What to Do When a Woman Breastfeeds Near You on an Airplane

Seems odd to me that people are confused about what to do when a woman is breastfeeding her child on an airplane. If you have ever walked on a plane with a small child, you know that look on people’s faces – that look that says “please, please don’t sit next to me.” No one wants to be trapped near a crying, fussing child. Why then would anyone object to anything (safe) that would silence an unhappy child?

I was among many who were shocked in late 2006 when Emily Gillette and her family were thrown off a Delta Airlines flight for refusing to put a blanket over her breastfeeding child’s head. While the Gillette case resulted in a multi-city nurse-in and an on-going lawsuit – both of which I have been writing about in Mothering – it also generated lots of negative statements about breastfeeding in public generally and breastfeeding on airplanes specifically.

I was surprised recently (though shouldn’t have been) to find that Her Bad Mother, who blogged in September of last year about her experience with a rude flight attendant on WestJet, was still getting comments about her experience – 213 comments at this writing and still coming in. In Under the BlanketHer Bad Mother blogger Catherine writes about how humiliated she was by a flight attendant pressuring her to cover her breastfeeding child with a blanket and finally throwing the blanket next to her when Catherine refused. It is an eloquent, sad, and truthful post about how vulnerable we are when we are feeding our children. Please go read it.

Most of the many comments to Catherine’s blog post are supportive – lots of angry mothers wanting WestJet to apologize for this unacceptable flight attendant. Some of those commenting try to justify the flight attendant – perhaps the flight attendant actually thought she was being helpful, they write. And then there are the other comments. The nasty “I don’t want to see your boobs” comments. And there is the response from WestJet which maintained requiring a cover is within the rights of the airline and then announced a change in policy (apparently in response to another well-publicized breastfeeding harassment case on a WestJet flight early last year).

Clearly people need a primer. It isn’t a legal analysis – you get enough of that from me. It is a primer about being human. So here it is and I owe it to a woman who sat next to me on an airplane a decade ago.

I was flying alone with my two eldest sons. One was three years old and one was a few months old. Both were breastfeeding. My large infant (ten pounds at birth and much larger at a few months) was in a sling and I walked down the airplane aisle with my toddler holding one hand, dragging a car seat behind me with the other hand, and averting my eyes from all the panicked “please don’t sit next to me” looks of my fellow passengers. I had a window seat and I secured the car seat into the middle seat. I knew that both my sons were going to want to nurse at some point during the flight and since each had always steadfastly refused to nurse while the other did, I knew I would need to switch them in and out of the car seat.

When the person assigned to the aisle seat arrived, it was an older woman perhaps in her sixties. She looked at me with my kids and their toys and the sling and the car seat and seemed … well … tense. I had no idea how she would react once the nursing started. No sooner had the doors closed when the boys started racing for my breasts. As soon as one came off the breast, the other wanted to nurse. Whichever boy wasn’t nursing was squirming, crying, and tossing toys on the ground I couldn’t reach. The woman in the aisle seat looked increasingly uncomfortable. She looked at me, then looked away. Twice it seemed as if she was about to say something and then didn’t. I tried to prepare myself for her comment. Completely overwhelmed, I was torn between an indignant reply and just bursting into tears. And then she spoke:

“If it is okay with you, would it help if I held whichever child isn’t nursing?”

Fighting back my tears, I said, “Yes! Thank you so much!”

For the next few hours, this wonderful stranger played with whichever child wasn’t nursing, cheerfully passed my sons back and forth to me, fetched the toys from the ground. When the flight attendant ignored me, our new friend asked what I needed and set up my water on her tray. At one point, she even stood in the aisle and rocked my chubby baby in her arms. We never talked about breastfeeding or whether she was a mother or a grandmother. I don’t think we even exchanged names, though she asked the boys’ names so she could chat with them while they played. She saw I needed help and she helped me. I thanked her again and again but she only smiled back at me.

So, whoever you are, the person in the next seat or many rows away, and particularly if you are the flight attendant who is actually being paid to help the passengers, if you see a breastfeeding woman, consider what she needs. A smile might be all. If she is alone, chances are she needs some help managing toys or kid stuff. At the very least, she needs something to drink. If a breastfeeding woman (or anyone traveling with a child) is on a plane with you, help her.

Now, was that so hard? If being the wonderful stranger who sat next to me isn’t what you would do, read the primer again. There will be a pop quiz. Mothers who need your help are everywhere. You may need to take the quiz tomorrow.

