The Sexist

Public Breast-Feeding: What the Nursing Bib Means for the Right to Bare Breasts


Nothing to see here: Laseinde wants newborns to suck and cover.

Ella Laseinde is accustomed to seeing strangers’ breasts. “I’m a mammographer, so I’m with the breasts constantly,” says Laseinde, 71, who spent 30 years in government service—including five at the National Institutes of Health screening women’s chests. That’s not to say she’s interested in catching sight of stray bosoms outside the office. “I think in today’s time, they need to cover,” Laseinde says of nursing mothers. “There are so many people walking around who can catch a look.”


In 1995, Laseinde patented a contraption to help women breast-feed in public without sacrificing modesty. Laseinde’s Shield-Me-Baby Nursing Bib, inspired by the birth of a granddaughter, is a halter-style bib that attaches with Velcro around a woman’s neck and fits over her breast.

A circular hole, tailored to the woman’s cup size, allows the breast to peek through the innovative device, enabling the infant to latch on to the food source. To minimize the public visibility of this transaction, the device has a flap that rests on the head or perhaps cheek area of the infant. Though it’s possible that some flesh could be exposed even with Laseinde’s patented breakthrough, there’ll be no full-on breast views with the Shield-Me-Baby Nursing Bib.

Though Laseinde’s 14-year patent on the bib expired last week, it’s recently found new life courtesy of neighbor and public-relations mouthpiece Linda Jones, 55. Jones began helping Laseinde market the product a few months ago in order to address what she calls “the ongoing public breast-feeding controversy.” Which side is Jones on? “I believe in covering,” says Jones, who breast-fed her two children, now 36 and 26 years old. “I don’t believe in showing my girls.”

Laseinde began producing the cotton contraptions as gifts before realizing, in the 1990s, that she could be charging $25 and up to help new mothers cover up.

Laseinde’s nursing garment isn’t the first modesty saver to hit the market, but it is one of the simplest. When Laseinde was breast-feeding in the 1960s, necessity mandated consistent public breast-feeding, and modesty could be maintained with a well-draped handkerchief. With the advent of formula and pumps, however, the public display inched toward taboo. Laseinde designed the bib to help a daughter-in-law breast-feed on the go without offending the public’s newly sensitive eyes.

But in the decade-and-a-half since Laseinde first laid out her design, Bill Clinton signed the Right to Breastfeed Act into law, public breast-feeding has emerged from the back room—and upscale new-mama fashion became en vogue. The maternity market has responded with increasingly ridiculous ways to guard a new mother’s breasts from curious onlookers.

One “apparatus and method for breast feeding,” patented in 2007, “provides a nursing mother a true sense of privacy and modesty”—complete with peep-show atmosphere. Here’s how: “[A] curtain is attached around the neck of the mother by a semi-rigid annular hoop. A layer of material lies across the front panel forming a valance or curtain for added privacy.”

Another nursing garment, titled “an improved garment for providing a privacy screen for the body,” has more of a hardhat-area feel. “The garment lies over the shoulder of the wearer extending down the back to a weighting means and down the front to an expanded lower portion,” the 2002 patent reads. “The weighting means provides a counter-balance to adequately retain the position of the garment on the wearer. The expanded lower portion drapes over the midriff of the wearer to provide breathable privacy to the wearer and contents within.

At least one invention attempts to place the modesty burden onto the newborn. The Breastfeeding Hat (patent pending) “includes a head-receiving portion sized and shaped to receive the head of a child, and a brim portion extending radially outwardly from the head-receiving portion. The brim portion is sized and shaped to substantially cover a woman’s breast.”

There’s even a contraption to help eliminate the need for breastfeeding contraptions. My Third Hand, patented in 2004, “holds the mother’s shirt securely out of the way by hooking onto her bra and her shirt, thereby freeing her hands to hold her baby and making expensive maternity shirts unnecessary.”
Laseinde’s Shield-Me-Baby bibs, too, have grown more sophisticated since their mid-’90s debut; she’s currently working on disposable models as well as party-ready versions “to match her evening-wear.” Perfect for the black-tie diaper bag.

Nowadays, many modern moms see no need to borrow baby’s bib before a public breast-feeding session. Dia Michels, 50, a local breast-feeding advocate, spent a combined 15 years breast-feeding on Capitol Hill, no modesty device required. “The reason women are so freaked out about breast-feeding in public is because we have completely sexualized the breast,” she says. “The only way to make breast-feeding easier for women is to desensitize the public to breast exposure. If these devices allow women to hide what they’re doing and cover it because it’s shameful and because it’s embarrassing, it’s just perpetuating the sexualization of the breast.” Though Shield-Me-Baby’s duckline-printed bibs fail to cover the larger issue, they can help individual women still held down by an outdated taboo. “If your goal is to help a woman with her issues—if the bib allows her to get over the hurdle that’s causing her discomfort—it becomes an empowering device,” Michels says.

Though Michels says that breast-feeding still hasn’t recovered from the rise of formula, the cause to desensitize the public to a dropped breast is alive and well. These days, a good deal of breast-feeding etiquette is now directed not at mothers but at passersby. One guide, published at families.com, advises flashed parties not to bother a mother with questions, complaints, or idle conversation—and to never call security on her. In April’s Atlantic Monthly, Hanna Rosin argued that the dirtiest of playground looks are now reserved for women who refuse to serve up product on demand. When Rosin voiced an appreciation for formula, “[t]he reaction was always the same: circles were redrawn such that I ended up in the class of mom who, in a pinch, might feed her baby mashed-up Chicken McNuggets,” she wrote. “In my playground set…breast-feeding is the real ticket into the club.”

