Nursing covers are rapidly becoming a "must-have" on every major baby registry. When I had my first daughter, the only nursing covers readily on the market were ugly, dull fabrics with limited utility. I never saw anyone use one. Now, nursing covers have become a fashion statement. Prospective mothers can choose from multiple styles and fabrics, and even coordinate with diaper bags and baby carriers. Even Target carries designer lines now.
So if you breastfeed, or plan to breastfeed, should you get and use a nursing cover?
Nursing Covers are for Mothers, Not for Others
I tend to have mixed feelings about nursing covers. On the one hand, if a well-designed cover makes it more likely that nursing mother will nurse longer because she feels more comfortable going out, then that's important. On the other hand, the easy availability of nursing covers could create an expectation that everyone *should* use them to ease the discomfort of those who prefer not to see mothers nurse in public.
So, when pregnant friends ask me which nursing cover they should get, I ask them first why they want one at all. If it's because they feel uncomfortable with the possibility of any part of their breast showing in public, fine. But it's because they have some antiquated notion that nursing is something to be ashamed or they should give two figs that someone might not like it, I tell them to save their money. I also like to mention that when babies are too small to pull them off, I had just as easy a time with putting a large sunhat on the baby's head and covering everything I wanted covered, than struggling with a nursing cover.
Consider Function Over Style
The bevy of lovely fabrics available for nursing covers today are a tempting distraction. But if you are going to use a nursing cover at all, make it about function. The whole point of a nursing cover is to take it out with you in public, so portability is important. Newborn babies, even nursing babies devoid of formula and bottles, still seem to require a pile of supplies every time you leave the house. A big, bulky, hard-to-use nursing cover is a big mistake. Make sure you can remove the cover from any case or bag and put it on and get it settled in with one hand. Ditto with putting it away. I will admit that I am somewhat impressed with the wire frames in today's covers that allow you to easily see the baby… I tend to think these are superior to other types, but test them out, because they don't always work.
Learn from Veteran Breastfeeders
Attend a La Leche League meeting or other venue with a group of breastfeeding mothers. What you may see is that simple clothing selection is enough to satisfy even the most modest of mothers. Using a shelf-bra cami (see my article about this clothing choice in related links below), covers the stomach, and/or a loose, v-neck top provides easy access to nursing bras and camis from the top and bottom. While nursing in the first couple weeks seems daunting, once the baby latches reliably and you master the standard cradle hold, there is really very little to see that isn't blocked by the baby's head. Before you spend big bucks on a nursing cover, at least start observing and learning from other nursing mothers.
Using a nursing cover is a personal decision. Don't do it just because you think others expect it. Don't do it because it's fashionable. Use a nursing cover only if you think it will enhance your personal comfort while breastfeeding in public.
If you are going to buy a nursing cover, check out the Bebe Au Lait cover (also sold as Hooter Hiders... love that!) which have the peek-through feature I mentioned above, and come in many fabrics as a bonus.
Or, consider a nice wide-brimmed baby sunhat as an effective nursing cover. (A Velcro chin strap keeps it one handed!)