Breastfeeding away from home
Nearly everyone had something to say about breastfeeding while visiting family or friends, while out and about in public places or while away on holiday.
Most of the women said that they felt apprehensive and self-conscious at first but soon gained confidence, especially when they reasoned that their baby's needs came before anyone else's and that they had a right to breastfeed when necessary. They all said that they tried to be discreet in their breastfeeding by wearing appropriate clothing (such as loose, stretchy tops without buttons and nursing bras) and draping a shawl, scarf or muslin square over their shoulder and baby. Their concern was not only for themselves and their own shyness or embarrassment but also for the comfort of other people and not wanting to cause offence. Many women said that they first breastfed away from home in an environment where they felt safe, such as with other women at a breastfeeding support group or drop-in centre. This gave them confidence to then breastfeed in more public places. Several women said that they liked seeing other women breastfeeding in public places. Many women commented on the convenience of breastfeeding when going out as all they needed to take was themselves, their baby and a spare nappy.
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 26 year old, White British woman had a 2 year old daughter whom she had breastfeed for 2 years. A Peer Counsellor Programme administrator, she was married to a head waiter/plasterer.
Feeding in public was something that really worried me, I didn't think, I'm quite an outgoing person, I didn't think it would ever be something that bothered me at all but actually especially the first couple of weeks when, I was comfortable about feeding but not comfortable exposing myself and I never, and I was really anti-exposing myself because I wanted breastfeeding to be a positive thing and I didn't want to ever feel like, feel uncomfortable outdoors and then think well I can never do this again. I always wanted to make sure that I could do it anywhere and I'd feel relaxed and people would feel relaxed around me and other people's opinions on me feeding and things like that really mattered I had a couple of friends, none of my friends my age have children, so for them it was a huge thing to watch me feed and we never exposed ourselves and things like that, it wasn't, and we didn't really talk about breasts or handle our breasts or anything like that and so it was a huge issue at first feeding, but I found that if I wore stretchy tops because I had a caesarean you have six weeks kind of period when you're not supposed to do anything however you do so after a couple of weeks I practised techniques at home to feed while I was out, well you know in front of a mirror to see what people could see and what kind of angles to get and what were the best clothes to wear and things like that.
And did that give you confidence?
Yeah it gave me confidence because it gave me a lot of confidence because I knew that then even when I was feeding her nobody could see and it was never going to be something that could bother anyone else because they couldn't see anything for it to bother them so I always fed with like stretchy tops, I never used buttons because there's too much like exposing. After a couple of weeks she started to pull off and look around at different noises so a stretchy top meant I could whip it down quickly so feeding in public although I thought it was going to be a huge issue, after the first couple of times and actually one of my first times feeding her out was in the middle of town, she's screaming I can't cope with it, it's a really emotional time for me and I sat down on a wall and fed her because I had no other option and I really thought that would have put me off but not one person gave me a second glance and nobody, even everybody just assumed I was cuddling my new born baby, no one ever looked at me and you know in an odd way or anything like that and so, that really gave me confidence to think I can do this and it's never going to affect anyone else and it's and it's you know going to be the best thing for me, the easiest thing for me I just need some nappie's and some wipes and we can go anywhere yeah [laughs] and it was reassuring definitely I mean, getting the hang of feeding while I was out was a real, real bonus.
Yeah, thank you. That's true, did you have any other hiccups or problems in the first six months or so?
I never really had amazing problems I think I am quite good at overcoming problems, you know, quite quickly and more a coper than anything else so sometimes I had issues about what people said about breastfeeding or how long I was going to breastfeed and it was more because I have a lot of friends who don't have children and it's not the way their life's going and things so they were intrigued, so they'd ask me questions that sometimes made me feel a bit difficult and think you know they'd ask me like, 'Well how long do you plan to feed for?' And I'd say, 'As long as she needs I'm not sure' and they would say things like, 'Well what if that means you know till she is four?' And I'd say, 'Well you know I'll approach that when I come to it' ,you know maybe I won't feel comfortable when she is tha
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 27 year old, White British woman was breastfeeding her 6 month old daughter. She also had a 7 year old daughter and a 4 year old son, both breastfed. She was a psychiatric nurse and her partner was a journalist.
