All content of this blog is my own opinion only. It does not represent the views of any organisation or association I may work for, or be associated with. Nothing within this blog should be considered as medical advice and you should always consult your Doctor.

Let's do breastfeeding covers

Something I've discovered is that nursing covers are a controversial subject.  When I blogged a while ago discussing the questionable marketing techniques of Udder Covers, it was interesting the replies were frequently about covers in general - despite the post being about how the company were selling their item.

What's also interesting and quite significant, is how the conversation around nursing covers changes depending upon which area/country on the whole is discussing it.

In the UK nursing covers are still relatively uncommon - at least "Oop North" where I live, they are rarely seen; but then so are breastfeeding babies.  I've only seen a cover used once, in a cafe whilst feeding my youngest.  Perhaps because they aren't seen very often, I did think it a tad ironic that nobody even glanced at me feeding my son, whilst people were nearly falling off their chairs craning their necks to see what the wiggly floral package in the corner was - but I appreciate this is not the case everywhere.

In order to understand why in some areas breastfeeding covers have become so popular, we need to look at cultural norms.

Mother Nature didn't bank on breasts becoming taboo; sure they're placed in the most obvious location in terms of convenience, but social norms demand women (not men) now keep them covered - which obviously throws feeding an infant from them into rather interesting territory.
Discomfort with breastfeeding in public has been identified as a contributing factor in shaping infant feeding choice and the decision to stop breastfeeding in particular (McIntyre et al 1999; Smyth, 2008).
A paper by Kate Boyer also adds:
Breastfeeding outside the home is still relatively uncommon in the UK (Stewart-Knox et al, 2003; Tarrant and Kearney, 2008). This is problematic because decisions about infant feeding choice are influenced by women’s perceptions about how acceptable (or not) it is to breastfeed in public (McIntyre etal.,1999). Breastfeeding is not protected by law in the UK outside of Scotland, and there are strong social expectations that it be‘‘discreet’’, i.e.conducted in such a way that the breast is never actually visible (Bolling, 2006;Pain,etal.,2001).12
Aint that the truth?

Kate interviewed a small group of breastfeeding mothers about their perceptions of feeding in public, I think their comments echo many I have heard before:
CR remarked that ‘‘if you get your boob out and expose yourself it’s a little bit wrong’’. Indeed BL put it even more bluntly: ‘‘you get the eco-warrior types that are kind of like well it’s my right to breastfeed in public, and I’ll make a big scene of it, and I think that’s a bit unnecessary’’.

These comments convey some of the factors which can make breastfeeding outside the home a daunting prospect for some women, including lack of familial support or a broader cultural context in which it is normalized. They suggest the anxiety–and  in some cases antipathy–that can exist toward breastfeeding in public that is not sufficiently discreet, even on the part of women who have recently breastfeed in public themselves. Echoing the findings of Carpenter (2006), they convey the notion of breast-feeding as a public performance that is vetted by others.
So for some women the choice is not breastfeeding, or feeding with a cover.  Some express difficulty being discreet because of the positions they use, or because the size of their breasts, or because their baby likes to pull off and look round mid feed - It can be hard to feed "discreetly" at times, if discreet means never showing an inch of skin.

As the above highlights, being able to meet social expectations is a big factor for many in their feeding decision.  As one Facebook user recently stated: some women aren't interested in the big picture of changing culture, they just want to get on and feed their baby - and I totally agree with this!  If the only way a woman can bear to feed outside the home is with a cover - we absolutely have to hear what these mums are saying and respect their choices, encourage them, understand where they're coming from and realise why.

Does that mean we should all ignore the bigger picture and pretend it doesn't exist?  Absolutely not!  For other mothers want to provoke change, to remove the social boundaries above that hinder women in the first place - and we also have to respect, encourage and understand these women too.

For many women, breastfeeding in public is daunting the first few times you do it. 

Imagine you lived in a culture which was brought up believing women should always cover their knees.  Many wear long skirts for ease, but of course special knee covers were also available.  Knees were however used for marketing purposes - clad in a revealing lacy sock to advertise beer.

