Breast Practices

Dear Helena,

It looks from the comments generated by one of your recent columns that the issue of breast-feeding at a restaurant is a hotly debated topic. As a child-free male, it will never be anything that I will have to worry about personally, but I’m in favor of women being able to breast-feed when and where it is necessary. Many clearly disagree.

I was curious if you could shed some light on this matter. What are the manners of breast-feeding in public and, in particular, in restaurants? —Thirsty for Insight

Dear Thirsty for Insight,

Breast-feeding does make some people uncomfortable, especially when the woman doesn’t huddle in a booth or cover herself with a shawl. When Maggie Gyllenhaal was snapped breast-feeding last year, she caused a media stir, in part because she was doing it so unabashedly.

Nudity in public is taboo, so it’s not surprising that an exposed breast might cause a slight frisson. Yet when a mother goes out to dinner, she doesn’t want to retreat to the restroom every time her baby’s hungry. Rachael Donaldson, mother of twins and marketing director for Bébé au Lait, a company that sells nursing covers, says: “You’re desperate for adult conversation and interaction. It could be the first time you’ve worn makeup all week.”

Pumping milk into a bottle in advance is not a great option either. If the mother has just fed the baby, she might not have enough milk to express before she leaves the house. In any case, there are drawbacks to feeding a baby from a bottle. (For instance, because it’s easier to get milk from a bottle, some babies become more reluctant to suck from the breast.)

In fact, many states have laws stipulating that women can breast-feed when and where they please. But out of modesty or in deference to other people’s squeamishness, some mothers drape themselves with a baby blanket, scarf, or specially made nursing cover such as the Hooter Hider.

But others say that breast-feeding is complicated enough without having to fiddle with a cover, and Emily Lindsey, chairperson of the Merced County Breastfeeding Coalition in California, points out that during the summer a blanket is often too hot for mother and baby alike: “It’s like a little sauna under there.”

Personally, I’m all for a woman’s right to breast-feed in public—be it with naked breast exposed, Gyllenhaal-style, or in a more subtle fashion. My only potential problem with it is that it creates a distraction for the mother’s dining partner. Donaldson admits, “Especially for first-time moms, conversation does come to a bit of a halt.” However, it’s not as if the mother is taking a personal cell phone call. And it’s a lot better than listening to the baby cry.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.