I'll feed the baby anywhere and everywhere and in front of anybody I don't think there's, there aren't many people who haven't seen us, seen us feeding, I'm not, I'm not a shy person, I never have been. And as I've had each of my children I've become less, you know, when I had my first and possibly my second I would use mother and baby rooms and things that there were in the town. I don't think I've even been in one with this baby we will feed anywhere and everywhere. And I've never had a negative comment, I've never had anybody ask me to stop feeding, I've never had, I've never had any surprise looks, well certainly not negative surprise looks, you get a lot of, I get a lot of positive looks, I get a lot of, particularly old ladies coming up to me and saying, 'Isn't that wonderful' and often you get, I get comments that, from places that you don't expect them, when my granddad was in a hospice, he was in a four-bedded bay with all older males and I sort of, you know, said, 'Does anybody mind, or would you like me to pull the curtain round?' And I ended up with all of these older males having a conversation about how wonderful it was, and how it's the most natural thing in the world and there's not a more natural sight ever than the sight of a baby feeding at it's mother's breasts and, I've been so lucky I think, I've never had a negative comment and that's been, that's been wonderful. I don't know how I would deal with one if I did but I feel, I feel so, so lucky and, we're very confident and, I don't know.
Some women were comfortable breastfeeding anywhere while others preferred to go to special mother and baby rooms if they were available. Finding the right place to breastfeed was an important issue and several women were critical of rooms that were provided in conjunction with public toilets and the way in which they were furnished. Several women said that they breastfed their baby in the car before and/or after doing their shopping. A few women said that they had asked permission to feed their baby in a café or restaurant and the attendant had assumed that they wanted a bottle warmed.
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 34 year old, single, White British woman was breastfeeding her 7 month old daughter. She was a support worker for social services.
Feeding in public, that was a bit hard right in the very beginning I'm not somebody that goes topless on the beach so to me showing my body parts it was like, 'Oh my God'. First time I went out, my friend picked me up and we went into [local town]. Well as you know, like I said early on, my daughter was feeding every few minutes, every ten minutes, every twenty minutes. Got into [local town] she wanted to feed, and I'm like, 'Oh no, where do I go?' I didn't realise places like Mothercare have their own feeding room, didn't know that because I've never been around babies that needed feeding. So we went into a coffee shop in [local town].
Went into a coffee shop in the town?
Went into a coffee shop in the town and [laughs], we sat down and I'm thinking, 'Oh no, oh no, all these young people in here', they're quite fashionable I thought, 'I've got to bear my all' [laughs]. And , she then went quiet, I thought, 'Oo I think I take advantage of this and I'll just see if I can ram my cake or my drink down me quickly' and she then woke up a few minutes later and I said to my friend, 'We're right in the window here'. 'Cause there weren't any other spaces, I was right in the window, right onto the high street, anybody could see me, right next to the till, so there was the huge queue of people because it's lunchtime, and at that point a seat came free at the back of the room, round the corner, so I quickly nipped up there. It is quite traumatic. I went out another time, with somebody that I'd met at all the mother and baby groups, we went into town, we were in the town for about four hours, three hours of those were spent feeding my daughter, at least. I think we spent twenty minutes round the shops, that's how it is in the beginning and, it can be quite hard if you, if you need to get stuff at, you know, she obviously needed feeding her weight was, as you know, it was very important to me at the time, but by that point I'd realised that there was a feeding room in Mothercare so if I went into town I knew I'd just head straight for Mothercare. Now it doesn't bother me so much, obviously we're seven months down the line and I've got used to it. It is hard, you worry about what people think, not so much other mothers because, you know, I think, you just don't worry about the mothers, you worry about adolescent boys, because obviously it's embarrassing for you, it's embarrassing for them and, it can be a bit traumatic. And I think you also worry about the older generation, because the way they were brought up, you know, you don't show your body parts. And that's not to say that everybody over a certain age are going to be looking at you and thinking, 'What on earth do you think you're doing?' but you do know that some people out there are going to be thinking that, so it can be quite a hard thing to overcome. But the more times you hear about things happening in the news about mothers who are feeding, who, are asked to move, the more annoyed you become and the more the fact that you want to go out there, be in a picket line breastfeeding at the same time and being on a front page of one of the big newspapers, you think, 'Excuse me do you want my child, my baby to starve?' 'cause that's what in effect you're saying because their stomachs are so small they can't feed like we do. So if you're asking a mother to stop feeding you're actually saying, 'Can you starve your baby please?' Because that is what you're doing, they need feeding and that's what you need to do. So, seven months down the line I'll feed anywhere, I've fed in Comet, PC World, I've [laughs] fed in Tesco's, in Sainsbury's, everywhere I've done it, and hard to begin with but you get there and in the end you think 'Excuse me but my child needs a feed'.
