Breastfeeding in Public, Hungry Babies, and Pope Francis

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I saw this snippet of a recent interview with Pope Francis on Jimmy Akin’s post:

At the Wednesday General Audience the other day there was a young mother behind one of the barriers with a baby that was just a few months old.

The child was crying its eyes out as I came past.

The mother was caressing it. I said to her: Madam, I think the child’s hungry.

‘Yes, it’s probably time…’ she replied.

‘Please give it something to eat!’ I said.

She was shy and didn’t want to breastfeed in public, while the Pope was passing.

My, how I love Pope Francis. You can read the whole interview here. I am a huge supporter of public breastfeeding. I hate that women are made to feel uncomfortable about feeding their kids. I remember how difficult it was, as a first time mom, to feed my baby in public (or anywhere for that matter because of various breastfeeding problems) when certain friends had made negative comments about the propriety of breastfeeding in public.

At this pointafter nursing three kids, I feel confident nursing most anywhere and I am more than grateful for popes who encourage women in their vocation of motherhood by supporting breastfeeding (Bl. Pope John Paul II and others spoke out about the gift of breastfeeding, too. Pope Francis is not the first.) I’m grateful for a faith that honors my body and the amazing design God created for a mother to feed her child, just as the Church nourishes her children with the grace of Our Lord. And according to the tradition of Christian art, Our Lady was hardly squeamish about nursing and there’s even a gorgeous shrine dedicated to Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, FL.

But write about public nursing on the internet and brace yourself for the comments. Share something about breastfeeding on social media and people you haven’t spoken to since high school come out of the woodwork for a Facebook brawl. I am honestly sick and tired of hearing about how nursing mothers need to go out of their way to accommodate people who feel uncomfortable around breastfeeding. Can we, for once, stop complicating the matter and obsessing over whether women should have to leave Mass to nurse, at what age a toddler should stop getting nursed in public, whether nursing covers are necessary, and on and on and on? Because there are bigger fish to fry. Can it be simple, like it is for Pope Francis: Please give your hungry child something to eat!?

I’m not saying that matters of propriety can’t be discussed or should not be considered at all. It’s just that the needs of a hungry child are vastly more important. I’m sorry if it makes Random Guy in Mass uncomfortable when I feed my baby, but a hungry child’s need for her mother’s milk comes before his misplaced notions of propriety. What should we care about? We should care that a women is trying to care for her child, a child who is completely dependent on her mother for nourishment. We should care that mothers are empowered and encouraged to nurse their babies, whether it’s at the mall or at a papal audience. The big picture is that if a child is hungry, whether because a women is too shy to feed her because of a culture that makes breastfeeding taboo, or because a child is a victim of widespread hunger, we should care deeply and be called to action. Can we see beyond a culture that sexualizes something as innocent as feeding a baby and look toward a more important and heartbreaking truth: there are hungry children in the world (and in your town!) who need our help?

Let’s focus on what’s important as we prepare for Christmas. How can I encourage mothers?  How can I seek out ways to sacrifice and help a hungry child in our community or across the world? (And I’m asking myself here because I get very comfortable with my well-fed family and forget that tonight across town and across the world other mothers faced the heartache of sending their children to bed hungry.)

Here’s what Pope Francis said in the interview:

I wish to say the same to humanity: give people something to eat! That woman had milk to give to her child; we have enough food in the world to feed everyone. If we work with humanitarian organisations and are able to agree all together not to waste food, sending it instead to those who need it, we could do so much to help solve the problem of hunger in the world. I would like to repeat to humanity what I said to that mother: give food to those who are hungry! May the hope and tenderness of the Christmas of the Lord shake off our indifference.”

May the hope and tenderness of the Christmas of the Lord shake off my indifference.

