A few weeks ago I posted something on Facebook about breastfeeding. The post itself was less important than some of the comments. An old friend asked a question and made me consider something I’ve genuinely never thought about before: breastfeeding etiquette for men. Essentially, I’d been talking about a show the BBC broadcast about breastfeeding, and some of the antiquated and ignorant views they exposed on the subject. This guy commented asking me how long is acceptable for a man to look at a child breastfeeding.
Which, on the face of it, seems odd, right? Perhaps even a little…creepy?
I was rather bemused, and responded accordingly, telling him that if I didn’t know him I’d have thought he was being a weirdo. But we exchanged a couple more comments and it became clear that he was putting forward a very genuine and pertinent question, and it made me realise that this is something we rarely – if ever – discuss; almost like it’s so unlikely that a man other than the father would ever attempt to be supportive of breastfeeding, that the issue doesn’t need to be considered at all. Which, when you think about it, is pretty sad. But also not very surprising given the current culture surrounding breastfeeding.
So naturally, I decided to address this.
Challenging Breastfeeding Propaganda
I had some serious food for thought. Plenty of times I’ve imagined how I’d manage a scenario in which a man might behave inappropriately while I’ve been feeding one of my daughters and perhaps ask me to cover up, or even leave an establishment. But it had never crossed my mind that there might be times a guy has noticed me discreetly feeding and thought any of the positive things I think when I see a woman nursing.
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I often find myself offering a smile; once or twice I’ve even whispered a ‘well done’ to a stranger with a newborn, knowing how much it would have meant to me in those early days. Because the fact is that for most ladies, breastfeeding in public is quite an intimidating prospect. So many times have we each done this before finding our confidence, feeing entirely conspicuous and afraid that an ignorant bloke might look at you and verbalise his disdain (cretins, all, if they do – men and women).
So consider this for a moment: what if there were occasions where if you’d only appeared more approachable, some of those men – who may themselves championing their rockstar nursing wives and girlfriends at home – might have wanted to applaud you?
Crazy thought, maybe. But that’s what this friend was trying to articulate. He said he finds a nursing infant quite a beautiful thing to see, and I get that sounds unusual, but that’s only because it’s unusual to hear from a man. If a woman said it, you’d simply agree – a nursing infant is a beautiful thing! So why must it be only women who can appreciate this? Our culture of course!
Feminism Isn’t Just About Trashing Men
Western culture suggests that men will always view women’s breasts in terms of their sexual connotations – but that’s simply not true in every case.
My husband can differentiate, and he’s not the only male of his kind on the planet. Besides which, there are plenty of women who fit the criteria we default to thinking fits all men: a warped and ignorant view of what breasts are for. Gender does not discriminate.
So it’s important to open our eyes and recognise that this is unfair and actually an example of inverted prejudice. It’s a feminist issue, and I’m sure there are plenty of guys who would be insulted to be thought of in those terms. I’m not blaming women, because I think we have it harder; for the most part it’s merely a case of reputation preceding, and our way of defending ourselves. But if we’re having an ongoing conversation about feminism and fostering positive change, then this topic should form part of the discussion.
Breastfeeding Etiquette For Men
If we could be a little more open about what we need from men to feel supported rather than threatened, then perhaps they’d feel more inclined to offer it in appropriate circumstances. I asked some fellow breastfeeding mums how they felt about the issue; here’s what they had to say:
If I was breastfeeding in public and a man looked at me, smiled and perhaps nodded it would make me feel much more comfortable and take my mind off wondering what he was thinking. It can be hard to understand whether a look means they love to see a baby being fed, or if it’s because they don’t want to see it, or it embarrasses them.
As for looking, I probably wouldn’t like somebody looking directly at the baby for long, but I have no problem with somebody coming to talk to me or smiling. I was once in a café in my local country park and even though it was about to close, the young girl behind the counter said I could come in and stay as long as I needed. A large family were already there (children, parents, grandparents, etc) and one of the little girls came over, quite fascinated by the sight of a baby being breastfed. She asked a few questions but then just stood staring. I was giggling because she was so intrigued and then her grandfather came over. I expected him to apologise and imagined he was going to blush but he really surprised me by speaking to me; he spoke to his granddaughter and they continued to stand there. He not only showed me that he supported breastfeeding, he also showed his granddaughter that it was perfectly normal and natural.
I think all you need to feel supported is an obvious positive attitude from other people.
I really wish we could all be brave enough to speak to each other! Even as a woman, I often want to give the smile of support but I’m not brave enough to say that’s what I’m doing for fear I might get snapped at! I don’t know why I think that, I just worry I will offend!
With men staring I think people can be too quick to assume it’s not positive. But it’s also how they stare; if they are looking at you in what you feel is an uncomfortable and inappropriate manner it’s not about the length of time. We need little badges we can flash at each other to say we are genuine!
I actually find it MORE awkward when they do the embarrassed looking away thing while you get the boob out.
I prefer them to maintain eye contact, and then maybe have a little glance down at baby when baby is on, in the same way a female friend would.
Another lady I spoke to suggested that the only appropriate way to be supportive of a nursing mum is to ignore it taking place: it’s natural, there’s no need for any discussion or fuss because it’s just part of life. I see where she’s coming form, but I’m not sure I quite agree…
I’d love for breastfeeding culture to reach a point where that utopia is our reality – but it’s not. The fact is there’s still a stigma around the way in which we choose to feed our babies, whatever path we take. Whether we like it or not, there are too often ‘sides’ and an ongoing debate – something I don’t wish to be a part of. Nonetheless, it exists; simply wishing that were not the case is not enough to change facts. So active support is welcome as far as I’m concerned.
Besides which, ignoring something is not what I class as supportive anyway. Sure, it’s not unsupportive, but to show endorsement requires action, however subtle. A smile is sufficient. But ignoring it like it’s not happening – even if it’s for the right reasons – may be perceived as disapproval, which does the opposite of what my friend wants to achieve when in the company of breastfeeding women.
So I admire him for wanting to actively show his advocacy in a way that feels acceptable to and is welcomed by women.
I think there was also an element of curiosity from him, which again may seem peculiar, but I can understand actually. When did you feel like you fully understood breastfeeding? When did it cease to be cloaked in secrecy and stop being an enigma? It hasn’t, because it is largely hidden. Is it really any wonder we have the issues we do when it’s so concealed? Of course this is a massive issue that is going to be very difficult to change, because it’s a cycle where one negative behaviour leads to the next: we feel judged so we hide; nursing is shrouded in mystery which does nothing to help the campaign for normalisation; men see women being covert so feel they must avert the eyes; and so the pattern continues.
How I’d Like to Be Supported By Men
For my part, I advised my friend that if he wanted to be actively supportive then the best thing he could do would be to offer a smile, and perhaps strike up a conversation – particularly if he had a nursing child himself, to demonstrate kinship. And then, to be helpful on a practical level, ask: do you have everything you need? Can I get you a glass of water?
It’s crucial to offer something of zero value, because unfortunately in this world, nothing is free and anything else would bet interpreted as a come on. But if anyone knows anything about breastfeeding, it’s that it creates The Thirst. If a stranger – male or female – offered to fetch me water, I’d know they were being genuinely supportive and I’d be delighted by that.
Do you agree, or do you have a different idea about what’s appropriate breastfeeding etiquette for men? How would you like a guy to behave around you when you’re nursing?
For more breastfeeding posts, head over to Breastfeeding – Help, Advice, Support.