Public breastfeeding: Childcare or indecent exposure?

Sexualisation of breasts has become so entrenched in our society that even women themselves think public breastfeeding is inappropriate

When we were babies, when thirst and hunger pangs came calling, our mothers would confidently breastfeed us, even in public.

Fast forward to today. We now have people who frown upon mothers breastfeeding their children in public, citing indecent exposure.

The crusaders of anti-public breastfeeding argue that breasts, like buttocks and other so-called private body parts, should remain under wraps.

To this lot, exposing breasts in public, even for the sake of feeding a child, is morally wrong and amounts to indecent exposure. For people like Fred Palo, a call centre agent, breastfeeding a child in public amounts to ‘nudity’ of sorts.

“Much as it is something nobble, exposing breasts before people in public like in a matatu, in the name of feeding a kid is inappropriate. This, in my opinion, should be done in private,” he argues, adding that breasts are special and should only be exposed in the privacy of homes for the said purpose and spouses’ pleasure.

Breasts sexualised, not seen as source of baby food anymore

Listening to many other men who oppose public breastfeeding, you get the feeling that as a society we have sexualised breasts. So much so that we have relegated their manifest function of nursing and nourishing babies to the back burner.

It is sad that we live in a society where only the entertainment industry and advertising world can expose women’s breasts as opposed to new mothers.

These days, breasts are synonymous with sex, or so it seems. This sexualisation of breasts has become so entrenched in our society that even women themselves think public breastfeeding is inappropriate and immodest.

They feel like they should seek privacy or cover themselves up when doing what is the most natural aspect of being a mother.

Breastfeeding her child is the most natural thing a mother can do. Yet new mothers who breastfeed their infants in public places are frowned upon.

Apparently, exposing their breasts to nourish their children makes some people uncomfortable or sexually aroused.

Women’s bodies are being seen less and less as functional and more like objects of desire. How dare they use their breasts for anything other than sex?

“It’s not just inappropriate but also dangerous because it can trigger unfortunate incidents like rape. Especially when nursing mothers do so in isolated public spaces such as parks. Methinks it’s not just an emotionally but physically intimate affair that should not be done in public where perverts roam,” argues Agnes Nduta, a Nairobi-based teacher.

Perhaps because of the media portrayal of breasts as sexual objects and their use in advertising, it is not difficult to see why a vast majority of people cannot conceive of women’s breasts as anything else.

It is a sad that women using their breasts for the reason God intended is increasingly being seen as a sexually perverse act as Hellen Sakwa, a salonist, argues.

Hear her: “Breast milk has antibiotics and bacteria, which are important for babies’ immune system. And that is the main reason why they exist not for sexual appeal as many people think.”

Allan, a 26-year-old blogger, does not mince his words about his stance on public nursing. “I’d say it’s downright disgusting and selfish. People should be mindful about other people. Others provocatively breastfeed in public using the excuse that ‘it’s only natural to feed the baby’. Look here women, pooping and urinating is also natural but you don’t see people doing it in public,” loudly wonders Allan, as he expresses his displeasure with women who expose their entire busts, while feeding one child.

Dot com mums who use opportunity to show off tatoos

“Yes, babies need to be fed, but some things ought to be private, carry a shawl or something. I mean, if I walked into a bus naked or showing too much skin as a guy, I’d expect people to get offended,” says Allan.

But to some women, the idea that watching a woman breastfeed as fundamentally sexually explicit is ridiculous to say the least.

They argue that in many parts of Africa, women walk around with their breasts fully exposed and they breastfeed their infants freely without anyone batting an eye.

“What is it about a milk-producing mammary gland that makes it provocative? Men should be perfectly capable of seeing a woman breastfeeding her child without getting all hot and bothered,” argues Winnie Sigei, a receptionist.

A woman should not have to think about breastfeeding her child, despite the infants need to feed every two hours. If we start limiting where a woman is allowed to feed her child, we would as well be limiting the amount of time the woman can spend in public!

Although most people are not entirely against public nursing, they insist that it should at least be done discreetly.

They insist that that the mother should use a blanket or something to cover the baby and her exposed breast. Failure to do so, they say, might provoke a hostile or sexual response.

It is also absurd that there are people out there who think that a woman would use breastfeeding to garner some cheap thrills.

“To some dot com mothers with trendy tattoos on their boobs, breastfeeding period is show time to them. They put both of their mammary glands on display to show off the artwork in what may look like a strip tease of sorts to get male attention,” says Sammy Kaberia, a second-hand clothes seller.

What some men don’t seem to understand is that babies follow their own natural instincts and don’t always cooperate with what the mother wants. If the baby doesn’t want to be covered up, there is nothing the mother can do about it. They are not aware that their demand to be fed comfortably is a nuisance to you.

Ciku Kiiru, a young mother knows this all too well. “I don’t feel it’s inappropriate. I remind myself that if I were hungry, I’d eat in public. So, why not feed my daughter? I try to cover her as she feeds but most times she uncovers herself and I let her be. My baby has got to eat when she wants to eat. I just whip it out and feed her.”

Mother breastfeeding child

Employers to create facilities for breastfeeding workers

In March this year, Parliament approved the breastfeeding clause in the Health Bill that requires employers to provide breastfeeding stations for nursing mothers in the workplace and also to allow nursing mothers breaks to breastfeed their babies during working hours.

If the President ascends to the bill and make it law, employers with more than 30 employees will be forced to come up with the said facilities, which will include refrigeration machines for breastfeeding mums.

The bill has, however, been met with both criticism and approval in equal measures. Critics have raised alarm that such a law it is a double-edged sword in the sense that it may lead to discrimination, with employers, scared of incurring more costs, shunning women of childbearing age.

Even though this can be seen as a step in the right direction in promoting breastfeeding, we still have a long way to go. Just because it is allowed it doesn’t mean that the woman won’t be met with disapproving stares.

There have been many cases worldwide of women being kicked out of malls restaurants, aeroplanes and other public areas because of nursing their infant children.

Many people argue that mothers should bring prepared milk in a bottle when venturing out in public but as Grace Kinyanjui, an accountant and mother of three, points out, this might be a bit problematic.

“I hate the ‘why not bring bottled milk or food if you know your child is going to get hungry’ question. We ought to know that not all mothers are able to bring pumped milk with them wherever they go. This is because pumping consumes time and is sometimes painful,” she says.

Secondly, she goes on, not all babies have the same feeding patterns or bottle formulas. “Humans have been known to do more gross things like sneezing or picking noses in public, what is public breastfeeding?” she wonders, adding: “A baby’s need for feeding and being comforted outweighs an adult’s silly aversion for an exposed nipple for a few minutes. Additionally, some babies also won’t accept a bottle/rubber nipple.”

The call for modesty when nursing looks grossly hypocritical. Is there something immodest or impolite about feeding a child, really? We are comfortable with breasts being exposed to sell or sorts of things but we are suddenly uncomfortable when a mother exposes her breasts to feed her child?

Women need to stop feeling ashamed of exposing their breasts to feed their child. The more common public nursing becomes, people will start seeing it as normal and stop acting all shocked and bothered by the sight of a nipple in a child’s mouth.