Recently, Neha Dhupia spoke about how she had to hide behind a tree to breastfeed her baby, while on set. As any new mom in urban India knows, breastfeeding in a public space is nothing short of a strategic tactical operational manoeuvre. First, you need to find yourself a relatively clean spot, which hasn’t been blessed by that malaise of the Indian public space, namely paan stains. Then you need to make sure you’re not in direct line of sight of anyone, because hell, we have gawking public and mindsets that haven’t quite gone beyond the prepubescent and still light up with “Boobies” when a mom is feeding her baby, never mind that there is absolutely nothing sexual about it, and they really need to check their rating on the Oedipal complex scale if they find it so.

This is urban India we speak about though. Small town India and rural India has always been accepting and enveloping of the breastfeeding mother. A dupatta, a saree pallu, a shawl, all these have been put to use to shield the baby and the mother from the insolence of the curious gaze. The censorious gaze is perhaps an urban phenomenon. Add to this, the uncomfortable fact that not all public spaces have the space and the facility for a mother to breast feed her child and this makes taking a baby out into the world an exercise fraught with worry for a new mother, who already has quite a lot to grapple with.

Breastfeeding a baby doesn’t come naturally, contrary to what one might assume. It takes a bit of training and a lot of practice.

This is something I feel very strongly about. We know that the first six months of infancy are when a baby needs to be breastfed exclusively. We know the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding on growth, development, immunity and more. We also know that nothing is better for mother and child bonding than breastfeeding, though I might have just bitten your head off if you had dared suggested this while I was struggling with mastitis, sore nipples from a nippy offspring discovering that teeth bite and sleep deprivation all through that nightmarish first year. Breastfeeding a baby doesn’t come naturally, contrary to what one might assume. It takes a bit of training and a lot of practice. Your arms go off to sleep, your legs cramp up. It is also, a darned complicated process as anyone who has done it will tell you. First, there is the hungry infant in your arms, who is probably squealing loud enough to have the Marines come in, and raising a right ruckus which has already made you the cynosure of every eye in the immediate vicinity. Then is the tricky business of the actual feeding and ensuring you don’t drop the annoyed little parcel you are provider of sustenance to. Then there is the burping of fed infant, an exercise fraught with terror if the infant has lolled off into the land of nod and will be very, very angry if woken up to joggled around in order to elicit that mandatory burp. Then there is the right kind of hold, unbuttoning quickly without flashing everyone in the immediate vicinity, shifting from left to right or vice versa when one breast gets emptied out, and I’m not even beginning to discuss what it is like when the teeth begin to come in. Suffice to say, women who breastfeed past the teething stage need a gallantry award, no questions asked. In all of this, all a woman wants is a clean, comfortable space which allows her to feed her baby without worrying about who is watching her. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Also read: Forgot How Stressful Breastfeeding Can Be: Sameera Reddy

I was at the Dehradun airport some months ago. This is a small airport, and facilities here, though adequate, do not extend to a breastfeeding room. Most bigger airports these days do have one, though, as do malls. A young mother, with an infant who was barely a month or so, came through the never ending security queue with the baby squalling angrily. Within seconds, the women sitting the rows of seating had made space for her, and then stood around her, blocking her from salivatory and censorious public gaze, letting her breastfeed her baby in relative privacy. This is what it is, the sisterhood of women that understands, and is empathetic, protective and supportive of a nursing mother in a public space.

Breastfeeding in public had never been quite taboo in India, it has, if anything, been the norm in a country where bottles and formula are a recent introduction, and limited primarily to the urban context.

Breastfeeding in public had never been quite taboo in India, it has, if anything, been the norm in a country where bottles and formula are a recent introduction, and limited primarily to the urban context. There is always the option to express milk and carry the bottles around, but then where does one warm it when one is on the go. Travelling by air is the worst trial of all for women who are breastfeeding. For one, you get onto the flight and people are already shooting you dagger looks in anticipation of the little one crying through the journey, not realising that they themselves didn’t exactly emerge fully adult from a birthing pod, and have probably inflicted their own discomfort loud and clear in public too when they were babies. Then there is the misery of ears popping which could quite make me, a full grown adult, want to wail aloud myself. Babies don’t run according to anyone’s clock but their own. They’re little baby powder and milk scented tyrants who when they want their feed, they want their feed, and god help the world if they don’t get it. They can rattle nerves and eardrums with equal impunity. And a good feed and burp later, they can sleep like the angels they are, with nary a care in the world.

There are things that nursing mothers do to make sure they can nurse in public easily, from the kind of clothes and the layers they wear, to a shawl or stole they carry around to drape themselves with when they feed.

There are things that nursing mothers do to make sure they can nurse in public easily, from the kind of clothes and the layers they wear, to a shawl or stole they carry around to drape themselves with when they feed. For a mother to be stressed about where and how she can feed her baby is very unfair. Babies are proof that humanity goes on, despite all that is terrible happening around us. Breastfeeding a baby exclusively for six months does mean that a nursing mother will need to occasionally feed her baby in a public space. The least we can do as adults is to make it more comfortable for her, and that means making space for her, helping her be comfortable, and not being prigs about it. Women in India have always breastfed their babies, in the privacy of their homes and in public spaces, and we have always been supportive of this over centuries. It would behove us as a society, to ensure that breastfeeding mothers can find the space to feed their babies in privacy and dignity in public spaces. Malls, railway stations, trains, anywhere mothers need to be out with their babies. After all, a society that puts the children first is a society that looks towards the future.

Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV

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