Experiences and Perspectives About Breastfeeding in “Public”: A Qualitative Exploration Among Normal-Weight and Obese Mothers

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Women face societal and cultural barriers to breastfeeding. These challenges have been investigated in international studies and U.S. public opinion polls; however, mothers’ experiences with breastfeeding in public in the United States remain unexplored.

Research aim:

The aim of this study was to describe the experiences of obese and normal-weight women with breastfeeding in public in central New York.


Pregnant women (N = 26) in central New York who intended to breastfeed and were either normal weight or obese were enrolled during their third trimester. A longitudinal, qualitative study was conducted to obtain information about women’s experiences from birth through 3 to 6 months postpartum. Interviews were audio recorded, transcribed, and verified for accuracy. Transcripts were analyzed iteratively using conventional content analysis.


The concept of “public” was situational rather than a set of physical places; women experienced challenges while breastfeeding around others in private locations that were indistinguishable from those they encountered in places typically considered public. Women experienced social and physical awkwardness including perceived lack of acceptability, fear of confrontation, exposure, and positioning difficulties. They used strategies to reduce awkwardness, for example, being “discreet” and minimizing breastfeeding around other people. Obese women experienced similar challenges but to a greater degree than normal-weight women.


“Breastfeeding around others” described mother’s experiences more accurately than “breastfeeding in public” and was experienced as awkward both socially and physically, particularly by obese women. Strategies are needed to normalize breastfeeding in the United States and to prepare mothers for the challenges of breastfeeding around others.

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