Breastfeeding can be hard work. At the beginning it’s the struggle with proper latch (and all of the hurtful problems that come with incorrect latches), supply and demand, plugged ducts, mastitis, thrush, nipple shields, nipple confusion, tongue tie, GERD, food-related colic, “failure to thrive”, learning your pump, learning to read your baby, and possibly dealing with negative comments from family: “you done yet?” “put it in a bottle so I can feed baby” “you could do more and go out more if baby were on formula.”
Then somewhere around the 6-8 week mark (barring any other issues), baby suddenly becomes a champion feeder (I suppose most babies are good eaters. But I’ve heard that this magical age turns them into GREAT eaters), and it’s pretty much smooth sailing until the teeth come in. If the nursing mom hasn’t done so already, this is the perfect time to get baby used to feeding outside. But some (like myself) don’t quite know where to start. What to wear? Where to go? In a sling? What if I have performance anxiety? What if people stare? Can i still dress modestly?
It takes practice to latch baby and feed discretely in public, but it’s also about your own comfort level.
On my last day of work, my work-mates took me out for some Indian buffet. Halfway through lunch a woman walked in with what looked to be a week-old baby. Her partner got her a plate from the buffet line while she discreetly (yet in full view of the restaurant) nursed her baby. Right then and there I thought, “I want to do that.” I wanted to be able to throw Eryn into a sling and nurse (look ma, no hands!) while grocery shopping. I wanted to sit under trees in the forest and picnic with my nursling. I wanted to be the anytime-anywhere mama.
But I so wasn’t prepared for our challenges and how I was going to circumvent the Islamic notion of modesty with public nursing.
Eryn was born with a persistent attitude. At least that’s what the nurses said of her. She has always known what she wanted to do, but is always limited by what she can do physically. If she could get to the kitchen and make herself a sandwich, she would. She latched on well within minutes of her birth. But after an hour, she realized that the milk she ordered wasn’t in yet. And that made her very angry. So angry she refused to nurse.
She was so strong, that she would push up against my hand, turning her face away from the breast. None of the nurses could get her to latch, and she was so hungry. I was expressing colostrum and mixing it with water so she could get something. At least she drank from a cup! On the second night she was inconsolable. Again, no one could get her to latch. We tried side lying, cross cradle, cradle, clutch, football… she wasn’t interested. Eventually we tried a lactation aid by taping a catheter to my breast and pumping formula from a syringe — which worked well, but not 100% of the time.
When the milk came in she was happy and enthusiastically tucked in. But her latch was still off. This made her a sloppy and a loud eater. Milk would dribble out of her mouth and she would take in too much air. So she’d cry after an hour on the breast because she was either still hungry, or colicky due to the excess gas from the ingested air. She would also fight me, and hit the breast — possibly because she was frustrated with the flow. It was quite the struggle at times. Two public health nurses, a trip to Dr. Jack Newman (an amazing lactation specialist), a bout of mastitis and 8 weeks later, FINALLY she was latching correctly most of the time.
We eventually found out that her funny latch was due to her mild tongue tie. And the loud eating? Well, that’s just her personality. She’s quite the vocal connoisseur.
So there went my public nursing dreams out the window. I’m not a shy person, but I get embarrassed quickly. And fighting with my newborn for an hour in public was just something I wasn’t up for. So I nursed, but always indoors, or alone in private rooms, or simply scheduled outings in-between feedings… necessitating mad dashes to get home. Then at 8 weeks we met up with all of the couples from our prenatal classes. We “wined” and dined, compared babies, bragged over labour stories, and had a great time catching up. At some point in the evening, some of the mothers began “whipping it out” and nursing around the dinner table. (husbands slowly… ever so slowly made their way discretely to the desert table) It was a massive nurse-in.
But because there were men in the room, I excused myself and found a private chair upstairs… struggled with my fighting baby and hung out with the hostess’ dog who kept sniffing us. Fun. I wanted to be downstairs talking with other couples. I wanted to find out the magic way to get Eryn to sleep on her own. I wanted to gossip about Grey’s and how to calm your baby 101. I wanted a piece of that great looking fruit torte.
