Is Breastfeeding a Modesty Issue?

It’s one of the biggest issues in modern motherhood – and it’s one that frequently makes the news.  But is breastfeeding a modesty issue?

is breastfeeding a modesty issue

The hardest thing I’ve had to deal with since becoming a mom isn’t anything, really, to do with my kids. It’s not the blowouts and the all-night bouts of colic. It’s not the temper tantrums, the long gap between showers, or the constant lack of sleep.

It’s the judgement.

It doesn’t matter what your stance is as a mom. Whether you’re crunchy or not, whether you do or don’t vax, are pro- or anti-circumcision, give or don’t give pacifiers, do or don’t use crib bumpers, do or don’t spank, and no matter *when* you decide to turn the carseat from rear-facing to forward-facing, there’s always a host of other moms ready to pounce on you and claw your peace to shreds.

At least with most issues, it’s *only* other moms that give you glares and snide remarks. For the most part, everyone else hardly pays any attention – and even many of the moms who don’t agree with your stance are too polite to say anything. However, there is one big issue that seems to merit an opinion from just about everyone – mom or not. It’s breastfeeding.

In particular, the big debate centers around whether or not it’s appropriate for a mother to publicly nurse her child – maybe even without using a cover. Even the most polite and reserved of non-crunchy moms may be moved to make a remark to a nursing mother if she thinks there’s the slightest chance that her husband or son might notice. The pervasive idea that nursing moms are fighting is that breastfeeding a child in public is somehow related to issues of modesty. Is it, though? Or is this whole issue really just stemming from a culture that’s gotten too far away from a healthy concept of sexuality?

Perhaps no time in world history is regarded as more “modest” than the Victorian Era. Anyone referring to a “Victorian mentality” usually means extreme prudishness and buttoned-up morals.   Young couples needed chaperones and hardly ever touched. Polite society wouldn’t dream of discussing sexual issues.

The fact is, Victorians considered pregnancy to be a more embarrassing condition than breastfeeding; pregnancy was referred to as being “in a delicate condition,” if it was mentioned at all – nursing, on the other hand, was a fact of life. Women were only pregnant for nine months (and even spent a few months of their pregnancy in “confinement,” when they stayed home to rest and keep out of the public eye until after delivering their child) but nursing a child could take years. Formula didn’t exist, nursing covers didn’t exist, and special rooms in public places for women to nurse didn’t exist. That meant options were few: women could either never leave home and never have company, or they could feed their little ones in public.

It wasn’t considered shameful, either. The best way to know what a culture was like is to read its books. For example, Charles Dickens makes multiple references to Mrs. Micawber nursing her twins in David Copperfield. One of the first references finds David being introduced to her as she is nursing one of her twins:

“…He presented me to Mrs. Micawber, a thin and faded lady, not at all young, who was sitting in the parlour (the first floor was altogether unfurnished, and the blinds were kept down to delude the neighbors), with a baby at her breast. This baby was one of twins, and I may remark here that I hardly ever, in all my experience of the family, saw both the twins detached from Mrs. Micawber at the same time. One of them was always taking refreshment.” – Ch. 11, pg 165

Another reference has David and Mr. Micawber meet by chance in the street, and when David politely asks after his wife, he’s given an update on her breastfeeding situation (which makes sense to me, since breastfeeding tends to make up a very large part of a mother’s life!)!

“…The twins no longer derive their sustenance from Nature’s founts–in short,” said Mr. Micawber, in one of his bursts of confidence, “they are weaned–and Mrs. Micawber is, at present, my travelling companion.” – Ch. 17, pg. 263

Isn’t that great? “Nature’s founts” – I love that nickname. The wonderful thing about those little references is how plainly they show the total lack of embarrassment. It wasn’t just okay to nurse a baby – it was okay to do it while meeting a stranger for the first time (a man, no less). It was okay not only to talk about it in public, but to refer to it as casually as if it were no different than if she were getting into gardening. Nursing was done without embarrassment even in an age when women were expected to blush whenever they were complimented and be mortified if they accidentally showed a hint of ankle.

Of course, for those in conservative circles, “modesty” most often refers to a standard that comes from somewhere higher – like God. As a conservative Christian, I’ve certainly had the word “modesty,” and phrases about “not causing men to fall into sin” leveled at me more than once. The truly sad thing, however, is that the idea that breastfeeding a child is somehow immodest couldn’t be further from what the Bible indicates!

