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Breastfeeding in public: The good, the bad and the ugly

Canadian mum Julia Wykes was rescued from a moment of breastfeeding shame and awkwardness by the unlikeliest source: a teenage boy. While her story restores our faith in decent human beings, it also got us thinking about our own experiences with breastfeeding in public — the good, the bad and the ugly.

Full disclosure: I breastfed both of my kids and in public. I usually popped a light muslin wrap over the top for privacy, but sometimes I didn’t. Even when I did, I copped a few displeased looks every now and then.

Still, I never once had anyone actually say anything to me or ask me to stop feeding my baby. In a way, I wish someone had. I always had a pretty clear idea of how I would react: I’d simply stop feeding my baby.

Any mum who has ever cut a feed short for their very hungry infant knows how much said infant can wail. And I mean, wail. The kind of crying that could strip paint off walls. Surely 30 seconds of that sound would be enough to convince naysayers that a few minutes of public breastfeeding is the better option?

It seems like Julia Wykes from Ontario, Canada, had the same idea. She has made the news this week after breastfeeding her 5-month-old in a Starbucks, prompting another customer to complain — loudly — to the barista, saying, “Could you get that woman to stop doing that in public? It is disgusting.”

Wykes began bracing herself for an argument, but she needn’t have worried. “The barista smiled at her and said he would handle it,” she explained. “I was gearing up for a fight, but he came over with a free drink for me and said loudly, ‘And here’s a voucher for a free drink next time you’re in here, I am so sorry that you had to deal with such unpleasantness today.’ Coming from an at most 19-year-old guy!”

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Bless his cotton socks. My heart swelled when I read this story, and not just because this guy from Starbucks was so darn decent.

But because, unless you’re a mum who has attempted breastfeeding in public, you’ll never know how terrifying it can be. And you’ll never know how much of an impact a kind word, or a nasty one, can have.

My friend Claudia had some trouble feeding her little boy at the beginning and she only braved breastfeeding in public for the first time when he was around 4 months old.

“The first few times I fed him [publicly], I was in a shopping centre and I felt like everyone was looking my way. But I had some of the nicest experiences, particularly with older ladies,” Claudia says.

“They would lift up the wrap and pat him on the head, saying things to me like, ‘You’re such a good mum,’ or to him, ‘You’re such a big boy, you’re going to be so big and healthy because of your mum’s milk.’ At a time when you’re sleep deprived and feeling quite vulnerable, it was so reassuring to have strangers respond like that.”

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It’s not always that positive, though. Another friend, Amelia, has twice been scolded in shopping centres.

“I was told to ‘move away’ or ‘cover up’ while breastfeeding in the corner seat of a food court. By women, too! I don’t get it. If my mum managed to breastfeed me in the Middle East back in the ’80s with no judgement and no issues, surely it shouldn’t be an issue in Australia in 2014,” Amelia says.

Meanwhile, Heidi is so anxious about breastfeeding she can’t even face doing it in public. “The pain was unbearable at the beginning and I would be in tears feeding. It was the pressure and guilt from both my mother-in-law and my mother that made me continue,” Heidi says. “I constantly worry if they are getting enough and am I keeping up my supply?”

She’s now breastfeeding her third child, but always expresses into a bottle before heading out. “The third time has been the hardest, as you have the demands of the other two kids. As they get older, it gets easier as the feeds take less time, but right now I really don’t love it.”

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Shaming breastfeeders was recently taken to a whole new level when a stranger took a photo of a woman, Emily, who was discreetly breastfeeding her 8-month-old during a shopping trip. The stranger then posted it to Facebook with the caption, “I know the sun is out and all that but there’s no need to let your kid feast on your nipple in town! Tramp.”

“One of my friends messaged me to say they had seen it. I’m not the sort of person to get upset by things like that, so at first I was just going to ignore it, but then I decided to make an example of it,” Emily says.

She has since staged a mass breastfeeding sit-in in response, and although most have reacted positively, Emily admits that some people still commented that she “needed to be more dignified and breastfeed in a public toilet”.

“That’s exactly the kind of attitude I want to squash,” she says. We couldn’t agree more!

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