Before becoming a mother — and throughout my pregnancy — I was adamant that I wouldn’t give up my favorite hobbies and pastimes: Reasonably frequent travel, relaxing in parks, travel writing, editing, and chatting with friends in cafes. Of course, adding a child into the mix would change things a bit, but I dreaded feeling stuck at home.
And luckily, my adopted home of Vilnius, Lithuania has an excellent coffee scene.
So, less than two weeks after giving birth, my husband and I decided to bring our new son on a visit to a nearby cafe.
Thinking that feeding the baby before leaving would be sufficient, we popped him into his stroller as he slept, and took a short stroll in the park before hitting a cafe.
Pretty much as soon as we stopped walking and sat down with coffee and cake, he woke up. Loudly. No amount of comforting and rocking could help.
I’m sure other parents can relate.
We were unsure what to do, but I knew he needed to be fed. Luckily, we had a small receiving blanket with us. My husband positioned it over me, and I attempted to breastfeed my son without attracting the attention of any of the numerous customers of this popular cafe.
To my surprise, no one gave a second glance at our uncoordinated efforts to keep covered while maneuvering a screaming and wiggling baby. And not one of the coffee drinkers at a nearby table noticed the kicking feet of my son under the blanket.
The internet has no shortage of articles that’ll make any mother-to-be nervous about breastfeeding in public.
Back in 2014, for example, there was a viral story about a Starbucks employee who stood up for a woman breastfeeding her child in the cafe. Similar stories have gone viral from other towns near where I grew up in Connecticut, USA.
Not being from Lithuania, I didn’t know if these negative attitudes towards breastfeeding mothers would be similar.
After several more uncoordinated efforts to cover up while nursing (and many more uncovered situations where I nursed my son in public), I found that, in general, no one noticed my breastfeeding in public. Not in cafes, not in restaurants, and not in the park.
So, I decided to do a bit of investigation into the actual feelings of Lithuanians towards nursing in public.
My first — and easiest — course of questioning was to ask a Lithuanian friend if breastfeeding in public was okay.
My friend told me that, in general, people mind their own business and don’t have an opinion on breastfeeding in public. She even mentioned a recent instance of a politician breastfeeding during important meetings.
Upon further investigation, I discovered that MP Asta Baukute (the politician in question) “shocked conservative republicans” by breastfeeding her son in the country’s parliamentary chamber. I also discovered that, in the same year, Baukute held a conference on breastfeeding policy to encourage more mothers to breastfeed their babies. At the time, the percentage of breastfeeding mothers in Lithuania was low.
Yet this was in 2009. A lot has changed in Lithuania in the past seven years (the country didn’t start using the Euro until January 1, 2015, for example).
While there is not yet a 2016 number to compare that 2009 percentage to, I’d make a bet that the prevalence of breastfeeding has increased in Lithuania.
Lithuanian attitudes have created an incredibly supportive environment for new mothers.
And not just by promoting campaigns to encourage breastfeeding (both by Baukute and from the European Union).
Lithuania offers a generously long (and paid!) maternity leave of three years. Yes, you read that correctly. There’s also an expected 48-hour hospital stay following an uncomplicated birth, excellent holistic prenatal and postpartum care from doctors and midwives, and a general societal acceptance of bringing your children with you everywhere.
For me, it was the healthy environment fostered by these benefits that made me feel supported as I cared for my new baby (and myself). And I am positive that other women raising young children in Lithuania feel similarly.
If you’re an expat or a mother traveling abroad with a young child, I hope that you too can feel comfortable if you need to nurse in public.
Every country is has different laws and views regarding breastfeeding in public, but if you are abroad and need to nurse your child, it is best to be prepared beforehand.
If you can, I’d suggest doing some research or reaching out to a local expat who may be familiar with the rules, regulations, and taboos of any country you’re traveling to. If you can’t find information online and you expect that you may need to feed your child in public, I recommend being prepared with some sort of cover and trying to find a private location. Remember that despite your feelings on nursing your child in public, it is import to respect local customs and laws.
I breastfed my son for slightly over a year — oftentimes in public — in Vilnius, and never once felt uncomfortable or received an unsavory comment.
In fact, breastfeeding in public seemed so normal and unproblematic that I quickly forgot my initial nerves entirely. I now have friends who also breastfeed their children in public, and they’ve experienced the same kind attitude towards mothers as well.
As an expat living in Lithuania, I’m eternally grateful that I am able enjoy an environment that is warm towards new moms. In Vilnius, I was incredibly happy that I never faced any of the uncomfortable glances or inappropriate comments that breastfeeding mothers expect in the US, and I wish this was the experience for every mother breastfeeding around the world.
Normalizing breastfeeding and supporting mothers is beneficial to new or growing families. Perhaps it is time for the US healthcare system and workforce to consider re-evaluating their treatment of mothers and young children.