How to Overcome Breastfeeding Embarrassment

Breastfeeding moms and their babies at a lactation support group

SDI Productions / Getty Images

Breastfeeding doesn't always come naturally or feel comfortable to everyone. It's an art and a skill that takes practice, commitment, and perseverance—both physically and emotionally.

The physical techniques can be quite tricky, and often frustrating, to get the hang of. But, for some, the biggest challenge is getting past feelings of embarrassment about breastfeeding. Here's what you need to know about overcoming any embarrassing feelings you may have about breastfeeding.

Emotional Obstacles to Breastfeeding

Nursing can bring up a lot of emotions, both positive and negative. Potentially, there's the intimacy and power of nourishing your child with your own body. There may be relief or even joy at not having to prepare a bottle. Instead, you've got milk ready to go at all times.

On the other hand, feeding a baby from your breasts may evoke a number of different feelings. Some women have reported feeling a bit strange, awkward, worried, uncomfortable, embarrassed, animal-like, inappropriate, or even disgusted. You might feel some of that or even all of that and more.

How women feel about breastfeeding is highly personal.

"In American culture, breasts are often sexualized, whereas images in the media of women breastfeeding are not as commonly seen. This can further contribute to a woman feeling embarrassed or isolated when breastfeeding," explains Kelly Andrasik McLeod, OTD, IBCLC a doctor of occupational therapy, international board-certified lactation consultant, and member of the Lansinoh Clinical Advisory Network.

Before I had my first child, I wasn't excited about breastfeeding. I knew it was healthy for my baby, so I wanted to try to breastfeed for at least 3 months. I thought of it as a chore that I would aim to struggle through. It seemed weird and awkward and the idea of doing it in front of others seemed mortifying. Also, after spending months growing a baby, I wanted my body back.

Lack of Breastfeeding Training

Often new moms don't get much training or information on the basics of breastfeeding. Essentially, many moms are simultaneously learning how to parent and nurse on the fly. At the same time, they're recovering and worn out from pregnancy, labor, and delivery as well as exhausted and overwhelmed by caring for an infant.

It's no wonder that trying to breastfeed can be emotionally fraught. Add to that the fact that many people and cultures may have preconceived notions or biases about breastfeeding. For instance, it's not uncommon to hear them describe breastfeeding as brazen, sexual, degrading, inconvenient, or simply gross. Many families or partners may not like the idea either.

Prior to being handed my baby, I had witnessed breastfeeding up close exactly twice. Once in a theme park, at age 6, I watched wide-eyed as my aunt nursed my newborn cousin between rides.

The second time, when I was in my teens, I stopped by a neighbor's house to meet their new grandson. I was shocked, and if I'm being honest, a bit grossed out, when the mom unbuttoned her shirt and nonchalantly latched the baby onto her breast.

"[To combat these feelings], it is important for healthcare professionals to provide instructional support, as well as individualized emotional support, for breastfeeding women," says McLeod.

Additionally, she recommends involving other family members in the lactation education process in order to provide the breastfeeding woman with additional support and encouragement to continue breastfeeding.

Kelly Andrasik McLeod, OTD, IBCLC

Research consistently shows that a woman’s success, longevity, and comfort with breastfeeding improves when she has a support system in place surrounding breastfeeding.

— Kelly Andrasik McLeod, OTD, IBCLC

Uncertainty About Breastfeeding in Public

Other women may feel fine nursing in private but embarrassed by doing it in public. For some, it simply feels too foreign a process to feel comfortable with others watching. Leaking, engorgement, and the risk of showing skin may feel awkward, too.

I lived in constant fear of accidentally leaking through my bra and shirt until I discovered nursing pads. I was also loath to draw attention to the fact I was breastfeeding publically or make someone else uncomfortable, so I did what I could to avoid others seeing what I was doing.

I had the nagging feeling I wouldn't be good at it anyway. Or that my small breasts wouldn't make enough milk. Really, breastfeeding seemed embarrassing on two fronts. One, that it would mean exposing my breasts, and two, that I had no idea how to do it.

Doubts About Your Ability to Breastfeed

Due to lack of breastfeeding experience, many breastfeeding women are understandably certain that they're not doing it right or their baby isn't getting enough milk. Looking back, I now know that I had plenty of milk, but in those first days and weeks, it can be very hard to tell, especially if your baby tends to be fussy.

The good intentions of my friends who brought me "nursing" muffins and teas and shared stories about breastfeeding struggles, unfortunately, got me thinking I might not be producing enough milk. These worries can impede breastfeeding confidence and build resentment or other negative feelings about the feeding method.

