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Why is there still a stigma around breastfeeding in public?

Mother-of-two Tania Boler wonders why women are made to feel embarrassed about feeding their baby in public

Young mom nurses her newborn baby while in the child's nursery.
29 February 2024
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I didn’t fully appreciate the physical and emotional demands of parenthood before having my first baby. The combination of night feeds, never-ending nappy changes, boisterous bedtimes and juggling other commitments made the completion of day-to-day tasks improbable and the idea of leaving the house seem impossible.

Still, like most women, I was determined to do what I’d always done and keep living a normal life. My boobs had other ideas.

The ultimate letdown

Woman in teal jacket holding a breast pump
Tania Boler is founder of Elvie

Every time I ventured out of the house in an attempt to connect with the real world, I seemed to have a breastfeeding crisis.

One morning my son was getting hungry, so I sat down at a cafe to feed him. By the time I’d found a shawl and tried to cover up (making every effort to expose as little nipple as possible), he was crying hysterically. Right on cue, people started to stare, making me feel uncomfortable and stressed, leaving me with zero milk supply.

Another time we were waiting to go through airport security. My son was getting hungry but there was nowhere to sit or leave my bags, so I decided to press on and hope the queue moved quickly.

The realisation that the queue wasn’t going to budge any time soon hit me moments before the second realisation: my boobs were leaking. The baby’s tears had caused me to start letting down like crazy. My top turned a completely different shade and my face burned with the heat of embarrassment.

Young Asian mother breastfeeding her baby daughter while sitting on sofa at home© Getty
People often gawp when women breastfeed in public

Why do people stop and stare?

I’m far from alone. Research showed that a fifth of mothers had experienced harassment from strangers whilst breastfeeding their babies and it feels that breastfeeding in public is the motherhood taboo that just won’t quit.

So why is there such a stigma around breastfeeding? Decades of entrenched misogyny and objectification of women’s bodies have contributed to a general view that it is somehow wrong or inappropriate.

Young mother breastfeeding her baby boy in public place. Trieste, Italy, Europe© Getty
Breastfeeding in public is seen as a taboo

Changing these attitudes is slow and tough going, but opinions are shifting in the right direction. Research from this year shows that four in five people believe that breastfeeding in public is socially acceptable. However, a consensus that it’s 'okay by us' doesn’t mean that women feel free to feed wherever and whenever they need to. They may still feel judged or be made to feel uncomfortable by wandering looks.

READ: Why didn't anyone warn me how bad mum guilt would be? 

Busting the taboo

Fortunately for me, by the time I’d had my second baby, I’d started my fem-tech brand Elvie, which gave me more flexibility when it came to my work schedule and technology had evolved too, meaning that I could do a conference call from home using Zoom whilst feeding my baby.

Both made life easier, but I never stopped worrying about being gawped at whilst breastfeeding in public.

RELATED: Why do I have to 'dress like a mum' just because I'm pregnant? 

One of the main challenges of tackling the stigma is that it is seen as a ‘women’s issue’. A lack of support for breastfeeding in public isn’t a women’s issue, it’s a societal one. We need breastfeeding to be viewed and valued as a health priority for mothers and babies.

On a small scale, we need people to give up their seat on the tube to a breastfeeding mother, we need excellent public facilities and brilliant technology like user-friendly breast pumps or apps to help track milk production.

Looking at the bigger picture, we need better education for the entire population about the ways they can actively support breastfeeding mothers rather than just pretending they don’t exist. Maybe then, we'll manage to bust the taboo once and for all.

Tania Boler, Founder and CEO of British fem-tech brand Elvie 

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