Mothers who breastfeed in public say they have encountered discrimination from onlookers, causing many women who lack support to stop this beneficial practice too soon.
Breastfeeding in public is a right guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but controversy over whether it is okay has surfaced in recent months.
In the U.S, states may have laws which state that breastfeeding is a legal right, but they have no provisions which state that a woman can pursue legal action if she is harassed.
“I don’t think I can even count the amount of times I’ve been discriminated against for breastfeeding in public,” said Emily Wherry, who breastfeeds her daughter Emma.
She described an incident at Southcentre Mall Food Court in Calgary. She said her daughter was getting fussy, so she started breastfeeding her there.
Wherry said that her daughter hates blankets and she couldn’t afford a pump, and so she would breastfeed uncovered, even in public.
She said that a mother and father of a family proceeded to confront her on the matter.
“(The father) said, ‘My children are trying to eat and I find it extremely ignorant to breastfeed in public,’” said Wherry. “I asked the man what he would like me to do and he said, ‘Put a f***ing blanket over yourself, or go sit in a stall.”
She said she was shocked and disgusted at this response, because she was just trying to feed her child in a comfortable convenient place.
“I asked him, ‘Would you like to eat your food under a blanket’?” said Wherry. “ ‘Would you like me to escort you to the washroom so you can eat your food on a toilet’?”
Melissa Rha is currently breastfeeding her son Grayson and hasn’t been discriminated against, but said that she would come to the defense of any mother put in that situation.
“As a mother of two kids, it’s busy and sometimes we can’t simply go home to feed our children, ” said Rha. “We must do it on the go.”
“I would be the wrong person for someone to discriminate or harass while breastfeeding my own child with my body,” said Rha, “To be honest, it wouldn’t turn out to be a very pleasant encounter for the approaching individual.”
Lina Vallières is a mother of two who breastfed both her sons, and said she strongly supports breastfeeding anywhere, anytime.
“For me, when I see a breast that’s nursing, I don’t see it as a sexual thing, I see it more as food,” said Vallières. “I think most men who’ve had a wife who nursed see it that way too.”
The father Wherry met at the mall said that she was committing public indecency.
“They expect me to make myself and my child extremely uncomfortable just because they can’t stop themselves from only seeing breasts as sexual objects,” said Wherry.
Wherry said she hates the double standard around breastfeeding in public being considered nudity and indecency, while women can wear revealing shirts that show more than a breastfeeding mother, without being confronted about it.
“It’s okay for girls and women to walk around with almost their entire chest showing, but the second someone sees one quarter of one breast while a mother is feeding her child, they claim public indecency,” said Wherry.
“I breastfed both my children in public, and continue to breastfeed my son pretty much anywhere when he’s hungry,” said Rha.“I cover up for my own privacy, not in fear of offending others.”
These negative attitudes toward breastfeeding in public started after World War II, when baby formulas were widely introduced.
Vallières was born in the 1970’s, and she said that mothers only breastfed at the hospital before going home and feeding their children baby formula.
She was born and raised in Quebec, and said that women don’t breastfeed as much there as they do in Alberta.
“In Quebec, I would rarely see women nurse out in the open, or they would have big covers to make sure nobody would see a glimpse of a breast,” said Vallières.“I think here (in Alberta) its way more accepted, just because more people nurse.”
In 2014, the Breastfeeding Awareness Project was created to promote mothers’ confidence when breastfeeding in public areas.
The project employed more than 50 photographers who would photograph mothers in their city breastfeeding in places they felt uncomfortable doing so.
This was a useful tool in empowering women, because many stop breastfeeding as a result of social pressures and lack of support.
Vallières said that if she didn’t have the support to breastfeed from her husband, she would have stopped breastfeeding too soon.
“Even from my own mother, when I said I was going to breastfeed, she said, ‘oh what, people might look at you weird,” said Vallières.“My mother in-law is a lactation consultant, so I had that support that really helped me.”
Wherry said her dad and stepmom made her go into a change room at church, even though it seemed like no one else minded.
“I was pushed out of a public area, for feeding my child the only way possible to give her food,” said Wherry. “It made me feel awful.”
According to the International Journal of Childbirth Education, in the United States alone, 77 per cent of women start breastfeeding, but only 16 per cent continue to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended minimum age of six months.