Luckily, a few weeks in, my pediatrician and lactation consultant quelled my concerns. But many women don't reach out for help or aren't sure where to turn.

Overcoming Breastfeeding Embarrassment

Finding comfort, trust, purpose, and self-assurance with breastfeeding is not always easy. It certainly was a challenge for me. Know that this process is a unique experience for each mom. Essentially, establishing a breastfeeding practice is a personal journey—and it's not for everyone.

Deciding to feed your baby with formula is another option. But if you do want to breastfeed, overcoming the embarrassment and other emotional obstacles that sometimes accompany nursing can be done.

"As breastfeeding rates have steadily been improving over the last decade, the hope is breastfeeding will become more widely accepted by society," says McLeod. "The more women who breastfeed, the more women can support each other during their breastfeeding journeys."

Fed Is Best

At Verywell Family, we want to support parents by giving them information about all of the ways they can feed their newborns and babies—be it breastfeeding or bottle feeding. At the end of the day, “fed is best.”

Know That Mixed Feelings Are Common

It may help to know that you're not alone in feeling uncomfortable or unsure about breastfeeding, particularly as you begin nursing. The key is to keep breastfeeding despite the embarrassment while aiming to find accommodations that make the practice feel more comfortable.

"Many women feel stressed or embarrassed at some point in their breastfeeding journey," says McLeod. These feelings may make it more likely for a mom to supplement with formula or decide to stop breastfeeding altogether.

"If it's the woman herself who has some embarrassment, that's OK. Modesty is personal," says Dr. Tamika Auguste, Interim Chair of Women's and Infants' Services at MedStar in Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.

Seek Out Support

Another way to improve your confidence with nursing—in private or public—is to seek support from your doctor, family, and friends. Talk to them about how you're feeling and brainstorm ways to make you (and them, if this is an issue) more comfortable.

Having friends and sisters who were also learning to breastfeed—or had recently done so—was a big help in boosting my comfort level. Consider seeing a counselor if you have lingering discomfort about breastfeeding that you want to work through.

"Research consistently shows that a woman’s success, longevity, and comfort with breastfeeding improves when she has a support system in place surrounding breastfeeding," explains McLeod.

Also, tell them how they can help you feel more at ease with breastfeeding, whether that means being supportive of you doing it in front of them, withholding their comments on your feeding method, or asking them to leave the room when you nurse.

I decided to straight out ask my dad if it bothered him if I nursed in front of him. Turns out, we both felt a bit awkward but mostly we were worried about making each other feel uncomfortable. Talking about it normalized my nursing for both of us.

Understand That Some People Will Be Uncomfortable

Women should never be called out or shamed for breastfeeding, but it does happen. For example, one of the first times I tried nursing in public, at a restaurant, I was asked if I would mind breastfeeding in the bathroom.

Fighting back a sudden urge to cry, I said I did mind, but I also ended the nursing session. After that, I was reluctant to go to restaurants if I might need to nurse. I had a similar experience on an airplane.

Both times, I was equally caught off guard, embarrassed, and upset—both because I thought it outlandish—no one would suggest someone feed a baby a bottle in a toilet stall—but also because I'd made someone else feel uncomfortable, something I didn't want to do. However, by baby number two, I'd let that worry go. I just focused on my need, and right, to feed my kids when they were hungry, wherever we happened to be.

"Know your community, but never be ashamed," advises Dr. Auguste.

With time, I became much more confident, less inhibited, and less concerned about how my nursing would be perceived. This was mostly out of necessity—I had 5 kids in 8 years, so I was simply too busy to worry too much. Additionally, once I got the hang of it, nursing began to feel very natural to me. In fact, the ease of nursing, for me, became its best attribute.

Still, though, I disliked making anyone else feel uneasy, so I aimed to be discrete. I always tried to remember how I, too, thought breastfeeding was weird when I didn't know much about it. So, aim to have grace for those that might not feel comfortable with nursing, but don't let that stop you from feeding your baby however you choose to do so, says Dr. Auguste.

Know Your Rights

In all 50 states, it is a mother's right to breastfeed in public. If it's your own sense of decorum that keeps you from nursing outside of public spaces, that's fine. But know that breastfeeding away from home is always an option if you want it.

"If your baby needs milk, go ahead and breastfeed in public. It's every woman's right," says Dr. Auguste.

Women also have the right to pump at work. In fact, the 2010 Affordable Care Act also included a provision that requires certain employers to provide adequate break time and a private space for nursing moms to express milk. Despite these laws, many working moms are unsure about the breastfeeding policies—and culture or acceptance—at their workplaces. This uncertainty can contribute to increased embarrassment.

