Public breastfeeding, purity, and the Prado

The Prado gallery in Madrid is splendid and powerful, full of historical paintings that lift the spirit and energize the imagination. And on a recent visit as I wandered the galleries on a hot Spanish summer afternoon, I was struck by one recurring theme. Masterpiece upon masterpiece of a baby Jesus suckling at Mary’s breast. Breastfeeding portrayed as open, celebrated, sacred, and pure. My favorite version of this core message is the Alonso Cano mid 1600s painting of Saint Bernard enjoying breastmilk squirting from Mary’s statue — as a reward from his piety.

Such a contrast to what mothers so often encounter in the US. Although everyone much agrees that breastmilk is the ideal food for babies, there is less wholesale agreement over whether babies should be allowed to eat that food openly in public.

Sometimes the shaming around this notion of inappropriate public breastfeeding is obvious and overt: a university colleague of mine was told by a female Dean that breastfeeding her child in the office building was a public health risk (although she didn’t say to whom), and told her to stop it immediately.  I know lots of women who end up perched on the side of public toilets, feeling they are forced by social discomfort to shut themselves away when feeding their babies. Hardly hygienic by any rational standard.

And just check out what happened to Australian senator Larissa Waters who dared to suckle a baby in parliament: tweeting that equated her public breastfeeding with public urination.  Based on what you see at the Prado, seem to have gone backwards, at least in the US. Breastfeeding is not portrayed as sacred and pure  — rather as dirty and disgusting and best to be done in a bathroom.

And even when the shaming isn’t overt, women still feel uncomfortable about their right (and it is a protected one in most industrialized nations) to breastfeed in public. Breasts have become so sexualized that feeding kids feels naughty, essentially strangely immoral, to some. The older the child gets, the stronger the messages become. Part of the discomfort of breastfeeding in public comes from being stared at in objectified ways by strangers. But families can discourage public breastfeeding too, and women report that the reactions of those nearest and dearest can contribute to real feelings of shame.

The costs of these subtle and obvious forms of stigma accrue to both women and their babies.  Women, grappling with the discomfort of others and themselves, breastfeed less and wean sooner than they might otherwise choose to (read our recent article on this using data from Norway). People also eschew breastmilk sharing, another perfectly decent way – nutritionally – for their babies to get what they need.

For me, breastfeeding at work and everywhere else became a political act. I did it in supermarkets, restaurants, and anywhere I felt like it or the baby got hungry. And I didn’t hide under one of those shroud contractions you tie off your shoulder. And I got plenty of dirty looks. But for me the only way to normalize breastfeeding is for everyone to just do it. And it was easier for me as I have have spent a good chunk of time in places where breastfeeding is more normal and openly practiced than in the US, so I felt normal as I did it.

But I fully understand for many women, the discomfort needs to be recognized and sensibly shapes their own choices. Subtle and not-so-subtle messages that you are inappropriate, disgusting and lacking the right sorts of maternal dignity are hard to stand up to on a daily basis. And, to be honest, there were limits to what I felt able to do: I didn’t breastfeed in front of a class, for example. Maybe I should have tried, like Larissa Waters did. We need to make it feel normal as part of public (not just private) life, like those Prado paintings do.

 And, dammed if you don’t, too. Since breastmilk is considered the ideal food, women who choose to formula feed also report high levels of stress and shame associated with that choice too.  Our fabulous colleague Katie Hinde, breastmilk guru, has given an extraordinary level of thought to the problem. She says it best: “We can all do a better job of supporting the diversity of moms raising their babies in a diversity of ways.”