Now Boarding: Breastfeeding Moms

Evi Dewhurst

Breastfeeding rates are up! Recent numbers clearly indicate the United States is moving toward wider acceptance, thanks in large part to education and encouragement from health professionals.

The Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas recently published these statistics:

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 77 percent of U.S. moms are breast-feeding for the first six months – up from 71 percent in 2000. The rate of breast-feeding after six months also is up, from 35 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2010; and after 12 months, from 16 percent to 27 percent.”1

I myself have witnessed breastfeeding rates increase among friends and family. While I feel that formula works fine for women who have varying needs and capabilities (we’re all sisters here, with choices and limitations), it is exciting that the health benefits message is being received and accepted by our own American society at large. I recently had a direct experience with how the public has changed and become much more open and accepting to the notion of a breastfeeding mother.

A few months ago, I was returning home from a trip to Tennessee on a crowded airplane. All seats were taken as far as the eye could see, so I opted for what was available near the front: a middle seat. A 30-ish mom, with her 10-month-old on her lap, occupied the aisle seat. She seemed surprised when I asked if I could sit in the middle.

“Are you sure?” she asked, raising questioning brows and looking at her arm-waving son amidst his myriad of toys, picture books and other baby items spread across her lap.

I laughed and explained that I had no issues with sitting next to a baby. I have two young children of my own and am quite comfortable with wiggly babies and their assorted noises, projectiles and sticky fingers. The woman seemed relieved at my explanation and stood briefly to allow me access to the center seat, right next to the window-occupied neighbor, who was a young man and seemingly nervous about sitting near a potentially noisy baby. My presence as a physical barrier between said baby and his seat seemed to bring some ease.

The mother and I began a friendly exchange over her son with the usual, “He’s adorable, how old is he?” and subsequent mutual mothers’ groaning over spit up, diaper explosions and teething. As the plane began to ascend into the sky, her son began to fuss. Without batting an eyelash, she immediately opened her shirt and began to nurse him, using only a small cover over his head the size of a four-inch cocktail napkin. Feeling somewhat amused, I glanced around to gauge passenger reactions. To my surprise, everyone politely averted their eyes from view. There was no grumbling or staring, no thunderous, judging eyebrows. The flight attendant came by to offer beverages without a single frown or comment at her passenger’s rated PG-13 exposure or her son’s apparent, voracious appetite.

I was impressed. I’ve read and witnessed firsthand many accounts from mothers who experienced outright hostility over breastfeeding in public, even when they were completely covered up.  Yet here, in this tight-quartered situation, the public politely gave her as much privacy as they could. The only agitation I could sense around us came from the young man sitting in the window seat beside me. His discomfort seemed to stem more from his sense of situational awkwardness and nothing more negative than that.

My aisle-seated neighbor continued to feed her baby sporadically throughout the two-hour flight whenever he seemed to get fussy or anxious. She explained that she didn’t want him to disturb anyone, and this was her way to help keep him quiet, as well as to help his ears from feeling any pain. Her method certainly seemed to have an effect, as he was the best-behaved baby on the entire flight. The back of the plane in particular seemed rather noisy, compared to her son, who snacked happily throughout his airborne travels.

As the plane descended and came to a stop outside our terminal, I commented to her what a well-behaved baby he was and how her method certainly seemed to work. Surprisingly, the window-seated young man leaned over and nodded. “He really was very good!” he said. His discomfort was nowhere in evidence and he seemed rather blasé about it all.

As women, we have a right to nurture our children. While I can understand the need for respectable coverage during a feeding in public, I certainly expect everyone’s support for a mother who is doing her best to offer a superior source of nourishment. We may still have a long to way to go, but the rising statistics of breastfeeding give me hope, as did an airplane full of people 30,000 feet in the air who clearly respected a mother’s right to feed her child.