Learn About Lactation

Educate yourself and your family about the benefits of breastfeeding and how to do it successfully. Explain to your loved ones why you want to nurse and ask for their support.

For example, it may increase your breastfeeding comfort level to know that key child health experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, extol the benefits of breastfeeding and advocate for exclusive nursing for at least 6 months.

Ultimately, when it was my turn to feed a baby, with the help of a wise lactation consultant, supportive partner, encouraging pediatrician, and enthusiastic baby, I more than surpassed my 3-month goal. Much to my surprise, I grew very comfortable with breastfeeding, in private and in public, sticking with this feeding method for around a year or so with each of my five kids. But it took dedication—and allowing myself to experience some awkward moments—to get there.

Reach out to lactation consultants, doctors, and other breastfeeding moms. Contact a lactation support group.

Ask all your questions and get help finding the answers. Learning and talking about breastfeeding may reduce your embarrassment—and help to normalize this feeding method for you.

Take Baby Steps

Know that it's normal to feel uncomfortable or awkward, especially at first. Be patient with yourself as you process your feelings while learning this new skill. "Take little baby steps," recommends Dr. Auguste. Give yourself time to acclimate to nursing—physically and emotionally.

You also should ease into breastfeeding in various situations, suggests Dr. Auguste. Consider when and where your feelings of breastfeeding embarrassment occur and strategize ways to make yourself more comfortable. For me, this meant adjusting my body position or a using blanket to breastfeed on the sly when I was in a place that didn't feel as breastfeeding-friendly.

Maybe this means calling ahead to ask about a private nursing space or simply to alert people that you'll be breastfeeding. You may want to time your trips out so that you don't need to nurse. Or, you might pump and bring a bottle for situations where nursing doesn't feel right to you.

Most importantly, honor your feelings about nursing. Know that while it's often successful to gently push the limits of your nursing comfort level, says Dr. Auguste, you also don't need to push your boundaries.

Honor Modesty

If modesty is the issue, know that are many ways to nurse discreetly.

"Specifically regarding breastfeeding in public, there are now many more available products to help women feel comfortable, such as nursing pads to absorb any leakage or nursing covers/scarves which are becoming more fashionable and cuter," explains McLeod.

You can buy special nursing products, but you can also simply use a blanket, scarf, or layers of clothing to provide extra coverage. However, note that you also don't need to cover up if you don't want to.

"While these covers can help mothers to feel more comfortable, they contribute to the notion that a mother should cover herself while breastfeeding in public. These supports can make a mother feel more comfortable in the short term but are not as impactful for helping to normalize breastfeeding in public on a societal level over the long term," says McLeod.

Seek Out Safe Nursing Spaces

If you only want to breastfeed at home, that's just fine. But it may be worth considering where else you may feel safe nursing to give you more freedom. If a mom is worried or anxious about breastfeeding in public, they may begin to feel isolated if tend to stay home to nurse, notes McLeod.

Consider finding places where you can feel comfortable nursing or pumping outside of your home. These places might include a friend's house, in your office, or in a dedicated nursing space.

"Although some public places, such as airports and larger department stores, may have nursing lounges, with the goal of making women feel more comfortable when breastfeeding outside of the home, this is still not the norm," McLeod says.

However, there may be some of these private nursing spots open at places you'd like to go, So, seek out and use those spaces that are available.

Trust Your Body

It's very common to question your body's ability to nourish your child. As the milk goes directly into your baby's mouth, it's really hard to gauge how much milk they're getting. As happened with me, many women worry that they aren't making enough milk, even if they are.

This is called perceived insufficient milk supply. Often, a woman's milk production is just fine. If not, there are lots of methods for increasing supply as well as techniques for improving breastfeeding latch. Check with your doctor if you have any concerns about your milk production or your baby's growth.

A Word From Verywell

Take time to consider any challenging feelings you may have that are impeding breastfeeding success. Evaluate where any discomfort or embarrassment may stem from. Think about what you might be able to do to get past or work around these emotions, such as starting out just nursing in private or using nursing covers.

Know that you get to decide how to feed your baby, whether that includes breastfeeding, formula feeding, or a combination of both. At the end of the day, all that matters is what feeding method works for you—and that your baby is fed.

"It's important to educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding," says Dr. Auguste, "but even if you can't [or decide not to] breastfeed, your baby is going to be completely fine." So, follow your gut on what works for you. But if in your heart you want to breastfeed, know that any embarrassment is likely to fade with time and the milk you're giving your baby is likely worth it.

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