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Nurse-Ins: What Are They Good For?

Abby Theuring, The Badass Breastfeeder, breastfeeding in public,
As I reflect on the Hollister Nurse-Ins of this past weekend (January 2013) I am moved to write a post to address a recurring theme among a minority of responders. I have heard that nurse-ins are “radical,” do more harm than good for the cause and make breastfeeding mothers look like “crazy hippies.” I am saddened and angered by this attitude. It appears to me that this is misdirected negative energy in order to avoid facing the ugliness in society. If a person believes that we can fight for a cause by simply nursing in public as we normally would or that people who organize and agitate are “crazy” then I would suggest that this person has never cracked a history book. Let me explain.

African Americans seeking equality in the 1950s and 1960s did not simply walk around being black and wait for change or send a letter to a business owner when kicked out of their establishment. Women fighting for equality did not expect that simply normalizing the sight of women would get them the right to vote or their physical safety protected by law. The United States of America did not defeat the British by sitting around hoping they would leave. The breastfeeding movement, like all movements in history, is multilayered. In order to normalize breastfeeding for society (it is biologically normal, but it is not culturally normal), in order to pass better laws (the laws that exist do not protect women as well as many people think they do) and in order to force a paradigm shift we must incorporate all levels of a movement. And we must allow each person to embrace their role while we focus our energy on our work, not inter-cause fighting.

Breastfeeders at a nurse-in.

It seems many people believe that women who attend nurse-ins chant or verbally abuse employees. This could not be further from the truth. It’s more of a play date than a protest. Nurse-ins are carefully planned and thoughtfully executed. Behavior expectations at nurse-ins are clearly stated by the organizers. The most preposterous of the uninformed criticisms of nurse-ins is that the women participating in the nurse-ins are not “classy.” I have heard this word too many times now not to address it. To suggest a woman attending a nurse-in is not classy is disrespectful and demonstrates the cattiness between women that threatens to hold this movement back. A nurse-in is not a violent confrontation in any way. There are no Molotov Cocktails being thrown through windows or tear gas or running through the streets. Every nurse-in I’ve been to has been downright pleasant.

The woman who feels that breastfeeding her baby in public during her normal daily routine will help to normalize this for her community is doing an extremely important job. The woman working at her local WIC office as a peer counselor is an important part of this movement. As are the educators, the law makers, the protesters, the cover girls, the bloggers, the artists, the letter-senders, the petitioners, (insert your role here-it’s important!).

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations… can never effect a reform.” Susan B. Anthony

When someone calls you a “crazy hippie” it is not because of nurse-ins but because those people are not used to seeing breastfeeding. And it’s also because they are rude. Those people have not seen nurse-ins; they are not reacting to the waves of our movement. They are reacting in an immature manner to something that is seen in our culture as dirty and inappropriate. If they see it more they will not act this way. It’s bumpy right now. This movement is in its infancy. It will get better. The answer is not to turn on each other, but to remain united, arms locked, steadfast. It would not behoove us to stop nurse-ins—quite the contrary. We must hold them more and more often. We must breastfeed in public at every opportunity (meaning whenever our babies are hungry). We must push through the dirty looks and negative attention until it becomes normal, commonplace and routine. “Oh, look, there are some breastfeeding women.” *shrug* Some are concerned about how the media portrays nurse-ins. I believe it would be highly irresponsible to take the media’s lead on anything at all considering that their job is to make a sensationalistic mockery of everything they cover. And again, the more nurse-ins that are held the more boring they will become to the media.

If we are to truly accept this as our cause then we must put on our big girl pants and accept our place in history as agents of positive change. This kind of change is always going to cause friction from all directions. According to The Struggle for Black Equality by Harvard Sitkoff, the historic first sit-in of the civil rights movement, in Greensboro, North Carolina, was criticized on the spot by a black dishwasher behind the counter. “That’s why we can’t get anyplace today,” the dishwasher told the participants in the sit-in, “because of people like you, rabble-rousers, troublemakers . . . This counter is reserved for white people, it always has been, and you are well aware of that. So why don’t you go on and stop making trouble?”

A sit-in in the 60's during the civil rights movement.

But the reality is that the protesters, preachers and marchers of the civil rights movement were not the enemy. They were fulfilling their role in a multi-layered movement. Every large act is balanced with a small act. These acts are greater than the sum of their parts. These acts together give us a “movement.”

