we were hosting an open house to allow families to see the environments and meet their children’s teachers before the school year began.  One of the first parents to come into my room introduced herself and casually asked if I minded her nursing.  My answer, of course, was not at all.  She plopped down in the reading corner, unbuttoned, and began nursing her infant as other families arrived, chatted, and checked out the room.  She surely had no idea how much of an effect she was having on me.  


I was not yet married, so having children was far from my mind at the time.  Most of my friends were single and childless, so I had hardly been around breastfeeding at all since many years before, when my own siblings and cousins were small.  Thanks to the women I had grown up around, I knew breastfeeding was just something that happened – part of parenting, part of life.  The idea of where and when it was appropriate, however, had never crossed my mind.  I am so thankful to the mom who breastfed in my classroom that day for getting to me before I was exposed to the idea that this beautiful, natural act could somehow become offensive when carried out in a public context.


This mother made no special effort, as far as I could tell, to “cover up”, yet all I saw was a nurturing mama – nothing more, and nothing less.  This mother, like many other people who understand the importance of breastfeeding whenever and wherever a child needs it, obviously supported the idea of nursing in public. Unfortunately, not everyone shares this understanding.  Many have been conditioned by our culture to view a woman’s breasts chiefly as a sexual object, and since they have difficulty separating this view from the important biological role that breasts play in nourishing our offspring, they are uncomfortable with the idea of breastfeeding.  There have been plenty of things written to address such individuals, so I’ll leave them alone for now.  It’s another view that I want to address.  


Aside from the adamant public breastfeeding supporters and the equally adamant anti- public breastfeeding folks, there are those who insist that they have no problem with breastfeeding — as long as it is done “discreetly.”  There are plenty of breastfeeding mother as well, who will make a point of explaining that when they nurse in public, they are always “discreet”.  This sounds fairly reasonable, and there was a time when I may have been tempted to agree with it, but now that I have stood in the shoes of a breastfeeding mother, I would argue that those who would say such a thing are not supporters of breastfeeding at all.


Let’s look a bit more closely at this word, “discreet.”  As is reflected by the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition: “careful not to cause embarrassment or attract too much attention, especially by keeping something secret,” it has come to refer to an act that is done in secrecy.  Another interesting thing to note is the use of the word “embarrassment.”   This definition also implies that an act that needs to be done discreetly would otherwise be embarrassing.  


I’m a fairly modest person in general, and that has certainly carried over to my breastfeeding style.  I try to keep myself as covered up as is reasonable for my own comfort.  Being modest is one thing, but there is absolutely no reason for breastfeeding to be done in secret.  For a person to be offended simply because they know someone is daring to breastfeed in their presence is absurd.  By treating breastfeeding as some sort of secret act that we should be careful that others aren’t aware of, we are robbing society of a chance to learn — a chance to see breasts fulfilling their biological purpose.  The more we hide the act of breastfeeding away, the more others (including future mothers) will view it as something abnormal.  It is the biological norm for infant feeding, and it is important for those who would otherwise be wooed by the clever advertising of formula companies to know this.  Because of the success of the pressure to breastfeed “discreetly,” many women believe, due to a lack of information, that formula feeding is just as viable an option for their babies as breastfeeding, when in reality, a lack of breastfeeding costs $13 billion a year to and results in 911 preventable deaths in the US alone.  Those who advocate nursing discreetly may feel that they are supporters of breastfeeding, but by perpetuating the idea that it should be done in secrecy, they end up being quite the opposite.


As for breastfeeding being embarrassing, while I cannot think of a single embarrassing thing about nurturing a human child with human milk, I still struggle.  As much as I attempt to mother with confidence, I am still in many ways the stereotype of a new mom – always looking around to make sure I’m not ‘doing it wrong.’  It saddens me to admit that because of the comments of others, I find myself embarrassed and uncomfortable. Because I know that there are so many eyes judging whether or not I am being “discreet” enough, I find myself making an extra effort to “cover up”, when there really is nothing to see anyway.  I find myself making my child uncomfortable because I am uncomfortable, and that is not fair to her.  


Very few, if any, breastfeeding mothers wish to draw attention to themselves.  I don’t want strangers staring at my breasts any more than I want them staring at my face.  Because of this, I choose clothing that will allow my child easy access to the breast while allowing me to keep the remnants of that gorgeous baby bump, and my breasts from being more exposed than I am comfortable with.  Being an adult, I am perfectly capable of behaving appropriately.  Neither I, nor any nursing mother needs reminders from society on how it is acceptable to feed our children.  New mothers like myself need your support – without qualifiers.


If you support breastfeeding, please leave it at that.  There is no need to add to that statement.  You would never say to a close friend or family member, “I will always support you – as long as you don’t do anything that embarrasses me.”  Mothers, especially new ones like myself, have enough to worry about.


