Forget Breastfeeding in Public…What About in Uniform?

breastfeeding in uniform
Photo credit: Brynja SigurdardottirPhotography & Mom2Mom Breastfeeding Support Group The United States Air Force does not endorse this photo, however permission was given to the individuals to have photographs taken while breastfeeding in their uniform.

What do you think when you see this photo? Are you thrilled to see two military mothers breastfeeding their children (one a toddler and the other a set of twins!) or are you horrified that they would do such a thing and bring disgrace to the uniform they are wearing? Would this photo have the same effect if it was two civilian mothers?

There is a lot of controversy surrounding any mother who breastfeeds in public these days.  It is apparent from reading the news and other media that more and more women everywhere are breastfeeding in public, and as a result many are being asked to leave establishments that run the gamut from restaurants to pools to the local Target. Many of these women are merely trying to feed their very hungry babies and have every right to do so without fear of ridicule or reprisal.  But what about the challenges that women in uniform face when breastfeeding in public (as in on base/post)? Not only do they have the associated ‘stigma’ that surrounds ANY woman who chooses to breastfeed in public, and the perceived sexualization/sexual act that MUST be happening, but they also face the very real problem that there are no regulations that specify whether or not a military member in uniform is even permitted breastfeed.  And unfortunately that means that women are left to the mercy of whoever is in charge at the base clinic, hospital, post exchange or child development center.

Consider this very common scenario:  Mom gave birth 8 weeks ago and is now back at work.  She is no longer on convalescent leave and so is in uniform.  Her baby has a well-baby visit at the base clinic for his shots and a check-up and the appointment is during working hours.  Mom leaves her workplace in uniform (remember, she is NOT on leave so she must be in uniform to be seen at the clinic) and takes her child to the clinic, once there her baby is hungry and so mom decides to feed him while waiting for the appointment.  She discreetly unbuttons her uniform from the bottom up and begins feeding her baby.  No skin is showing at all and the baby is content and not crying or making a fuss.  What is the problem here?  Apparently a big one as quite a number of active duty women have been told that they cannot breastfeed in uniform and must stop immediately, or that they need to feed the baby via bottle, or must move to restroom or private area.  Reasons given include that it is against military regulations, is not maintaining good order and discipline, or just because the person in charge doesn’t care for breastfeeding. Lets also note that nothing is said to active duty mom also sitting in the waiting room bottle-feeding her baby.  That is perfectly OK and in fact is often what the breastfeeding mother is told that she must do.  There is a double-standard, much like in the civilian world, that bottle-feeding in public is seen as OK but breastfeeding in public is not.

The crux of the problem is whether or not it is ever OK to breastfeed in uniform. The main argument seems to be that some military personnel feel that there is no way, discreet or not, that one can maintain a professional military bearing while nursing in uniform.  Period.  It is felt that breastfeeding an infant automatically makes the woman ‘out-of-uniform’, this is particularly true if she uses any type of blanket or covering thrown over the baby to ‘hide’ the actual act of breastfeeding, or ‘rucks’ up her shirt, unbuttons her overblouse to breastfeed. Some, women in particular, say that breastfeeding a baby in uniform undermines their authority as it is a very nurturing and feminine act and they need to be seen by their personnel in the capacity of an authority figure and not as a mother. Other arguments against breastfeeding in uniform include the regulations against PDA and cite that one is not allowed to hold hands or kiss in uniform and that breastfeeding is similar. In all cases, the personnel making the arguments state that it has nothing to do with the sexualization of the female breast (although I would argue that), but rather is simply a matter of maintaining discipline and good order and appearance. These views come from both men and women, supervisors and non-supervisors alike, lest you think that it is coming from old-school military members who believe that women shouldn’t be in the military at all let alone breastfeeding babies.  I have seen this attitude while writing my book and on various FB pages when a photo of a mother in uniform was shown breastfeeding. I continue to be surprised at the numbers of women in the military who have told me that they would never even consider breastfeeding in uniform as it is not considered proper to do so and would go against military etiquette, good-order and discipline.  Many said it just plain felt ‘wrong’ to do so.

Given that we are instructed that holding our children while in uniform is not maintaining a professional appearance, I never thought that breastfeeding my child while in uniform would be allowed. I have, but ONLY in my home returning from work and in the doctor’s office in the private room (not waiting area).  Petty Officer 2nd Class, USN

But lets get down to the facts here:

There are NO polices or regulations in any of the military branches that either approve OR disapprove of breastfeeding in uniform.

Let me say that another way:  There are no policies or regulations that permit or deny a mother’s right to breastfeed in uniform. It is left up to each individual command and/or superior officer or senior enlisted to determine if breastfeeding in uniform will be permitted, usually on a case-by-case basis.  Meaning for many women in the military they will never know if today is the day they get reported for breastfeeding while sitting in the clinic waiting room or nursing their baby at the base daycare.  This can and is a major deterrent for many women considering whether or not they even want to attempt to breastfeed when they return to duty at 6 weeks.

And that is very sad for so many reasons. First, we all know that breastmilk is by far the best nourishment and straight from the tap is so much better for both mother and baby for many reasons. Second, by breastfeeding, the military mother is helping her command, and by extension the military, as it reduces her baby’s illnesses and thereby her need to take time off. Furthermore, she may also stay in the military longer rather than getting out if she feels supported and not stigmatized.  Making her feel badly or worse yet, writing her up for breastfeeding in uniform, is a sure-fire way to make her second guess her commitment to staying in.  Finally, for many mothers who are struggling with milk supply issues, it can be a death-blow to her supply to ask her to give a bottle when instead she could be boosting her supply by breastfeeding AT THE BREAST.  Not only will she have to use up some of her precious stockpile of milk, but she will then have to pump to make up for the missed breastfeeding session.  This is a losing proposition for mother and baby.

When a baby needs to be fed a mother in uniform should do so, with no repercussions. There should be no debate on this issue. I would further add, that if women are told not to breastfeed in uniform (for the reasons cited above) then any policy needs to also address bottle-feeding in uniform.  The very arguments used against breastfeeding apply to bottle-feeding:  both require the mother to be ‘out of uniform’, both show affection (PDA) and nurturing, both are ‘unprofessional’.  As of 2012 there are still NO uniform regulations or military policies in place that specifically address the question or provide guidance on breastfeeding in uniform.  This seems like a very simple issue to clear up.  Make a DoD-wide policy (or amend the ones in place) that states that military women in uniform have the right to breastfeed anywhere that they or their babies have a right to feed. Definitions of what is allowable and how to best wear the uniform, where bottle and breastfeeding is allowed, and when feeding in uniform can occur should be included (meanwhile if you have questions please see this page for tips on breastfeeding in uniform). Doing so would both match the federal law regarding breastfeeding on federal property but also show mothers in uniform that breastfeeding is valued and their service to the nation is appreciated.  It may also have the effect keeping a few more women in uniform who might have otherwise gotten out due to a lack of support for breastfeeding in uniform.

What are your thoughts on breastfeeding in uniform?  Is it ever OK to do so or does it cross an invisible military boundary?

Interested in reading more on this subject?  See part 2, here.

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