I found this incredible and comprehensive article from the Alternative Birth Care website that details how the Bible treats the topic of breastfeeding. It’s mentioned frequently, and the references always fall into two categories: literal breastfeeding, or breastfeeding as a metaphor. As the author points out, all the references cast breastfeeding in a positive light. Here are just a few:

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” – Isaiah 49:15

The account in Exodus 2 of baby Moses being fished out of the river, and the daughter of Pharaoh looking for a woman to nurse him (his sister Miriam stepped forward to offer up his own mother as a candidate).

“…because of your father’s God, who helps you, because of the Almighty, who blesses you with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breast and womb.” [Genesis 49:25, NIV]

Metaphorically, nursing imagery is used to convey the tender care God gives to his people:

“Be joyful with Jerusalem and rejoice for her, all you who love her; Be exceedingly glad with her, all you who mourn over her, That you may nurse and be satisfied with her comforting breasts, That you may suck and be delighted with her bountiful bosom. For thus says the LORD, “Behold, I extend peace to her like a river, And the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; And you will be nursed, you will be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees.” – Isaiah 66:10-12

The great thing about the Biblical references to breastfeeding? They’re fairly graphic! It’s not just vague allusions – it’s detailed descriptions of the nursing process. There’s joy and excitement in the words, like the kind a mother sees on her baby’s face when he realizes it’s time for milks again. Yet these passages weren’t written to nursing babies – these words were written to an entire people group, including men and women of all ages.

Even Muslim women, who probably have the highest standard of modesty for women in the world, do not consider breastfeeding to be immodest – not if they live in the Middle East, anyway. The Qur’an, the holy book of the religion of Islam, prescribes nursing until age two:

“In travail upon travail
Did his mother bear him,
And in years twain
Was his weaning:: – Ch. 31:14

Some Muslim women prefer to use a “Hijab” (nursing cover) for public nursing, but as this article from the blog Green Prophet points out, it’s really not about covering or not covering. To quote the article,

“…I’ve found that modest dress and nursing in public are separate issues. Women covered from head to toe can be seen nursing their babies on a park bench, while some mothers in halter tops wouldn’t dream of nursing in public. In countries like the US, where babies are primarily bottle-fed, breastfeeding mothers are frequently asked to leave public places or cover up while billboards with exposed breasts are everywhere.”

The idea that breastfeeding is somehow immodest is not an historical idea. It does not come from any particular branch of faith. It’s a very recent phenomenon – with roots not in modesty, but in marketing.

Costly baby formulas would have been a tough sell when they were first introduced. After all, why spend money month after month when a mom could just feed her baby herself for free – or, as was common when for some reason a mother was unable, hire a wetnurse? In an age when nursing was the norm, it wasn’t uncommon for a lactating friend to step in to do some of the feedings – or, since many people kept animals, it would also have been cheaper to use raw cow or goat milk. There were a host of less expensive and fresher options!

The solution to marketing an otherwise unmarketable product was to claim that formulas were more healthful for babies – that mothers would give their little ones a better start to life if they were fed these magical man-made milks (this kind of marketing, while safe enough in some areas, produced deadly results in areas with substandard sanitation practices and contaminated water). These unsavory and dishonest marketing tactics led to increased infant mortality rates – and the ongoing Nestle boycott, and a call for stricter marketing guidelines.

So what are we supposed to do, as moms, as modest women, as women of faith? This incredible article by Red and Honey does a great job of giving responses to all the protests people around you might give to public nursing (including all those “do you want pervs looking at you” comments). It’s definitely a must-read for moms who find themselves getting the stink eye a lot – or worse, those nasty little comments!

I may never be the mom who is entirely comfortable with public nursing. I admit to using a cover, and I’ll even admit that I’ve never done it unless I had someone with me to give me moral support. I was raised in this culture, and I’m still something of a victim of it – at least enough that I’ll always be slightly intimidated by the glares of an older generation.

I still do it, though. I nurse in public when my baby is hungry, even though it freaks me out a little. I’m going to continue to do it, too, because I want to be part of the “re-normalizing” of breastfeeding, instead of yet another mom intimidated by the way things are. Hopefully, if enough of us just keep doing what we’re doing, our sons won’t feel awkward around nursing moms, and our daughters won’t be made to feel ashamed.

Jaime W. (459 Posts)

Jaime is a Christian, a wife, a mom, a writer, an illustrator, and an aspiring homesteader. She loves trying to find new ways to save money and resources--but also save her time, so she can spend as much as possible with her family! !