People got knee enhancements so they could wear a shorter skirt and have a titilating amount of their knee on display most of the time; men looked at pictures of knees and women who had smaller knees felt conscious - but it was ok because you could buy padded tights to enhance how others saw them ;)

Suddenly you have to feed a child from this very same knee!  You very rarely see anyone else knee feeding, and if you do the mum is always being extremely discreet so as not to show any knee skin.   How would you feel about whipping your knee out?  It's abnormal to see knees in this context, it's scary - others may judge whether an appropriate amount is being exposed.  It's totally normal to feel nervous at first until it's normalised to you!

This cultural change has only come about since the 1940s, despite the fact "discretion" is often called for to respect "the older generation". My late grandfather wasn't at all embarrassed about it, as he had grown up seeing women feed their babies anywhere and everywhere.  He mentioned as a boy he would often be squished up against a nursing mum on the bus home; he even recounted a tale where a mum was trying to feed her distracted toddler next to him, when she finally said in an exasperated voice, "if you don't stop messing about and just feed, I'm going to give it to this young man instead!".

Normal is to us what we see everyday.

Therefore you will find in areas nursing covers have become popular, their use is not limited purely to those who would otherwise have not breastfeed - they become "the trend" for other mothers too.  When I sat in the cafe with the mum with a cover, I felt strangely exposed - as though I was being all brazen doing it out in the open, compared to the modest mum in the corner.  And that's from someone who has breastfed pretty much everywhere and anywhere since those first few very nervous feeds outdoors!

If we saw most mothers breastfeeding and a few here and there using a cover - the covers would have no significance in the big picture.  But we don't see nursing mums everywhere, and so covers becoming popular can quickly become "the social norm", which rapidly morphs into "a social expectation".

And you know what?  Cover manufacturers know this.  So much so the company above gives out a free cover to all mums.  I've watched the threads on forums - one person shares the offer, people love a freebie and so will join in and get one; more so if a few others do it first and report it all great.  Before long most mums who are pregnant will have signed up for the free cover, they may plan to breastfeed (or try to) and so a cover is the logical accessory right?

I was quite shocked when a debate on this topic broke out on a predominantly US Facebook page.  The debate quickly shifted from whether covers were discreet - to a not insignificant number of breastfeeding mothers saying it was indiscreet to feed without a cover!  That when there is an item to ensure not a fleck of skin should be seen - you should use it to ensure modesty.

In some ways suggesting every women who feels nervous at feeding in public uses a cover - is akin to suggesting everyone having an "ugly day", wears a paper bag over their head.  If they feel so ugly they wont go out in public without, isn't the bag really such a bad thing?   But others want to tell these women they don't need to cover up!   They feel regardless of how things look, nobody is really paying much attention and the more that go "bagless", the more others will feel empowered to as well.  How they look is totally normal and doesn't need covering to be acceptable.

We have to see that both the big and small picture to effectively provoke change, and we have to acknowledge the language we use and that of those around us.

To conclude and almost come full circle, I thought I would share some the latest marketing offering from Udder Covers that plopped into my mailbox.  I've highlighted in red all the statements that undermine normal breastfeeding, and serve to perpetuate a culture that feels breastfeeding should be done, but not seen:
"Breastfeeding is a natural thing, but also a huge source of awkwardness for many women who nourish their little one in a public place. However, breastfeeding covers help lessen this discomfort and make it simple to do. While many people avert their eyes when they understand that you are tending your child, you are always nervous about who is watching (AA - If you weren't you are now!). You can be modest and keep your child comfy by using these covers that are now available in all kinds of colors and designs.

Most people will try using blankets or towels to conceal them while feeding but this can fall off or slither away if they aren’t alert. 
Whether you are out walking in the square or in a shopping center or even at a family get together, you can always feed the baby when it is hungry. Nothing much has to alter in your social life simply because you have a little one. (AA - Yes that's the joy of breastfeeding!)
Plenty of people are a bit awkward around breastfeeding moms and you can reduce the embarrassment by using the covers. (AA -Wow just in case you weren't feeling quite uncomfortable enough already, a guilt trip thrown in as well)
The shield also helps stop your newborn from distraction during breastfeeding by aiding their focus on you. This ensures the feed runs a lot smoother and quicker compared to not using a shield. (AA - Really is this an evidence based comment?  The feedback I hear is that for as many who find it helps with distraction, others will not feed well due to having fabric over their head!)

