Why Does Breastfeeding Make Us So Uncomfortable?

Jennifer Howard just wanted to ask about postpartum depression. But she got more than she expected at the doctor’s office.

After the Oregon mother went to nurse her crying 3-month-old, Evelyn, in the exam room, the doctor stopped her. He requested that for she cover up, and Howard was befuddled.

“And he said yes, to cover yourself while you’re breastfeeding and I said, ‘Well, no doctor has ever asked me to do that before,’” Howard tells ABC11. “And he said, ‘Well, it’s a rule we have to prevent lawsuits from something inappropriate.”

She’s since issued a complaint, calling the experience “humiliating.” As ABC notes, the doctor’s request was illegal. In the state, no one can force someone nursing a child in a public place to cover up.

Howard isn’t alone. Just this year, people have asked breastfeeders cover up at restaurants, fired them from jobs for asking for a private room to pump milk in and barged in on those pumping milk in the bathroom.

Stephanie Ellingson-Buchanan even had the police ask her to leave a Minnesota public pool. Another mother had complained because she didn’t want her sons to see someone nursing.

Society simultaneously encourages women to nurse their infants and shames them for doing so. As we observe World Breastfeeding Week, we need to reexamine this practice. After all, the stigma of breastfeeding is grounded in long-standing sexism, classism and racism that just won’t go away.

American culture has sexualized breasts for a while. As author Amy Bentley notes on Slate, the obsession intensified with sex symbols like pin-up posters during World War II and Marilyn Monroe. Breasts started to represent men’s desires, rather than the needs of women and their babies.

As breasts became more sexualized, they became less functional: more the purview of men as sexual objects and less the domain of infants and as a source of food,” Bentely notes. ”As this transformation continued, breast-feeding, especially in public, became less normal and more taboo, and by midcentury most Americans attached a vague sense of disgust to the practice.”

People continue to objectify anyone with breasts today. And not even children are immune.

One Florida school demanded that a teenager put band-aids on her nipples when she didn’t wear a bra one day. According to the student, officials said they were a “distraction to boys in [her] class.”

The aversion to breastfeeding comes from a similar place: assuming that someone’s breasts are always sexual and inappropriate to be seen in public. This is yet another way society tries to control bodies it perceives to be female.

Then there’s the twisted history of baby food. Bentley reports that early advertising positioned breastfeeding as “primitive” — code for non-Western and/or non-white — and baby food as “civilized” — read American and white. It wasn’t until the 1970s that advertisements featured a black baby.

Bentley writes about this in more detail in her book, “Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet.”

To be sure, attitudes toward breastfeeding have improved. A 2015 survey found that about 6 in 10 Americans think “women should have the right to breastfeed in public places.”

But at the same time, breastfeeding is still punished. Travelers, for one, pump milk in airport restrooms because they don’t have another place to go.

On top of all the other struggles new parents face – lack of paid parental leave, the “motherhood penalty,” cuts to government social programs, expensive childcare and, of course, raising a new life — trying to find a safe, comfortable place to feed an infant undisturbed shouldn’t be one of them.


Are you sick of the stigma of nursing? Sign this Care2 petition to ask the clinic to penalize the doctor who asked Jennifer Howard to “cover up” when breastfeeding.

Creating a Care2 petition is easy. If you have an issue you care deeply about, why not start your own petition? Here are some guidelines to help you get started and soon the Care2 community will be signing up to support you.


Photo Credit: Wes Hicks/Unsplash


Robyn S
Robyn Sanders3 hours ago

Super and Easiest 0nl!nee Home opportunity for all. make 75 Dollars per hour and Make 6500 Dollars per month.All you just Need an Internet Connection and a Computer To Make Some Extra cash…U3…..>>>>

..................... Net440.com

Barbara Idso
Barbara Idsoyesterday

When I breastfed my children I didn't care if it made anyone uncomfortable.It is my right to feed my child and other people don't have to look. Grow up America!

Ann B
Ann Byesterday

sorry- to disagree-------- some of us were brought up with dignity and morals.....MANY do not want to see a tit flopped out in a public display....a cover up or non view place suits a lot of us job fine

RONALD Walker4 days ago

Breastfeeding is what a mother does for her child. Now men need to know breast is not a sexual turn on. This is how I feel. The young woman becomes pregnant will have a major change in her body. Other female mammal animals don't suffer from this problem. As a society women should feel free to feed there baby anywhere they want to. The only place where it should not happen. When a car is moving! The other is when a plane is taking off. Stand strong Ladies! Women are having their babies and Taking over Congress!!!

Lesa D
Lesa D4 days ago

#18803 petition signed...

Lesa D
Lesa D4 days ago

thank you Emily...

Naomi D
Naomi Dreyer5 days ago

The doctor did NOT tell her to stop, nor to go someplace more private ... he just said to ''cover up''. Having a woman's breast compleatly exposed is not, in my opinion, something for a public place. Breast feeding in public is OK by me but I agree that there should be some form of ''cover up''.

Deborah S
Deborah S5 days ago

Breast feeding is natural. II gives the baby natural immunity. It helps the mother and child to bond. Breastfeeding is encouraged by pediatrtions and midwives during pregnancy and after. There are plenty of tips for breastfeeding mother's. Pumping breast milk should accomendaed for mothers.

Crystal G
Crystal G6 days ago

If the baby needs to feed and there is no way to go somewhere nearby to be discreet. that is fine. Malls and Hospital waiting rooms (etc) are fine. But, some women take their whole top off? Why? It seems that it is a way of showing off what they can get away with, more than taking care of their child. And actually topless breastfeeding is not in that many countries (though some people are saying 'other countries'). I also see no guys whipping it out in public (don't know what that one person is talking about) and I almost never see guys topless in public. That's more rare then a unicorn. If guys have to keep their nipples covered, then so should the girls.

Joanna M
Joanna M6 days ago

FWIW, I think the incident about the braless teen doesn't belong in an article about breastfeeding...they are two different types of situations.