When did we become uncomfortable with breastfeeding in public?

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By Sabrina Almeida

Every once in a while news reports of a woman being told not breastfeed in public resurrect the age-old controversy. In our country, a woman’s right to breastfeed anywhere she wants is protected by the Canadian Charter of Human Rights. This means anyone who is uncomfortable with the scenario or doesn’t like the idea should suck it up! Or, move away rather than dismiss the mother.

A recent incident wherein a breastfeeding Toronto mom was asked to move to the golf club’s basement by a service manager reignited the fury of women. This prompted me to delve into the history of breastfeeding to determine where public discomfort originated from. After all, ancient civilizations supported breastfeeding and women were not expected to take cover while doing it either.

Social status

So is modern morality the reason for us wanting moms to do it privately? Social status, convenience and consumerism are more likely to be the reasons for the shift in thinking. History suggests that during the Middle Ages breastfeeding came to be associated with the lower classes. Those that were higher up in the social hierarchy hired wet nurses to breastfeed their kids. As a result wet nursing became the primary source of employment for many poor women.

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While some doctors tried to encourage mothers to feed their kids in the Renaissance period, the practice remain largely unchanged.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, entire families relocated to urban areas for jobs. The increased cost of living and poor wages forced many women to contribute financially to their family. This made it difficult for working mothers to breastfeed and attend to their children. Wet nursing continued.


In the early 19th century animal milk and baby formula came to replace wet nursing. The wide availability of animal milk made it an increasingly popular alternative to breastfeeding. Baby bottle and formula manufacturers pushed their products in whatever way they could while doctors espoused the theory that infants should consume formula milk along with more solid foods. Producers threw their resources into advertising the safety and health benefits of their products to push sales. New moms were quick to latch on! As years wore on, many moms were given formula samples and coupons in the hospital or by their doctors who encouraged them to try it. This encouraged them to opt for formula instead.

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Some upper class women also began to see breastfeeding as one of the main reasons that affected their figure. Changes in breast size and appearance were seen as having a negative impact on their body structure and looks. This made the case for formula milk stronger among the figure-conscious women.


The advent of pin up girl posters and soft porn in the 1900s led to the sexualization of the breast. They now came to be viewed as more for sexual purposes and men rather than lactation and babies. With the main function being ignored, breastfeeding in public was frowned upon. The movement to reclaim the breast for kids continues to face an uphill battle.

History also shows that the disdain for breastfeeding in public was more in white societies than other among other races.

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I have never breastfed my kids in public because I never needed to and was not comfortable doing so either. This might also account for my slight uneasiness around such situations in a public area. Perhaps the sexualization of the breast is responsible for my awkwardness. That and spending my formative years in a society that viewed any kind of body exposure as lewd and vulgar.

Not that it was an unfamiliar sight in India. Women who lived in the slums or worked on construction sites or in fields had no such inhibitions. Again, it had socio-economic connotations.

While I support the ideology, it is hard to unlearn the social behaviour I was schooled in for so many years.

Comments: 1

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  1. Good topic, especially in our multicultural society where we have people from all sorts of cultural background.

    The South African Nobel laureate in literature, J.M. Coetzee, remarked that what distinguishes humans from animals is that the latter eat, excrete and copulate in full view of others.

    Only a couple of generations ago, it used to be considered bad manners to eat in front of others. Now it is commonplace. So one of the three factors cited by Coetzee no longer applies.

    Displays of physical closeness are also more common now than used to be the case earlier, although they stop well short of absolute intimacy. So this factor is 50% inapplicable.

    Perhaps to compensate for these one and half factors, society is gravitating towards shunning from public view other aspects of normal human behaviour, such as breastfeeding.