The discrete way fashionable breastfeeding covers make it simple for you to feed your infant quickly means you can safely give food to in the busiest environments (AA - Wow now not using a cover is unsafe!) without fear of awkwardness or causing any uncomfortable moments."

Coming up next - alternatives to covers if you feel self conscious.


  1. In the beginning I tried to feed with a muslin tucked behind my bra strap so as not to 'cause offence'. I think I did one feed like thae before giving up! The faff with the muslin and the crying baby gave far more away than unbuttoning my shirt would have done... Much more empowering would be to talk more about ways to feed when you're out and about with new mums. 'Milkchic' have a few great videos which give practical techniques - and this sort of thing helps to build confidence. These things (hooter hiders!) are IMO, catch-pennies. Ultimately their presence in the marketplace further undermines breastfeeding as a natural, normal, and unremarkable process. The company you've quoted should be ashamed of itself.

  2. I find it very sad that mums feel they "have" to cover up when breastfeeding in public. Yes I would rather a cover and continued breastfeeding but to be really honest here, you see plenty more breast on show on a summers day or down the pub. While feeding my children I had 38H and 38J breasts and only once did I ever receive a negative reaction - in a restaurant, where another diner complained to the waiter, who came over and offered my a drink top up (teehee benefits of living in cold Scotland).
    The younger generation NEEDS to see mother feeding their babies/toddlers the way nature intended, if it is ever to become the norm in our society.
    The 1 time I tried to used any kind of cover, at the beach to keep the sun off my son, he very vocally objected.
    Breastfeeding and discreet should never appear in the same sentence. Udder covers advertising, to me is reminiscent of formula companies - undermining breastfeeding while seeming outwardly to promote it.
    Mandy x

  3. For anyone who has been given one of these things as a well meaning gift fron John Lewis, you don't need a receipt to take it back and get store credit ;-)

    (little tip from a lovely client - waves to V as I know she reads this blog)

  4. Well written. I did use a cover at first because I wasn't confident at getting my son latched on without just lifting my whole shirt. He refused to let me have a cover after a while, and it became a hassle anyway. Now I don't really think about it, I just feed my child.

  5. all i can say is - how bloody victorian! its v post feminist as well - you know, like how people say 'its a woman's choice to get a boob job, no man is making her' and think theres no societal/male cooertion - whether directly or indirect. these daft covers are just suppoting the notion that bf is something offensive or shamefull.

    meanwhile....its an apron right?

  6. Wow, I never thought about it this way. I bought one at an art show because I thought it was pretty; and with a toddler, figured that I'd be chasing her down the street and need a bit of a cover. Now I think I'd feel guilty using it. I never had an issue breastfeeding in public, my mom breastfed me, so I figured that there was nothing to be ashamed about in the first place. I am still quite taken aback by how heated these discussions become. It is sad, I wish everyone could be comfortable in their own skin and with their babies at their breasts

  7. Great article! Sums up basically how I felt about that whole thing! Something I'm sure it was you said once was try feeding your baby in front of a mirror. It's amazing how little is visible (if anything) compared to how obvious it feels like you are being.

  8. My initial thought when I first heard to them a couple of years ago was "how odd. surely that draws waaaaaaay more attention than a slightly pulled up top and baby looking like having a cuddle. And why the need? The more women feed in public the more it is normalised". I have been attending (and now Peer Supporting at) a couple of breastfeeding groups since I had my first child 4 years ago. Since my initial reaction I have met many mothers who have struggled with the idea and exposure of feeding in public, and the immediate thought then became "well, anything that helps these mums to carry on breastfeeding is good". However, having now helped mothers with feeding problems (such as poor latch, positioning and attachment, tongue tied babies etc) I now have 2 new thoughts. 1) The problem most mums have with feeding in public is not once the feed is underway, but the potentially awkward (especially in the early days or if baby having trouble latching) first few moments of attachment. New mothers and those who find it anatomically difficult to see baby getting on properly would face even more of a struggle trying to do all that under this cover, making the whole experience more of a fuss and upset for both mum and baby. 2) assuming baby gets latched on OK, one of the great benefits of breastfeeding over bottle feeding is the social developmental skills baby learns early on from the potential for eye contact with mother throughout a feed as well as the bonding this promotes. If baby has a cover preventing this from happening, then aren't we taking away this important aspect of breastfeeding?

