World Breastfeeding Week is an annual global campaign celebrated during the 1st week of August across 120 countries, including India, to promote the importance of breastfeeding for infants' health and well-being. The event, initiated by World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), raises awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding, supports mothers in their breastfeeding journey, and advocates for a breastfeeding-friendly world to ensure every child's right to optimal nutrition. Breastfeeding in public is looked down upon due to a combination of deep-rooted cultural, societal, and individual factors. Historical norms have often sexualized breasts, leading to discomfort or embarrassment when exposed, even in a non-sexual context like breastfeeding. Modesty standards, varying across cultures, also largely contribute to the stigma. Apart from this, misconceptions about breastfeeding and a lack of awareness of its importance may lead to judgment or misunderstanding. In order to normalize breastfeeding in public, we need education, awareness, and a shift in societal attitudes towards viewing it as a natural and necessary aspect of motherhood.
When women who live and breathe among us were asked about their experiences with breastfeeding in public, their responses were discomforting and thought provoking.
A mother who is naturally trying to feed her child is subjected to “big ogling eyes” and “judgy old people”. As if that is not enough, there are “embarrassed aunties” who have literally gone through the same process of feeding their infants and “gross uncles/men” who can’t help but sexualise anything that has the misfortune of existing in their sight.
It’s absolutely bizarre that people would go to extreme lengths to explain how everyone must adhere to heteronormativity in order to reproduce. Additionally all women, be it young, old, married, single, assaulted, forced or basically a teenager must never have an abortion because of how miraculous the act of reproducing is. However, when this child is born, these same people would be disgusted and appalled by women breastfeeding in public as if it is anything but food to the baby.
Another mother was asked to share her insights about public breastfeeding and she said,
“I didn’t even try to breastfeed outside the house, so I restricted my movement and used to pump milk if I wanted to get out and about.”
Many women, unfortunately, feel compelled to pump milk at home to avoid breastfeeding in public and the risk of harassment. The fear of negative reactions, lewd comments, or even confrontation can be distressing. This reluctance deprives mothers and infants of the benefits of direct breastfeeding in various settings. It underscores the urgent need for societal change, fostering acceptance and understanding, to ensure that women have the freedom to breastfeed comfortably and without fear of harassment in any public space.
Even though public breastfeeding is still taboo, some mothers shared their good experiences too, stating that,
“My experience with breastfeeding was good! I went on a vacation and had to breastfeed in public with no cover. I saw most of the women “aunties” smiling back at me… and most men gave me my space.”
“81% of mothers find the lack of proper feeding spaces to be the biggest challenge in breastfeeding infants in a public place,” according to a Momspresso-Medela survey. Breastfeeding, despite being a natural and essential aspect of motherhood, is often considered a domestic chore due to traditional gender roles and societal expectations. Breastfeeding offers numerous benefits for both the baby and the mother. For the baby, breast milk provides essential nutrients, antibodies, and enzymes, boosting their immune system and reducing the risk of infections and illnesses. It aids in proper growth and development, improving cognitive function and decreasing the likelihood of chronic diseases later in life. Additionally, the act of breastfeeding fosters a strong emotional bond between the mother and the baby. For the mother, breastfeeding reduces the risk of postpartum bleeding, aids in postpartum weight loss, and decreases the chances of breast and ovarian cancers.
This perception undermines the significance of breastfeeding as a vital contribution to a child's health and development, and it reinforces outdated notions about women's roles in caregiving and domestic responsibilities. In India, public breastfeeding can be a serious cause for sexual harassment due to cultural taboos, gender norms, and a lack of awareness. Women may face unwarranted stares, comments, or even explicit advances while nursing in public, leading to discomfort and fear. This form of harassment reflects deeply ingrained patriarchal attitudes and underscores the urgent need to challenge societal perceptions, create safe spaces for breastfeeding mothers, and promote a culture of respect, understanding, and support for breastfeeding as a natural and fundamental right.