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Comments

  1. This is something I’ve dealt with myself lately. I have only nursed in public twice even though we are one our second child. I am not comfortable nursing with a cover and my babies hate them as well, but I don’t want to deal with judgement of not using one either.

  2. Julia B. says:

    Excellent! What a wonderful post! I’ve nursed two babies, in public, no covers. I’ve never heard anything negative from anyone, except my family. (Surprise!) I am a midwife and serve a large Mennonite population, and must say I have been surprised more than once to see a conservative Mennonite, long dress, head covered, nursing her baby in our waiting room uncovered. I think this is very thoughtful and important for moms to hear!

  3. I love this post! I was so self-conscious about nursing my first baby in public. I would hide in the car, in a dressing room and even in a public bathroom. When I was pregnant with my second baby, I decided I would never hid in a filthy bathroom to nurse my baby again. I will sometimes sit in the car if it’s a nice day and there is no place else to sit, but not to hide.

    I’m still uncomfortable if I’m alone, though. I don’t use a nursing cover (they seem to attract more attention, in my experience), but I am very careful not to flash everybody. ;-) I always wear a nursing tank with a shirt over the top, so that I’m not exposing any more skin than necessary. It makes me more comfortable, but I don’t think it’s necessary for everybody. I have honestly never seen an exhibitionist breastfeeding mama (I’m sure there are a few out there, though) and most of us can discretely feed our babies without it being an issue for the men around us. That breastfeeding has been sexualized in our culture makes me so sad.

    Thanks so much for writing this post! I’m hoping to be a part of normalizing public breastfeeding in our culture, too. :-)

  4. Wow – very well said, Jaimie! I’ve always nursed in public with a covering just because there’s always the chance that the baby would decide to suddenly pull his head back and look around while my other hand was busy. It’s more of an issue of me, personally making sure I’m modest in both the way I dress and how I nurse.

    It’s sad how our country has taken nursing and made it such an issue yet, as the comment above said, “while billboards with exposed breasts are everywhere.”

  5. Great article! I was really uncomfortable nursing my first in public for the first several months; but we got the hang of it, and I got used to it. Now it’s no problem at all. I normally use a cover, because I’m naturally a modest person, but if I don’t have it with me, I just make sure to keep my shirt pulled down to her face to cover everything.
    We went to Uganda last year for a few weeks, and over there breasts are just tools. They are not sexual. Thighs, on the other hand, are very sexual. Which I find interesting since the Bible alludes to the showing of thighs as being naked.

  6. All good points. I think there are opinions here from one end of the spectrum to the other. I personally don’t have an issue with it, or with others breastfeeding in public. It’s very natural.

  7. Public breastfeeding was always more of an issue for my husband than for me. He didn’t want people staring at my breasts.
    Honestly, I didn’t want anyone to stare at me because I had a screaming baby. So I breastfed anywhere and anytime I wanted!

  8. This is FANTASTIC. Standing ovation here, Jaime – well done! I LOVE the Dickens references and I love the approach you took in questioning if it even is a modesty issue. I completely agree! Thanks for linking my post/series too! Going to share this on FB :)

  9. Great job, Jaime! I agree with what you’ve said above, and you’ve said it so well! I’ve tried saying the same things on my blog or even via other outlets, but I’m not so good at being diplomatic as you have been. I’m getting ready to have baby number four, and I learned with number one that, for us at least, a cover is more hassle than help. I, too, refuse to not feed my hungry baby in public just because of what others may think. But I know that even after five years of public breastfeeding, with or without a cover, I still get nervous and glance around to see what others might be thinking. I get really hot from a tad of self-consciousness. But I like the way you said it, I want to be a part of re-normalizing breastfeeding.

  10. I thankfully haven’t had any troubles with nursing in public. I’m sure people may think what I’m doing is wrong, but no one has ever said anything to me. Great post. Very informative! :)

  11. Sarah lee says:

    To be quite honest, I’ve felt so much judging from other moms because I can’t breastfeed. I would love to be able but because of medical reasons cannot and I can’t count how many times people have made a comment when they see me bottle feed in public because Iam NOT breastfeed ing! I don’t thin BF ing moms get slack anymore it’s the bottle feeding mamas that do. We’re all just doing what is best for our babies, lets not condemn one another :)

    • I know, right? Sometimes as a mom it seems like you just can’t win! My SIL was unable to nurse, and I know she got some flak for it – mamas need to be nice to each other!

