A nurse-in, sometimes also called a nursing flash mob, is when a group of breastfeeding mothers deliberately gathers with their nursing babies in a public place to breastfeed. For more details about the nature of nurse-ins and the controversy surrounding them, see What is a Nurse-In . Regardless of how one feels personally about nurse-ins, it is an important question to explore whether they or not they are effective.
In order to assess the effectiveness of nurse-ins we first have to back up to define the purpose. Much like the sit-ins of the 60s, or the Occupy encampments of 2011-12, the purpose is to force people to confront a topic visually to bring a larger issue into the consciousness of the observer in that moment. Much as sit-ins happened in places where civil rights violations had occurred, or Occupy encampments set up at financial centers or seats of government, they are organized at places where the legal rights of mothers to nurse their babies have been challenged. In this way they follow a long tradition of peaceable assembly intended to make a point.
For those who believe strongly that breasts are largely sexual objects and should not be used for nursing in public places, the nurse-ins are a near-obscene display. But I do not believe that the minds of those people will ever be changed, and I don’t believe that nurse-ins are for their benefit. Much of the debate over public breastfeeding is centered on whether it is appropriate to SEE nursing in public (I believe it is essential, actually, especially for children) and concerns over the intentions of nursing mothers and whether they are indulging in exhibitionism (hardly EVER true). For more on this, see my Responses to Opponents of Public Breastfeeding .
Here’s why I do think nurse-ins are effective and important:
Nurse-ins give people permission to really look at the act of breastfeeding. Generally, if someone notices a mother breastfeeding and is uncomfortable, he or she can and should simply look away. This is the whole rationale for why people need to understand that public breastfeeding is really no big deal. But a large part of people’s discomfort is really not understanding breastfeeding or possibly having ever really *seen* it. All of the images and associations that most people are exposed to of breasts are sexual. Taking a baby and superimposing them onto that imagery can be uncomfortable.
But by setting up a nurse-in, breastfeeding mothers are essentially giving permission for people to really look, not at breasts, but at the act of breastfeeding. Those who have not already pre-determined their view on the subject will see that nursing looks quite natural and that the babies and mothers are not in any way sexualized. They will see that once a baby is latched on, there is actually very little breast visible, and that even in the process of latching and unlatching that mothers become very experienced at managing the process in whatever way is comfortable for them. They will see mothers nursing with covers and mothers nursing without. They will see both infants and toddlers nursing. In a society where breastfeeding is really only still making a comeback as the preferred and common way of feeding, this is important, because so many people have never actually seen a baby breastfeeding or at least been able to really process it.
Breastfeeding is also often seen as a “personal choice.” But because the success rates of breastfeeding and as such, the individual experience of mothers is influenced so much by legislation surrounding public breastfeeding, health care liability and policy, food and nutrition science and policy, workplace issues and more, in this as in many things, the personal is political. Nurse-ins are intended to send the message that breastfeeding is not just as simple as a choice a mother makes to feed her baby, but that her success in being free to make that choice requires support by others – hospitals, retail establishments, insurance companies, and yes, the appropriate reactions and behavior of individuals.
The largest weakness of nurse-ins in my mind is that they are difficult to participate in if you are no longer nursing. I support the efforts of those who attend these events, but as I no longer have a nursing child, I have difficulty connecting with them personally. It is sometimes important to send the message that a group is not merely advocating for themselves but that there is a larger societal push and it is time for them to get on board. I would like to see a greater understanding of how those of us who support and advocate breastfeeding, but who are no longer nursing can be involved in creating this message. The largely grassroots nature of nurse-ins make this difficult, but with social media, this may be changing.
Do I think that nurse-ins will overwhelmingly change policy overnight. But media outlets do seem more interested in such stories these days, especially with the “virtual nurse-ins” over removal of breastfeeding photos on Facebook. Public relations concerns do sway behavior, certainly in the retail world, and the more awareness that is brought to the issue of public breastfeeding with public apologies to nursing mothers and open statements of support for nursing wherever, whenever and however it is necessary, the more people will understand that there is no use or value in objecting. At the same time, encountering nurse-ins on an individual level will continue to expose the public to the true nature of breastfeeding as a natural way to feed a child.