Nursing moms, rock a cover if that’s how you feel most comfortable.  Wear those special-made nursing clothes if that makes it easy for you, but please – but let’s kick the “d” word out of our nursing vocabulary!


If you are really supportive, please let the nursing moms you encounter know!  A reassuring smile can do wonders to calm a frazzled new mom who is struggling to meet her child’s needs in a world full of people who all to often forget that they were once children, too.

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Art by Erika Hastings at http://mudspice.wordpress.com/

Welcome to the Carnival of Nursing in Public

Please join us all week, July 5-9, as we celebrate and support breastfeeding mothers. And visit NursingFreedom.org any time to connect with other breastfeeding supporters, learn more about your legal right to nurse in public, and read (and contribute!) articles about breastfeeding and N.I.P.

Do you support breastfeeding in public? Grab this badge for your blog or website to show your support and encourage others to educate themselves about the benefits of breastfeeding and the rights of breastfeeding mothers and children.

This post is just one of many being featured as part of the Carnival of Nursing in Public. Please visit our other writers each day of the Carnival. Click on the links below to see each day’s posts – new articles will be posted on the following days:
July 5 – Making Breastfeeding the Norm: Creating a Culture of Breastfeeding in a Hyper-Sexualized World
July 6 – Supporting Breastfeeding Mothers: the New, the Experienced, and the Mothers of More Than One Nursing Child
July 7 – Creating a Supportive Network: Your Stories and Celebrations of N.I.P.
July 8 – Breastfeeding: International and Religious Perspectives
July 9 – Your Legal Right to Nurse in Public, and How to Respond to Anyone Who Questions It

31 thoughts on “The Semantics of Breastfeeding: Why “Discreet” and “Nursing” Don’t Belong in the Same Sentence

  1. Erin

    Very well said!! How great that one nursing mom years ago made such an impact on your view of nursing in public. It is so true that many of us never considered whether there are appropriate places/ways/times to nurse when we just saw it happening as children ourselves, so we never had the need to question it. I love your writing style, too. :)

    Reply
  2. Erin

    Very well said!! How great that one nursing mom years ago made such an impact on your view of nursing in public. It is so true that many of us never considered whether there are appropriate places/ways/times to nurse when we just saw it happening as children ourselves, so we never had the need to question it. I love your writing style, too. :)

    Reply
  3. Lisa C

    I agree with you that the word "discreet" is detrimental to breastfeeding, and it really bugs me that nursing clothes are marketed as being "discreet." Though to be perfectly honest, I usually try to be discreet about it when in public because I am still struggling with other people's attitudes. But that doesn't mean I think it should be that way. I don't want women to hide breastfeeding. The more women that are willing to nurse confidently in public, the more confident we will all feel nursing in public.

    I am slowly getting braver…thoughts like yours really help me to gain more confidence, so thank you.

    Reply
  4. Lisa C

    I agree with you that the word "discreet" is detrimental to breastfeeding, and it really bugs me that nursing clothes are marketed as being "discreet." Though to be perfectly honest, I usually try to be discreet about it when in public because I am still struggling with other people's attitudes. But that doesn't mean I think it should be that way. I don't want women to hide breastfeeding. The more women that are willing to nurse confidently in public, the more confident we will all feel nursing in public.

    I am slowly getting braver…thoughts like yours really help me to gain more confidence, so thank you.

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

    "New mothers like myself need your support – without qualifiers." I love it!

    I'll go step further and say that all mothers who are nurturing and caring for their children need support.

    Great post!

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

    "New mothers like myself need your support – without qualifiers." I love it!

    I'll go step further and say that all mothers who are nurturing and caring for their children need support.

    Great post!

    Reply
  7. melissa

    "The more women that are willing to nurse confidently in public, the more confident we will all feel nursing in public." I could not agree more! I'm working on getting braver, too : ) There's nothing to hide!

    And to anonymous, you are absolutely right! Thank you for taking that further!

    I am overjoyed by all the positive breastfeeding support today! Thanks to those who have taken time to comment! I'm so excited to see tomorrow's carnival posts.

    Reply
  8. Rebekah C

    *hearty applause* Thanks so much for this fantastic post! I have never really given much thought on the term "discreet" in this context before but after reading your post, I find that I completely agree with you. Well said!

    Reply
  9. Rebekah C

    *hearty applause* Thanks so much for this fantastic post! I have never really given much thought on the term "discreet" in this context before but after reading your post, I find that I completely agree with you. Well said!

    Reply
  10. Melodie

    Ugh – I hear you. I finally got to this point nursing my three year old. I have never had any negative comments but once she hit 3 I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold them off, and she is old enough she would understand it, so for that reason I have pretty much stopped minus the times when she really needs it. It's sad. I have a bit of guilt about it but mostly I'm annoyed with our society that makes us feel this way. Great post!