If you do not like nurse-ins, if they aren’t your style, then that is OK. I respect that. But to suggest they have no place is a narrow view of this cause. People will want to continue to respond with comments that there are better ways to make progress in this cause. I wholeheartedly agree. I spend 99% of my available time educating, supporting, counseling, writing, reaching out, etc. And about once a year I attend a nurse-in because it’s an important aspect of the movement and I respect all levels of this cause.

Abby Theuring, MSW


  1. If I were in America I would love to do a nurse-in! I think it looks like fun! Seriously though, what we are talking about is a feminist and health issue and you have actually changed my opinion of nursing in public. I used to think we had to be covered up but now it’s just too awkward and annoying and I think people need to see that! Thank you and keep up the good work! I really enjoy reading your blog!

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of nurse-ins as one element in the overall movement to advance the cause of breastfeeding.

  3. I would like to see a paradigm shift from seeing breastfeeding as a woman’s choice to seeing it as a child’s right to be fed; nutritiously, appropriately, freely, lovingly, openly as needed.

  4. Its a woman’s rights issue. Since only women have the capacity to become pregnant, discrimination on the basis of pregnancy is a form of sex discrimination.

    Love the post! Thanks.

  5. I’m not sure that its a women’s rights issue so much as a fear of sexuality issue. Our society as a whole tries to keep sexuality out of the public eye and women’s breasts are still seen as extremely sexual, rather than what they’re meant for.

    We’re taught from a young age that exposure of a woman’s breasts or other certain sexual organs is taboo. It makes people very awkward and uncomfortable to see such things. They relate what they are seeing to what they were taught never to do and thus they look down upon it and feel revulsion.

    The article was excellent and a good read btw! I greatly enjoyed the sentence “I believe it would be highly irresponsible to take the media’s lead on anything at all considering that their job is to make a sensationalistic mockery of everything they cover.” Wish more people could remember that!

  6. I like reading your blog. I breastfeed my 4-months old son. And I agree with your statement: “When someone calls you a “crazy hippie” it is not because of nurse-ins but because those people are not used to seeing breastfeeding…”

  7. Well said. Junot diaz stated, “The community with the most power is the community that best erases itself.” In this case, I am applying that to the formula-as-norm community. Formula is so normal that it is invisible, and breastfeeders are crazy hippies. The formula norm has so infiltrated our culture that we as mothers have formula expectations of our newborns (to sleep through the night, etc.), hold our newborns as formula-feeders (I often have to help new moms turn their babies tummy-to-tummy for nursing because they hold their babies tummy up, in the bottle-feeding position). Bottle feeders are free to go anywhere and feed anywhere without harassment. Breastfeeders are expected to consider onlookers feelings and concerns rather than their baby’s needs.

  8. Great article. I wish it didn’t have to be such a “fight” to feed our young. It really makes me sad that in the 21st century in one of the mmost advanced nations on the planet, people still think this way about nursing. It is the most natural thing in the world. I am currently overseas, in Africa and women here nurse wherever ad whenever their babies need to be feed. At the grocery store, at a family gathering in front of everyone, on the street selling fruit…literally everywhere. As to wether or not so cover yourself, that is the mother’s perogative. I hope that one day soon, we advanced Westerners can come back to a more natural way of life.

  9. Love this post! I didn’t think too much about nursing in public until I had a baby (6 months ago). I made a decision to not use a modesty cover (except when I am at a meeting for work with my little one, not quite ready to fight that battle at work) for exactly this reason, “We must breastfeed in public at every opportunity (meaning whenever our babies are hungry). We must push through the dirty looks and negative attention until it becomes normal, commonplace and routine. “Oh, look, there are some breastfeeding women.” *shrug* ” This is what breasts are for, people! It’s normal!

  10. Jillian W says

    Thanks for writing this… Just today my husband received an email from a professional office that we were in yesterday, regarding my breast feeding in the lobby. The woman stated that she was in big trouble from her offices building owner and that he asked her to make sure I never do “that” there again. That I flashed my nipple *gasp* and offended everyone in the building with my “immodesty” . I really truly can’t believe that I was asked to feed my son in the bathroom… Sickened. Oh and also, that when I NIP I am mortifying my kids and my husbands daughters… Nurse in anyone?

  11. Good read! I’m glad you made a connection with the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Rights movements of the past. If those people had tried to “not offend” or “not make others uncomfortable” 2/3 of the population of this country would still have very few rights. There were African Americans who frowned upon those who tried to bring about change because they felt like it would cause trouble and make things worse for everyone else. Look at this country today. While still not perfect, nobody bats an eye to see people of different races occupying the same places and spaces and interacting with each other. That’s where NIP moms are trying to get for future generations.

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