When my Hubby came to check in on me, I was so defeated. I felt alone, lonely, frustrated, tired, and that I would forever be resigned to nursing secretly indoors, in change rooms, in bathrooms. That I would never have a life of outside nursing baby. That nursing was the hardest, most self-sacrificing thing ever. I felt guilty for these feelings as well… like I was being selfish for wanting a life.
Even at home I felt “exposed.” We have a two-bedroom apartment – and for three months the MIL moved in. At first, I was asked to cover while I nursed outside the bedroom. In Islam, the “private parts” (the areas of the body that should be kept for yourself and your partner) of a woman include her chest. It’s a part of the body that isn’t traditionally shown to other women (although, in practice, Muslim women sunbathe topless together, try on new clothes together, go bra shopping, etc). So there were a few weeks of awkwardness where my MIL got used to my openness, while I attempted to understand her reservations. Eventually she was inviting me to feed the baby at the dinner table… but by that time Eryn was stronger at fighting the breast and that struggle was too stressful for me. I needed the peacefulness of my bedroom nursing nook to relax.
Thankfully I have an awesome and very supportive husband. He always encouraged me to try nursing outside the home. When plans were made to go out to dinner or go shopping, we’d find a family friendly restaurant, or go to a mall that had private nursing rooms. Lucky for us, we live in a region that is “baby friendly” — a distinction that the World Health Organization/United Nations Children’s Fund awarded last year. The Peel Breastfeeding Coalition is continuously working to create and promote breastfeeding friendly public places.
So the more we went out, the more comfortable I became, and the more I realized that I also had to start dressing for two. I already wear hijab — I cover my hair and wear long sleeves, pants or a skirt. You don’t often find the most fashionable clothes with long sleeves, so many hijabis wear layers. I now find myself wearing a nursing camisole, a basic long sleeved-T, my fun and fashionable top and a nursing cover to boot. Nursing clothes? Not a problem.
Now back to the noisy eater.
How many women nurse at church or temple? I’m sure there’s a community section, library, class room, or something next to the main hall for women to duck out of the service to nurse their babies. There are only a few full-fledged mosques where I live that would have such amenities. The majority of them are just plain structures with a single room for prayer and lectures. My first experience nursing in a mosque was in one of these.
Hubby and I were out driving when Eryn needed to feed, so we stopped for a break at the mosque. We prayed in our respective sections, and I started feeding Eryn. Men and women traditionally sit in separate sections — either the women sitting behind the men, or beside them with a barrier or curtain between them. The larger the barrier, the more conservative the mosque tends to be. This mosque had a thick curtain separating the men from the women. At first, we were the only two people there, but within minutes of the feed, a large group of men came in for a congregational prayer. Big men. Scary men. Your stereotypical Muslim beardo: skullcap, long white robe, big bushy beard. Tiny me and baby on one side — the Islamic fatwa brigade on the other.
No one could see me. The silent prayer started. All you could hear was the imam calling out prayer instructions at regular intervals, and
….slurp… slurp… ooooOOOOoooohhhh!
*sputter* cough, cough, choke, COUGH!
(pause) Ah! Ah-goo! Ah!
…. slurp…ooooMMMmmm! burp.
I was mortified.
They were going to say something to Hubby. They were going to chase us out for indecency.
But I didn’t see anything wrong with what I was doing. It may be a little unconventional to nurse your baby while attending an organized Sunday sermon (or not!), but I really didn’t care. They knew what was going on behind the curtain. I knew that they knew. They might even be trying (not) to picture what was going on behind the curtain. I didn’t care… and they didn’t say anything.
I realized then that it all comes down to comfort level. There were no Islamic rules that needed circumventing. Islam encourages the mother to nurse for at least 2 years. It was just the fear of being exposed accidentally by Eryn that was holding me back. But if was from behind the curtain that I found the self-esteem and gumption needed to become the anytime-anywhere mama.
Now we feed wherever we want. Eryn is still a loud nurser. She nurses to sleep sometimes and sings loudly in the process. And when she’s not singing, she’s testing out her new teeth, or sticking her hand in my mouth playing with my tongue.
Eryn at the ‘Eid al-Adha prayers in November. When it came time to feed her, I just turned around. Only one person said something: a mother asking where she could find a nursing cover for her daughter and new grandchild.