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