    I have only ever had positive comments from people who have seen me feeding in public, and I try very hard (although it is quite nervewracking!) to "pay it forward" and tell breastfeeding mothers that I see out and about how well they are doing and how lovely it is to see. Maybe if we all did this more then women would feel more encouraged and empowered about feeding out and about and in turn we would see more of it and normalise it. No need for flowery covers then!

  9. I agree, Amber, why don't we start a culture where it is the norm to say something friendly to every bf mother we see? Something as simple as "Nice to see another breast feeding mum". Let's start to build a feeling that it just might be okay if people know that you are breast feeding. My experience has been that even though I am in an area where there is very little bf no one notices and/or cares, so it seems this anxiety about bf in public, to the point of choosing not to bf at all, is a fear based on incorrect information, and that's just not fair

  10. @ roxy & amber, I always feel like I want to say something positive to other breastfeeding mothers but always hold back as I worry it might be unwanted attention if you see what I mean? I don't think I'd mind particularly myself if someone said something nice to me but no idea how others might feel.

  11. Just a little side note: It is now illegal to discriminate against a woman who is breastfeeding. There is no age restriction in England and Wales.
    Of course it has never been illegal to breastfeed in public, but now it is illegal to ask someone to stop in a public place.

  12. It's always been that way Katherine. There is a distinct difference however - in Scotland it's a criminal offence ie if someone was asking you to stop or threatening to throw you out, you could call the police and they would deal with the issue.

    In the UK however it's a civil matter. So yes it's not ok to discriminate, however the police will not attend should you come under attack. Instead you have to have the money to pursue a civil case, gather witness evidence and prove discrimination - how many times have you heard of that happening?

  13. I do have a breastfeeding cover but dont always use it. At each public feed I make an assessment of the place and people around and do what makes me feel the most comfortable.
    Generally I dont care about strangers seeing me breastfeed and it would be a very brave/stupid person to ever comment to me about it. But for me I generally take the more modest approach around family and friends, purely as it seems to make them more comfortable.
    They serve their purpose and whatever helps women to breastfeed outside of their home is a good thing in my book.

  14. I never used a cover. Don't even recall seeing them 20 years ago when I was nursing my first baby. If they work for you, then they're good. They seem to me so obvious and attention-drawing, though. I nursed my three children in many places (church, Disney World, the mall, on a hiking trail) and most times others didn't even realize I was nursing. Once you know your baby's cues, you can latch before they even fuss and with slightly loose fitting blouse covering the top of the breast and baby covering the lower portion, no one sees flesh. At least, that was my experience. Beyond that if anyone was offended, they dare not say it aloud!

  15. I also have many different nursing covers and used them at various events. I have also nursed in public without one. I believe it is a very personal choice. I don't believe that it should be policed in any way, and should be accepted by the public as something very natural and beautiful. I have dedicated a website to breastfeeding covers, nursing bracelets, and breast pads to help encourage any mom who desires to breastfeed. I think the key is support!

  16. I've never used a breastfeeding cover and never will, just one more thing to cart around with you, for starters. I do use a muslin thrown over my shoulder when I nurse in a top that I can't lift easily from the bottom, cue stretchy tank tops, which I'm living in atm, cause it's easier to just whip boob over the top as it were. Too much boob on display for 'my' liking that way, though it doesn't bother me in the least when other women do it. :-) And if he's in the sling, no-one can see anything anyway.
    Whole heartedly agree with the nurse in front of the mirror and see how little is on show, def gives you a confidence boost.

  17. A friend of mine bought a feeding cover & whereas before I felt empowered when breastfeeding in public with her once she started using the cover it made me feel nervous. I tried to use it a few times, but I ended up feeling it was a very clumsy affair & that I was actually exposing my whole boob and people could see it from the side.

    Having tried it, my opinion was confirmed that these covers most definitely undermine my whole ethos towards public breastfeeding. I strongly believe that this practice needs to be normalised in our society. It is absurd to me that feeding an infant in the way nature intended could ever be taboo. I had difficulty latching my daughter on following tongue tie division at 4 days old, so found public bfing very hard physically due to a weak latch. Now at 5 months she is much better at latching on & I am finally comfortable feeding her anywhere that she needs to be. I will never use a cover because even if one other mum see's me feeding & I can help her feel comfortable, or change someones attitude I am still making a small difference.