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 38 year old, Australian-born woman, who lived in Wales, was breastfeeding her 11 month old son. A documentary film producer, she was married to a free-lance researcher.
I'm not put into the social positions outside where I would have to feed him publicly, now he's an older baby, so I don't get members of the public like some women perhaps do looking at them if they're feeding in a supermarket.
Have you had that in the past?
I've always gone to places to be quite honest with you where I perhaps wouldn't encounter that, so I would go to places that I knew had mother and baby rooms so that I could feed him, with other people there who may be feeding. Or I would go somewhere where I could feed him in the back of the car. I always made a point of never feeding in toilets because I mean you wouldn't eat your own dinner in toilets would you so. And in fact I do sniff where I see signs you're welcome to breastfeed here in the women's loo's, I think, 'Well, you know, you wouldn't eat your dinner in the toilet would you? So I've always gone to places that have been breastfeeding friendly I suppose, baby friendly where I knew it wouldn't be a problem, or if I'd been out somewhere with my husband then I've just asked, 'Do you mind if I sit there and that if I can breastfeed my baby thanks' that's always been fine.
And you've always had positive responses to that question?
All the places that we have gone to, perhaps we've always known before that it would probably be okay. It's always funny when you go into a place where it, it's a mixed feed area, because there are some mother and baby shops where you can go and they have a nursing room as well as a room where you can change the baby, and it's really interesting to see the divide that there is between the still, the bottle feeding culture and a breastfeeding culture. Because there tends to be a larger area of mums with the bottles and then there's a tiny little room with maybe a sofa and you look at the furniture that's provided for you as a breast feeder and you think, 'Well actually this furniture isn't properly appropriate, why would I want to sit in a rocking chair to feed my baby? Because actually I'm not sitting upright, he's not going to be able to be brought up to my breast, I can't latch on, this furniture isn't appropriate' so it's even within a mother and baby shop they're not really aware of what is required for breastfeeding women, so the culture is still very much predominantly geared towards breastfeeding your baby in, rocking in a chair, bottle feeding your baby, rocking in a chair which with a very young baby you wouldn't do because it's all about positioning and making sure that your baby can latch on if you've had problems, and you, we had so many discussions at the breastfeeding group that I went to with the counsellor about sitting upright, you know, everybody's got a kitchen chair so you can sit upright and bring your baby up to the breast and it's about finding that position that's not only comfortable but that is correct for you and not everywhere provides the [laughs] correct furniture for that.
What about the communication between the mothers, the bottle feeding and the breastfeeding mothers in that environment?
It's really hard not to come across as smug when you breastfeed, because you obviously know (a) it's the best thing for your baby, you're obvious and if you'd had problems you can also be very proud that you stuck at it, and it's almost easy to sometimes come across with an attitude, 'Well you didn't try hard enough then did you? Because look at us we're continuing to breastfeed and we're doing it. Did you throw the towel in too early?' I also know that there are mothers out there that have just turned round and said straightaway, 'Well I'm not going to even entertain the idea of breastfeeding', and these are bright articulate women
A few women were not at all comfortable feeding away from home and made a point of feeding the baby before venturing out and being back before the next feed, especially when their baby was very young. Some did not go out for the first forty days after the birth (see 'Cultural aspects of breastfeeding'). Others expressed breast milk to feed to their baby via a bottle when they were in public. Conversely, one woman said that she would have felt guiltier giving a bottle than breastfeeding in public. Some were uncomfortable breastfeeding in front of their fathers or fathers-in-law. Several women, especially those from non-English backgrounds, said that they would never breastfeed in front of men even at home within their own extended family (see 'Cultural aspects of breastfeeding').
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 28 year old, Sri Lankan woman was breastfeeding her 4 month old daughter. She and her husband were both physicians.
If you're out do you miss a feed? A breastfeed.
It depends on where I'm going, I think it took a while for me to get enough confidence to breastfeed in public so there were times when I would take a bottle of expressed milk and give her a bottle rather than breastfeed her and then I would just express when I came home if I was very full. And, but I've become more confident and I will feed her in more places now, so I'll feed in caf's and restaurants, there are some places where I just don't feel comfortable breastfeeding and sometimes when I'm out with you know, members of the family, my father-in-law for example, my father I just would not feel comfortable breastfeeding in front of them, I think they, they would find it quite odd as well and sort of you know, workplace's and so on that I'd prefer to give a bottle rather than breastfeed her there.
In your own home would you not feed her in front of the male members of your family either?