Even among less-exclusive mothering circles, breast-feeding etiquette remains a hotly contested issue. “It’s like fashion,” says Jones. “It’s a cycle. One minute it’s in, the next minute it’s out”—meaning the marketing opportunities are endless. The cyclical nature of breast-feeding acceptance also explains why, in 2009, “a lot of people are still debating this issue,” Jones says. The echo chamber on breast-feeding is exacerbated by the eternal impressionability of expecting mothers. “It’s a scary situation, having a baby,” Jones says. “You don’t know what to expect. When a woman is pregnant, she’s going to be looking for any help she can get.”

And when she does, Laseinde and Jones will be waiting for her. Laseinde’s home is located directly across the street from a reliable stream of impressionable customers: Providence Hospital. Laseinde hasn’t staked out maternity ward graduates just yet. “I’ve thought about it, seeing people coming out,” she says. Adds Jones, “We plan to catch them as they leave—there are so many of them coming out with babies.” CP

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • http://www.nwtose.com Jana Baldwin

    This is great! People in my homeland. . aka Utah have been making these for a while. Basically, more women need to breast feed and I am to be quite honest not really thrilled about it. . I will probably pump (which a public health guru should not admit-but hey we can't be excited about everything) but this is fabulous!!!! YAY!!!!

  • Q

    Dia is right. The only reason you have to cover is because of the oversexualization of breasts. It's cyclic.

    1) Breasts are used to determine suitability for mating (in a primal sense), so a woman's sexuality is unfairly judged based on that.

    2) The men and women who judge have saturated all media, art, etc., promoting sexuality based on the breast, not realizing that breast serve no other function outside of the reproductive/child rearing realm.

    3) After promoting such sexualization, fetishes, etc., the women with "ample" busom flaunt it as if to say they are more sexual than other women. This leads to all sorts of competition and other issues as women whom feel unsexual get breast implants to mimic what mass media is judging them on.

    4) All this emphasis on the breast gives some women excess physical attention, and through the natural course of things, a woman may become pregnant.

    5) Once she has the child and wants to use her breast for their designed purpose, some men and women get repulsed when babies are breast feeding. And the men who find breast feeding unattractive, only go searching for other breasts that are not in use. Hence the cycle begins again.

  • Rose

    Just what an already unsupportive general public needs - devices that affirm the twisted belief that breasts are ONLY sexual and perpetuates shame in feeding babies the way nature intended. Bottles will continue to be seen as the "normal" way to feed babies, despite the facts about the risks of formula.

    When are we going to get over this? Ridiculous.

  • Anne

    "If breastfeeding in public makes people uneasy because the breasts are considered sexual, then bottle-feeding must be the equivalent of whipping out a dildo."

  • Christina

    Breastfeeding my baby in New York City was not so bad for me. I would typically find a safe, but not too secluded spot in my favorite park next to a church (one of those progressive, arty churches). I would wear v-neck tshirts for easy access, and my baby carrier had a sun-hood that allowed for some privacy, but I rarely used that.. Nobody ever bugged except once, strangely, a 30-something woman of the yuppie variety who came up behind me and peered right down my shirt to get a good look. She was just "amazed by the beauty of breast feeding." And I was just a little weirded out. I laughed about it to myself later.

  • Sarah H

    Expecting women to hide to breastfeed is so mean and silly. This is what turns many women OFF B'fding. It is about time society grows up...and accepts a baby being fed by it's Mum. I for one wish I saw more women doing the best for their babies.

    We have to do more to encourage women to breastfeed. It is not only perfect for optimum health of our children ..but also women. It reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

    It is ALSO environmentally friendly. No methane producing cows needed...no damage to the earth from production, packaging or distribution!! AND no disposal of waste products..no accessories needed.

    Do all you can to promote, encourage and support women to feed their OWN young...the organic milk they deserve!

  • sock puppet

    Nipple bibs could become a high fashion accoutrement, and useful too!

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  • George

    This item is a nice idea, but Rose and Sarah are right; it shouldn't be needed. Besides, the real problem people who object to nursing have, is with it happening at all. It isn't because a woman is showing too much; they just can't deal with nursing at all, and don't want it happening around them. What they really object to is that they've been made aware of it. Once that happens, they don't want the Mom to cover up, they want her to stop it or go away. This item will not help with that, unless you think it will make nursing "stealthy", so people won't even know you're doing it. Good luck with that.

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  • Mary

    Sigh. This whole topic, especially in this day and age, is so sad. I breastfed my three kids, including a set of twins, each for almost 2 years. Breast feeding is what MAMMALS do. We don't like to think about it, but we are indeed animals, hairless, for the most part and to ourselves pretty sophisticated, but animals nonetheless. I would sit in the lawn and garden section of Target and nurse my kids, only had one person looked disgusted. She shouldn't have been staring so hard and quite frankly I am not sure if it was the sight of breast at all, the color of the breast that freaked her out, or the fact that my very greedy son turned his head, looked at her and let fly a huge burp. LOL! God, I love that kid!

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