(photo of Baby Lucy by Jade Pierce Photography)

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Comments

  1. Neely says

    I am all about NIP (Nursing In Public) and, get this – I can’t even do it! I have a medical condition that prevents me from being able to solely nurse my children. I am that weird, pro-bf mama who simultaneously thanks the Good Lord for formula, because otherwise my children wouldn’t be able to eat. I mourn the loss of being the main source of my babies’ nutrition while infants, and heartily APPLAUD those mamas who are doing just that. I shake up my bottles in the park (without feeling bad about myself, thank you very much) and champion my sisters who are whipping out the tata in the same situation. PS Guy Who is Uncomfortable in Mass by a woman breastfeeding — what a perfect time to exercise restraint, chastity, and just generally working on your own soul! :)

    • says

      You’re not alone. I’m a big BF supporter too, though for personal reasons I formula fed my 1st born guilt free and thanking the Lord I had the option.

      On a deeper note, Haley, I think your post touches a deeper root – I wonder just how many children go hungry (physically, mentally, emotionally) because we are too unnerved by what makes us uncomfortable. Or too ready to project our own faults and insecurities on others.

      • deltaflute says

        Wonderful points. Its not just bf. I could be physical affection or allowing children to be messy. We all have our hang ups. I have to remind myself that its me not them. Or that cranky man who thinks my children are too loud playing in the children’s section of the library. He must have been having a bad day.

      • says

        I love that thought! We feel so much pressure as parents that sometimes we do or don’t do things that our hearts tell us to for fear of how we or our children will be judged. A great thought point over this pressure filled holiday season!

    • says

      You are so awesome, Neely! I think I would have a hard time with bitterness toward women who can breastfeed if I couldn’t. My struggle. :) It’s amazing that you are such an open advocate of it, and that you’re so comfortable with formula, too. The world needs more open minded, open-hearted people like you!!

  2. Megan says

    Haley, love this post. I’m curious… do you use a nursing cover or not? I never had a problem with public nursing my kids, but I always struggled with using cover or not. What do you do?

    • Haley says

      Megan, I do not use one. I can see why other women are more comfortable using one, but I don’t consider them necessary and they stress me out because my babies always hate them and they’re very difficult to use if you’re one of us lucky women that seem to only be able to nurse if we use both arms (one hand to support the baby and one hand to support the breast.) Furthermore, I always have overactive letdown and my babies latch and unlatch 50 bajillion times, so readjusting the cover each time they relatch is a nightmare. I prefer wearing a nursing tank under my t-shirts to cover my tummy and wearing a cute scarf (because I’d wear one anyway) and letting it drop over the top part of the breast, but that’s just what makes me most comfortable!

  3. says

    Right on, Haley.

    I am a retired nursing mum whose youngest weaned much more recently than most would assume.

    I nursed in public. Frequently people wouldn’t even notice. I tried covering. It only works until your little one can express that they’re too warm, or that they want to look you in the eye. A nuisance. But I learned to dress for discreet feeding.

    I once went to communion with a little one nursing in a sling. It was discreet. The priest, an elderly fellow, caught on right away. As he said to me “The Body of Christ”, he looked down at the baby and said “The Body of Christ to you, too!”. I still chuckle.

  4. says

    I totally agree that nursing in public should be treated as a normal and natural thing. It took me until my second baby to finally realize that I should just feel comfortable with it, and do what I needed to do, without all the fuss of digging out my nursing cover. I think it’s still prudent to use some discretion while nursing in public – wear clothes that will “work”, don’t purposely draw attention to yourself, etc. But there’s definitely something wrong with a culture that’s totally okay with breasts being exposed all over the place when it’s in a “sexy” context, but not okay with it when they are being used for their primary purpose: feeding hungry children!

    • Julianne says

      Christine, I was thinking the same thing about our backward culture! There was recently an internet “scandal” when model Gisele Bundchen was photographed nursing her baby. We (culture) pay her big bucks to strut down runways in next-to-nothing bra and underwear, but when she’s fully covered in a bathrobe except 4 square inches of bosom exposed for nursing, she’s suddenly indecent and improper. WHAT?!