I think it's more a question of my male members of my family not feeling comfortable watching me rather than me feeling uncomfortable. I mean my father and my father-in-law and my brother-in-law for example have just never grown up around breastfeeding women so, they would find it really odd to be confronted with it and that would make me uncomfortable. And I'm originally from South-East Asia and although a lot of women do breastfeed there, but it's very much a woman's thing and they'd go off into a different part of the house to breastfeed and men just wouldn't be around when they were feeding their babies, so I think that's why Asian men sometimes feel uncomfortable seeing a woman breastfeeding. I mean obviously it's not a problem with my husband but you know as I said the older members of my family it certainly is.
Attitudes towards breastfeeding in public varied in different parts of the country and amongst different groups of people. Several people spoke of society having come a long way towards developing a truly breastfeeding culture but also said that there was still a long way to go (see 'Thinking about the breastfeeding environment' and 'Cultural aspects of breastfeeding'). One woman said that she was proud of the Scottish Law banning discrimination against breastfeeding women*1. Another said that she breastfeeds in public because if people don't see it, then the culture will never change. On one hand, many women received positive comments about breastfeeding. On the other hand, many women spoke of receiving disapproving looks, usually from older more conservative people who had not seen women breastfeeding in previous decades, but only a few people actually received negative comments. A couple of people were surprised that the most criticism seemed to come from other, usually older, women.
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 23 year old, Ugandan woman was breastfeeding her 10 month old son. She also had a 4 year old daughter, whom she had breastfed. A full-time mum & volunteer, she was married to a construction worker.
How did you feel about breastfeeding in public?
I didn't really think about it I just thought my child's hungry, my child needs food, I didn't think, 'Oh my God what do people think?' I mean I didn't flash my breasts in front of everybody, you know, I was very discreet about it, I mean you do get looks, funny looks and whatever but at the end of the day if my child's hungry they're much more important than my image or what people think of me so I didn't really care, just got on with it.
Did anybody ever say anything to you?
No, not really. And my husband sometimes he would be like, 'What you looking at?' [Laughs], you know? I mean it's, it's normal, I'm not offering it to you I'm offering it to my baby so. D'you know, I thought most women would be more understanding but they're not, just, I don't know.
So do you find the women are less understanding'
'than the men?
Yeah. It's like they look at you like what are you doing, you know? But I don't, I've never felt ashamed, you know. They're my babies, I love them.
What sort of things put them off?
Exposing skin and there's a way of doing it without actually showing your skin you know, so I don't know, I just, I tried as much as I could to, to show young mums that I'm a young mum too, and you can do it in a way where you're not exposing your skin and you can breastfeed your child, you know, in a way without you, without you feeling ashamed but going to certain places doesn't help because they discriminate against that, like certain shops won't allow mums with buggies because they know once you go in there with a buggy you might be breastfeeding and that's going to put their customers off. So there's a lot of places that I couldn't go after I had my kids because they don't allow buggies, they don't allow breastfeeding, there's signs up, you know, which I think is wrong.
What sort of signs?
Just no buggies allowed, some, most caf's that I know it, they'll let you, can have your meal outside and I mean when its winter you don't want to be having your meal outside. Me and my friend went to a caf' and we were told to sit outside to breastfeed, so we had to sit outside and breastfeed because luckily, because it was summer time it was alright, but there were all these buses going past, all these men in the buses watching, just trying to get a bit of skin do you know? It was just. Mmm.
How did that make you feel?
I just thought it was ridiculous, you know? I felt discriminated against. I really felt discriminated against because it's ridiculous, you know? Breastfeeding's the most natural thing you can do.
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 33 year old, White British woman was breastfeeding her 6 month old daughter. She also had a 3 year old daughter whom she had breastfed. She was a married, full-time mum.
Yeah I've always fed in public. I've always been very self-conscious, I would never, I've never ever sunbathed topless, but breastfeeding children no problems at all [laughs] but I think, you know, you can do it very discreetly, people don't need to know. I suppose with Abby again, my first, I was a little bit, you know, those first few outings and the first time you breastfeed in public is, you do get a little bit anxious about it and I was and I used to wear shawls, you know, they had all those big pashminas which were fantastic and I would just feed her and I'd just pop a shawl over her and give her a feed there and then.
Did you ever get any looks or comments?
