As a companion to my article on Airline Travel – Planning Tips for Nursing Moms, I want to address separately the experience of nursing itself on airplanes. I've done some pretty extensive internet research and can't seem to find any cohesive policy protecting nursing on airplanes. Very few airlines appear to have an outright policy stating that breastfeeding mothers will not be harassed or bothered. This is beyond troubling in my opinion. There have been several instances in recent years of women being harassed, removed from aircraft, and humiliated by flight crew and airline security. So here are my thoughts:
• In general, I am an unapologetic defender of women's and children's right to nurse anywhere, anyhow, wearing anything, at any age and at any time. That said, airlines present a unique situation. They place strangers in close quarters with nowhere to escape and sometimes nowhere to even turn away from someone else. I do not believe that women should ever have to cover themselves or their baby with a blanket or shawl. But on an airplane, I will say that I am personally more comfortable, and the baby is better able to concentrate, if I limit her field of vision (and consequently that of those sitting nearby). But whether you choose to cover up or not, you should never need to apologize for your child's need to eat or desire to nurse, and on an airline is no exception. If challenged, do your best to stay calm, and reply rationally and confidently.
• As best as I can tell, when the airplane is on the ground, the laws of the state you are in apply on the plane, so if you are concerned, you may want to be aware of or even bring with you protective statutes for nursing. There does not seem to be any cohesive protections while in the air, but seeing as how there is only so much they can do to you once you are in the air, keep your cool, and just focus on keeping your baby fed and getting through it. Keep in mind that many of the publicized harassment problems that have taken place seem to at least start with a flight crew member acting alone, so simply rejecting the premise of their concern may be sufficient (that is, making sure they actually know that breastfeeding *is* legal, that it should not be categorized as indecent and that, yes, it is necessary). If they insist that another passenger is complaining, you can let them know that it is inappropriate to make concerns of this nature the responsibility of the nursing mother, but that traditionally in any public place what *would* be considered appropriate is to offer the other customer/passenger the opportunity to move someplace they can feel more comfortable.
• Choosing clothes for comfortable nursing can also help. For air travel, I like to wear a shelf-bra tank with fully extended straps, under a comfortable top. Then I can pull the shirt up and the bra-top down, and my whole stomach and side doesn't have to be exposed (as an added bonus, I stay warm, as I'm always freezing on planes). Between the tank and the shirt, there's honestly very little to see. Alternately, if you wear a traditional nursing bra, a V-neck top or sweater makes it much easier and faster to fiddle with the little clips or hooks.
• If you are able to determine that the flight crew is openly supportive of nursing (this has most often been my personal experience, so take heart!), you can make them your ally. The flight crew can help you to keep other seats in your row open if the plane is not full, or assist other passengers in relocating if they are uncomfortable with the idea of your nursing right next to them (I'll usually tell a potential seatmate outright during boarding to give them the chance to move if they want to). Traveling during less busy days and times can also increase your odds of empty space around you during the flight.
Nursing on an airplane can be a challenging and overwhelming experience, especially for a new mom or one with a very young baby. In fact, the whole flying with kids experience is usually stressful, so keeping the nursing simple and easy is key. In my own personal experience, nursing on airplanes has been a positive one and most passengers and personnel are extremely supportive. However, as incidents do occur, my policy is generally to expect the best but at least be aware of and prepared for the possibilities.
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