    • Haley says

      Totally agree about wearing clothes that “work.” For me, that usually means separates, although I have one or two dresses that I can accessorize to be nursing friendly. I have a few dresses that I love but just aren’t nursing friendly, so on the rare occasion that I go somewhere without the baby (ha! right?) I always wear one of them ; )

  5. says

    I love this so much! And, Haley, I so appreciated your earlier post on nursing in Mass. It’s the one area I had doubts about as far as nursing in public — until I read your perfectly timed post. Now at 5 weeks postpartum with my first, I haven’t needed to nurse our little one in Mass yet (so far he’s slept right through it)! But it’s great to know that if/when the need arises, I won’t have to struggle with whether or not it’s “appropriate.”

  6. says

    As a first time mom who is 5 months in to nursing, I’ve decided that you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do to survive. I nurse because I really believe it protects my baby from sickness, and I think that others would benefit by encouraging nursing mamas instead of shunning them to a back rooms. I don’t love nursing in public but since my baby eats every 3 hours, often times it’s my only option if I want to leave my house. And so I do, and everyone else can just deal with it.,

    • Haley says

      My baby’s are always frequent nursers, too. My almost-7-month old is still eating every couple of hours. Oh well! The sweet weeks go by so fast!

  7. says

    I saw that quote from Pope Francis and loved it. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about that post I wrote on breastfeeding last summer, as so many bloggers are doing year end wrap ups and whatnot. That’s definitely the post I learned the most from the whole year. I really, really appreciated you and Bonnie and others so charitably correcting some of my assumptions. And I’m loving the suggestion of wearing scarves this time around, it works great!

    • Haley says

      Thanks for reminding me to do some sort of yearly wrap-up post! Eek. I love your blog for many reasons, Kendra, but perhaps most of all because you like to have conversations and share ideas and it’s always fascinating. Scarves FTW!

  8. HL says

    Just beautiful!!! Thanks for this article, Haley, spot on and a lovely Christmas reflection. When my son was born 17 years ago I was living in a rather uptight New England town and used to attend the old French ethnic parish. It was a large grey stone ornate structure but VERY cold in the winter. My little one was only 4 months old in December, but I would bring him to the drafty, ancient, heater-less bathroom in the back of the church if he needed to nurse. It made me feel sad and lonely but I knew I would not be welcome trying that in the body of the church. Something wrong with that picture… funny how that image is still very vivid for me, as if we were somehow banished, and his basic needs were discounted and we were in a stable like Bethlehem, exposed to the elements. Breastfeeding was one of the deepest joys of my life, was able to nurse my darling for two and a half years. Thanks for being a voice for mothers and their little ones!!

  9. Erin says

    I feel so much more confident about nursing in public as I prepare for number 2 (coming early Jan) than I did with my first. As we were sorting through stored away baby things I found my nursing covers and audibly groaned. Ugh, I just don’t want to mess with those things! I did nurse in public with my first, but I also fiddled with covers, excused myself to the bathroom or the parked car, etc more than I’m proud of. Thinking about the local meetup group of moms we play with, I protested that almost none of them nip. Rather than conform to status quo though, I’ve decided that I’ll be an example for the first-timers and others who need to see the normalcy of nursing so that maybe they’ll be encouraged to try it too. What an excellent point that there are so many hungry children in this world who need tending to. Why should I add my dependent infant who does not need to go hungry to their ranks?

  10. Julianne says

    Beautiful commentary from both you & Pope Francis!
    I have a question for you, Haley, and any other moms who read this comment: What DO you say if someone comments on your breastfeeding? I’m a newly wed, and very hopeful for children and for the gift of breastfeeding. However, I’m naturally a little reserved and quiet, especially around angry people! Hopefully I will not be in such a situation, but what if?
    How do I communicate to them that I will not withhold caring for my child because they think boobs are icky? How can I stand my ground and tell them to buzz off, while still remaining classy (especially in a setting like Mass)?

    • Haley says

      That’s such a good question. To be honest, the most confrontational thing I’ve had to face when nursing in public is just a glare. No one has ever made a mean comment. I think you could just firmly and as kindly as you can, explain that your baby has every right to be there and every right to be cared for by his/her mother. If that makes them uncomfortable, they can turn away or sit somewhere else, because an infant’s needs comes before their issues with breastfeeding. Anybody else want to chime in? I’d be interested to hear how women have dealt with this sort of thing.