    Reply
  11. Melodie

    Ugh – I hear you. I finally got to this point nursing my three year old. I have never had any negative comments but once she hit 3 I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold them off, and she is old enough she would understand it, so for that reason I have pretty much stopped minus the times when she really needs it. It's sad. I have a bit of guilt about it but mostly I'm annoyed with our society that makes us feel this way. Great post!

    Reply
  12. RedPowerLady

    "but now that I have stood in the shoes of a breastfeeding mother, I would argue that those who would say such a thing are not supporters of breastfeeding at all."

    "Neither I, nor any nursing mother needs reminders from society on how it is acceptable to feed our children. New mothers like myself need your support – without qualifiers."

    I love love love your article. It is well articulated and poignant. I am going to share this.

    Reply
  13. RedPowerLady

    "but now that I have stood in the shoes of a breastfeeding mother, I would argue that those who would say such a thing are not supporters of breastfeeding at all."

    "Neither I, nor any nursing mother needs reminders from society on how it is acceptable to feed our children. New mothers like myself need your support – without qualifiers."

    I love love love your article. It is well articulated and poignant. I am going to share this.

    Reply
  14. wendy @ ABCs and Garden Peas

    I got one of those reassuring smiles from a young woman a few days ago!
    It felt great.

    I love this post. I think it's so important not to put conditions on support for something so vital to our babies' health! I will admit that I do like to cover up a little, but it's not so much about being discreet while nursing as it is just being self-conscious about what's left of my belly. I hear talk now and then of BF in public being disgusting or weird, and it just boggles my mind.

    I don't know another mom who breastfeeds right now, so I'm so glad I have bloggers like you to serve as a support system, and a really, really good one at that. Thanks!

    Reply
  15. wendy @ ABCs and Garden Peas

    I got one of those reassuring smiles from a young woman a few days ago!
    It felt great.

    I love this post. I think it's so important not to put conditions on support for something so vital to our babies' health! I will admit that I do like to cover up a little, but it's not so much about being discreet while nursing as it is just being self-conscious about what's left of my belly. I hear talk now and then of BF in public being disgusting or weird, and it just boggles my mind.

    I don't know another mom who breastfeeds right now, so I'm so glad I have bloggers like you to serve as a support system, and a really, really good one at that. Thanks!

    Reply
  16. melissa joanne

    "The more women that are willing to nurse confidently in public, the more confident we will all feel nursing in public." I could not agree more! I'm working on getting braver, too : ) There's nothing to hide!

    And to anonymous, you are absolutely right! Thank you for taking that further!

    I am overjoyed by all the positive breastfeeding support today! Thanks to those who have taken time to comment! I'm so excited to see tomorrow's carnival posts.

    Reply
  17. Melodie

    Ugh – I hear you. I finally got to this point nursing my three year old. I have never had any negative comments but once she hit 3 I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold them off, and she is old enough she would understand it, so for that reason I have pretty much stopped minus the times when she really needs it. It's sad. I have a bit of guilt about it but mostly I'm annoyed with our society that makes us feel this way. Great post!

    Reply
  18. wendy @ ABCs and Garden Peas

    I got one of those reassuring smiles from a young woman a few days ago!
    It felt great.

    I love this post. I think it's so important not to put conditions on support for something so vital to our babies' health! I will admit that I do like to cover up a little, but it's not so much about being discreet while nursing as it is just being self-conscious about what's left of my belly. I hear talk now and then of BF in public being disgusting or weird, and it just boggles my mind.

    I don't know another mom who breastfeeds right now, so I'm so glad I have bloggers like you to serve as a support system, and a really, really good one at that. Thanks!

    Reply
  19. melissa joanne

    "The more women that are willing to nurse confidently in public, the more confident we will all feel nursing in public." I could not agree more! I'm working on getting braver, too : ) There's nothing to hide!

    And to anonymous, you are absolutely right! Thank you for taking that further!

    I am overjoyed by all the positive breastfeeding support today! Thanks to those who have taken time to comment! I'm so excited to see tomorrow's carnival posts.

    Reply
  20. Melodie

    Ugh – I hear you. I finally got to this point nursing my three year old. I have never had any negative comments but once she hit 3 I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold them off, and she is old enough she would understand it, so for that reason I have pretty much stopped minus the times when she really needs it. It's sad. I have a bit of guilt about it but mostly I'm annoyed with our society that makes us feel this way. Great post!

    Reply
  21. wendy @ ABCs and Garden Peas

    I got one of those reassuring smiles from a young woman a few days ago!
    It felt great.

    I love this post. I think it's so important not to put conditions on support for something so vital to our babies' health! I will admit that I do like to cover up a little, but it's not so much about being discreet while nursing as it is just being self-conscious about what's left of my belly. I hear talk now and then of BF in public being disgusting or weird, and it just boggles my mind.

    I don't know another mom who breastfeeds right now, so I'm so glad I have bloggers like you to serve as a support system, and a really, really good one at that. Thanks!

    Reply

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