Once, I've had one, there's one, once it was down at, I was in a tea shop, and I was feeding her, it was one of these set ups where you have a couple of little booths. And we were in a booth and there were two tables per booth and I was in there with my mother and I was feeding Abby and a family came and sat down, you know, we, so we were already established and I was already feeding her, and I think only once they sat down they realised what I was doing and they made a real point of turning their backs to us and putting the menu up and, and that I think it was the only time I've had any negative.
So that putting the menu up was by way of their protection or yours? Were they trying to preserve your privacy or they'd just'
They disapproved, they were, it was very, they had two children with them I think, their children must have been early teens maybe, but it was very much a turn, turn their backs to us, which.
How did that make you feel?
Cross actually, I was a bit, no firstly we were there [laughs] we were there first and, you know, it had obviously not been that obvious for them to be able to come and sit down at the table and take their place there. so it was, you know, and especially having children themselves I thought 'Well that's a bit unusual' but that's as I say, I mean I've, readily breastfed in public and that's the only time I've had a problem, but I wouldn't have expected a problem to be from a family so that was quite a shock really.
A few women said that their husbands/partners were uncomfortable when they first breastfed in a public place. One man said that he actually cringed but has since become very comfortable with his wife breastfeeding in public. One woman said that her “husband had the vapours”! Several people said that they thought their partner/husband had a role to play in finding suitable places for breastfeeding in public and in shielding them from adverse reactions (see 'Changing family relationships with a breastfed baby').
Many women talked about the convenience of breastfeeding when they were away on holiday (see 'What daily life is like with a breastfed baby'). Some noted the change in their baby's feeding pattern in hot weather saying that their baby wanted more frequent but shorter breastfeeds which, one woman said, increased her milk supply (see 'Dealing with difficult times'). Another woman thought that this was a sign that her baby required solid foods*2.
- Age at interview:
- At the time of interview, this 32 year old, white woman was breastfeeding her 11 month old daughter. She also had a 2 year old son whom she had breastfed. An IT consultant, she was married to a further education teacher in special needs.
How was that travelling on your own with a breastfed baby?
Great, nothing to sterilise on the aeroplane, perfect, it's the perfect remedy for popping ears and it was so comfortable and when he cried.
What do you mean it's the perfect remedy?
Well because he's sucking when he's feeding and so that stops the ears popping with the change of the cabin pressure when you're going up and down so.
So did you make a point of latching him on to the breast on take off and landing?
Absolutely, take off and landing and then I had a short hop flight when I got there and that take off he wouldn't latch on because he'd only been fed, you know, an hour ago so at that point we used a dummy and then landing from that flight again. And when he cried I fed him and it was great, by that time I had started to wean him a little bit earlier than I'd wanted to with some solids, more because I didn't want to be doing that as soon as I went back to work and I also didn't want to be doing it under my mother's beady eye, abroad, on my own without my husband, so I did it slightly earlier than one might, I wanted to do that first bit, and he was obviously showing interest and stuff so there wasn't a problem with it and we didn't give him very much at all, it was just the odd banana and the odd baby rice mixed with breastmilk, nothing exciting, the odd bit of Japanese food when we were out there [laughs].
Did he take to that?
Yeah he did, he still likes it, so that, that was obviously a good thing. Coming home was a bit more interesting because he screamed a lot more, and I think it was a time difference thing, going out it was a night time flight and so I fed him, put him down and he slept, full stop, coming back it was a daytime flight, much, much harder, he wanted to stand on my knees a lot of the way which was exhausting, thirteen hour flight and he wanted to scream the rest of the time and wouldn't latch on, and I think it's because he thought, you know, 'it's daytime surely I should be outside playing'.
Was that hard for you, a screaming baby on an aeroplane?
It was and it wasn't because I knew there was an end, I knew, you know, oh there's ten hours to go, there's eight hours to go, or whatever it was, you know, I knew, and we did, I got bits of peace and he slept for about five hours in the middle, so, it wasn't as bad as it could've been. And I was coming back to my lovely family so, you know, what was the problem [laughs]?
*Footnote 1: Although Scotland has a law prohibiting discrimination against women feeding their babies in public places, there is as yet no equivalent elsewhere in the UK. The Equality Act 2010 has made it illegal for anyone to ask a breastfeeding woman to leave a public place such as a cafe, shop or public transport in England and Wales yet there are still instances of people being asked not to breastfeed in public, leading to demands from mothers, politicians and support groups for a law to end this type of discrimination.
*Footnote 2: It is normal for a breastfed baby to want to feed more frequently, but for a lesser time at each feed, during hot weather. This is not usually a sign that the baby is ready for solid foods.
Last reviewed November 2018.
Last updated August 2013.