  11. Rashelle Gillett says

    Love this!! My baby is 8 months old and when she was first born I would break out into a sweat when I had to nurse her in public or even around friends. Thankfully I am much more comfortable now and can nurse in public without a cover.

    It seems that no matter how you feed your baby, you are judged.

  12. says

    My mother has frequently mentioned a writing by a past pope during the days of wet nurses where the Pope himself urged women to feed their babies themselves, and not just pass them off to the wet nurse. I have yet to find this but would love to. Thank you for telling me about this Pope Francis quote. It warmed my heart.

    • Haley says

      That sounds familiar. Maybe it was something I read in Sheila Kippley’s Breastfeeding and Catholic Motherhood book?

  13. Marta says

    Another funny story for you: my sister got married when my second child was only 1,5 months old. She married in a night club in the center of Lisbon, on a very warm summer day… I was super active the all day decorating the room, filling balloons, painting table cloths. In the meantime, I would breastfeed my baby, whenever she needed. We had a great day together.
    I didn’t had time to go home and dress up: I had a shower in the staff’s bathroom of the night club, and put on my heels and fancy dress. During the ceremony I realized my dress was not exactly breast-feeding friendly, so on the next feeds I decided to be radical: I put a chair in the ladies restroom and took out my dress. It was a laugh! Every now and them a woman would get the giggles when going to the restroom: they would meet a sitting “madonna”, high-heeled, in underwear and stay-ups! But my baby was fed and my dress saved, so… win-win!

    Thank you for your post, I also had some negative reactions about BF in public (yes, also in uber-liberal Amsterdam!), but fortunately I was too much in love with my babies and with my own super-feeding-powers to give it too much importance.

    Lots of love and enjoy the holidays!
    Marta

  14. says

    My 5 month old made the nursing cover decision for me by constantly kicking it off haha. I’m fortunate that my family is very supportive of my choice to breastfeed and have helped give me the confidence to breastfeed in public. The only time I’ve ever received something of a negative comment was at a wedding. The Matron of Honor was understanding and showed me to the bridal party’s suite where there were lots of comfy chairs, but I don’t believe she told any of the other bridesmaids I would be there because one of them walked in on me nursing, averted her eyes and said something like “not freaked out at all”.

    What I really wish was that however a mom decided to feed her child would be just that, a mom feeding her baby. I don’t understand why people feel the need to confront a woman on her choice of feeding and turn it into something political. The prevailing attitude towards nursing mothers is “you made the best decision but I better not see you doing it” and for moms who bottle feed “you made the best decision but you’re filling your child with chemicals”. Like Pope Francis said: if the baby’s hungry, feed it!

  15. Sue says

    I breastfed my kids anywhere and everywhere for 1-1.5 years. Occasionally I used a light blanket, but usually that made both of us hot. Their little noses would be covered with beads of sweat. I decided that if it was a reasonable place for a mother and child to be, it was reasonable for the child to be fed in the manner in which God created for us. My kids were fed at swimming pools, art galleries, museums, zoos, malls, parties and in church. I don’t think anyone ever commented or gave us a second look. Mostly, they didn’t notice or I didn’t notice them.

    On a nonfood, but advent note, today is the day for O Key of David and Scepter of the House of Israel, that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth, come to liberate to prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness, and the shadow of death. As your liturgical faith grows and deepens, I hope you have discovered the wonders of the Great O Antiphons.

    Sue

  16. says

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this. Thank you for writing…I will be sharing this with many friends. It’s hard to have the confidence to nurse in public but it certainly gets easier the more you do it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] On the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord Pope Francis baptized 32 babies in the Sistine Chapel. He encouraged the new mothers to breastfeed their babies right then and there if the infants were hungry. This isn’t the first time Pope Francis has promoted public breastfeeding. He recently invited a mother who was waiting to meet him, to please nurse her hungry baby. […]

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