    • I had major supply issues with my first. I used a lot of pumped milk and eventually formula. I nursed my next two without issue. I will say that I have gotten the stink eye and nasty comments no matter HOW I fed my baby. Agreed – let’s lift each other up! :)

  12. To be honest I always covered up unless I was home or with friends/family. It was just what I preferred. I could care less if a woman wants to breastfeed her kid in public and not cover up! I think it is horrible to that so many people just judge!

  13. I bottle-fed one baby and breastfed the other, both cases were just what worked for my family. I can only hope that other moms do that too. It’s sad that our society flagrantly demeans mothers who are trying to give of themselves to feed their children, when there are many women who couldn’t care less about the babies they bring into the world. But that’s another whole issue!!

  14. Thank you for this post. When I was first confronted with the “modesty” argument by a Christian friend of mine (who said she always nursed in another room or the car while she nursed her daughter), my daughter was only 6 weeks old and I was very uncomfortable nursing in public (especially since she would scream and refuse to latch if I covered her). I walked away from the discussion feeling defeated and unsupported. Unfortunately, most of the opposition I’ve faced while breastfeeding has come from Christian woman, mostly within the walls of a church. It has always astounded me that Christians (who are supposed to be set apart from the world) have so completely embraced the sexualization of female breasts that society has foisted upon us. As a Christian, I believe my body was created for the purpose of bearing and nourishing children. I consider myself extremely blessed that I have been able to do exactly that. Now that my daughter is 15 months old and I’m halfway through my second pregnancy, I have more confidence about nursing my babies whenever and wherever they are hungry (thanks in large part to a wonderfully supportive group of breastfeeding moms). I still feel like too few Christians are standing up and saying “there is nothing sexual about breastfeeding, and the Church needs to stop perpetuating lies that are contributing to the objectification and disrespect of women.”

    • Great article and I couldn’t agree more! Beth I feel the same way about other Christian women! I shared this article on my Facebook, and several of them said it was an issue of modesty…one of which even said “You should be ashamed” before quickly deleting that comment. It has still resonated in my mind ever since and given me more fuel than ever. I don’t recall ever being told to be ashamed of my actions….ashamed of feeding my daughter? Really? This coming from a Christian woman? So now I’m inclined to make a tshirt that says “Stick around for the show…I nurse in public” or “If you have a problem with my breastfeeding in public, feel free to put a blanket over your head.”

  15. Becca S. says:

    My baby is 11 wks old and I am a first time mom. I have never fed in public simply because of being shy but I’m in the process of snapping out of that. I have heard a few stories of moms bf their babies in public and being threathened to be thrown out of the place or rediculed which angered me. I have been a victim to this cultures views on BF in public but not anymore I don’t understand how women can walk around half naked and be called gorgeous but BF in public is “offensive” “inappropriate” or even “disgusting”. I will start BF my baby in public when needed because I don’t want to believe the lie that this culture puts out that it is inappropriate. I want to be apart of re-normalizing this culture for the Glory of God.

  16. I’d say it’s a “whatever is comfortable for you” issue. If you’re not comfortable nursing without a cover, then don’t nurse without a cover. Be you and be comfortable.

  17. Jenny Clark says:

    I believe you have a typo in your first sentence on “judgment”. Spelled incorrectly as “judgement” I think.

  18. Thank you for sharing your info. I truly appreciate your efforts and I will be
    waiting for your further post thanks once again.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Is Breastfeeding a Modesty Issue? @ Slightly Steady (LOVE this.) [...]

  2. [...] her where people could see. I got over that after having a second (& 3rd, 4th, & 5th) baby. “Is breastfeeding a modesty issue?” is a good read if you are struggling with the issue of nursing in public. (via Slightly [...]

  3. [...] Is Breastfeeding a Modesty Issue? - As a breastfeeding mother, I am often shocked at the stigma that has come to be attached with what was once a universal part of normal life and care for children. I have heard of mothers, who in the name of piety and modesty, refuse to breastfeed their infants, and others who believe that breastfeeding anywhere besides behind closed doors is a sexual act. Sadly, many of these messages still swirl in my own head and make me uncomfortable to breastfeed my children in certain environments and with some people. This article covers a lot of the common objections and misconceptions that are endemic in American Christian parenting thought. And really, until there was another option for feeding a baby, everyone was used to knowing and often seeing mothers nurse their babies. [...]

  4. […] and others who believe they are somehow enforcing notions of “modesty” are actually acting against tradition, however. The cultural shift to breasts as sexual objects is […]

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