35 comments

  • Elita @ Blacktating April 2nd, 2009 at 8:15 pm · Reply This was wonderful. People need to help each other out in general, but I’ve found that women are often very willing to help another struggling mom. When I took my son to his first pediatrician appointment when he was a week old, I had no idea how to manage the carseat, stroller, diaper bag, etc and get everything into the car. An older woman passing by said, “Let me help you.” I was embarrassed that I needed help, but so glad that she offered because I really needed it. Maybe I’m just lucky, but this kind of thing happens to me frequently.
  • Jake
    Twitter: Jakearyehmarcus
    April 2nd, 2009 at 8:40 pm · Reply I have had a number of good experiences with older women – particularly while breastfeeding. And in nine years of breastfeeding in public the only person who was ever snotty to me was one of my sisters-in-law. ;) This woman on the airplane transformed how I interact with people who might need help. She was obviously a little afraid she might be crossing some boundary but ultimately just asked. I find a “been there, done this” “we’re all in this together” attitude goes a long way. :)
  • Laura April 2nd, 2009 at 9:07 pm · Reply Thank you for this beautiful post and timely reminder. :) great blog!
  • Judy @ Mommy News Blog April 2nd, 2009 at 9:33 pm · Reply What a beautiful post! Thank you so much for sharing your story. That woman sitting next you is an angel indeed! I traveled many many times with my son when he was an infant and often alone. I never had anyone make a negative comment and most commented on what a quiet and good baby he was. And he always nursed on the plane. But I never had anyone help me either. How luck you are to have met someone so wonderful!!
  • TheFeministBreeder
    Twitter: feministbreeder
    April 2nd, 2009 at 10:50 pm · Reply That’s a truly wonderful story. I always feel tense NIP too, though I am quite aware of my rights and make no attempt to go out of my way to cover myself (which my son wouldn’t tolerate so why bother.)I think it’s wonderful that she helped you, regardless of the circumstance. People just don’t do this stuff anymore. Or maybe they do? I think many people are afraid to intrude because some people don’t accept help as graciously as you did. I probably would have told her “no thanks” simply because I wouldn’t want to impose, and I’m insecure.
  • Nancy Sherwood April 2nd, 2009 at 11:20 pm · Reply It’s funny. I grew up hearing my mother talk about hos she had nursed us (her three children) everywhere- on planes, trains and buses as well as in restaurants.I nursed my five children all over the world. Three were born abroad.Once, when my mom and I were traveling (after all of my children were weaned), my mom and I were sitting across the aisle from a couple with a small baby. It was clear that the baby wanted to nurse. It was also clear that the mom was NOT comfortable breastfeeding in public. As the baby got more vocal, my mom said, so everyone could hear, “why doesn’t she just nurse that baby?”.I turned to the couple and told them that it was alright to nurse on the plane. The father held up a blanket to shield the mother and baby. It was like a tent- you couldn’t see their seats or their window or anything. I think that attracted way more attention that just nursing would have!Nancy, mother of five now grown children.
  • Anonymous April 3rd, 2009 at 5:20 am · Reply Mom Blogs – Blogs for Moms…
  • Kristin April 3rd, 2009 at 8:43 am · Reply Lovely post!
  • HijabiApprentice April 3rd, 2009 at 9:08 am · ReplyThis post nearly brought tears to my eyes. I’m gearing up for a 9 hour flight with my 7 month old who is breastfed. I had mentally prepared for the worst (the stares and snarkiness) but this article gave me a bit of hope.
  • Melodie April 3rd, 2009 at 3:21 pm · Reply Excellent post. I never had this problem because my daughter slept the whole time on our flight and we only flew with her once, but I was prepared for the worst. It’s unfortunate that moms should have to prepare for the worst. I think Barbara Walters really screwed things for us when she shared her story on The View a few years back about being uncomfortable when seated next to a woman nursing on a plane. A celebrity’s opinion can rally made a difference in today’s media-savvy culture. Sometime for the worst.
    Thanks for sharing this!
  • Amy April 6th, 2009 at 1:25 pm · Reply Wonderful. I just love it when these things have happy, surprising endings – although as other posters have said, it really is unfortunate that we have to brace ourselves for confrontation.
  • toyfoto April 6th, 2009 at 3:09 pm · Reply See, this is the stuff that we should be celebrating more. The times – and I bet there are many – when people surprise us in good ways. Sometimes I’ve found myself bracing for the worst and getting support, while at other times I find the still of someone’s objection takes me by surprise.So thanks for this post. I think we need to know how to act instead of how to react.
  • Jake
    Twitter: Jakearyehmarcus
    April 6th, 2009 at 3:51 pm · Reply I agree with you all that we do need to tell our happy stories more. I am getting geared up to blog my story about the harsh scary judge who volunteered the key to his chambers so I could nurse my son when my client’s case was running late. :) It is a great one about how you can never know where your support is going to come from.
  • Jenny April 8th, 2009 at 3:02 pm · Reply Awesome story! I would be scared to death to fly alone with two babies. There are times when perhaps a mom did need help and I was sympathetic but didn’t offer to help because some moms don’t want some stranger holding their babies. This really encourages me to offer help more often. And I hope if I ever do have to fly with my kids alone, I get to sit next to that lady 
  • Breastfeeding on an Airplane: The Collection | PhD in Parenting April 9th, 2009 at 9:20 pm · Reply […] What to do when a woman breastfeeds near you on an airplane: Jake Aryeh Marcus describes a flight she took with two nursing children and what one woman did to make her day. […]
  • Annie @ PhD in Parenting
    Twitter: phdinparenting
    April 9th, 2009 at 9:29 pm · Reply Great post Jake! I Stumbled it and added it to my list of breastfeeding on an airplane posts.
  • Nicole Feliciano April 12th, 2009 at 9:38 pm · Reply whew! I thought that story was going in another direction. How lovely to have help. Flying is such a chore and she made the trip less arduous. I hope some good karma came her way (and your way for sharing this story)
  • Mothers of Multiples Guide April 13th, 2009 at 5:29 am · Reply[…] What to Do When a Woman Breastfeeds Near You on an Airplane … […]
  • Teresa April 13th, 2009 at 2:45 pm · Reply I nursed both of my babies and it was the best time of my life! I nursed them in public all the time, but received no complaints – because I did it in such a way that often times nobody else could tell I was nursing! I actually had a waitress ask to see my baby and I had to explain that the baby was nursing. “Oh,” she said, “I couldn’t tell!” “Then I’m doing it right,” I replied. I never wanted to make anyone else feel uncomfortable, never wanted to display my breasts, and never wanted to attract attention. I wish more women would be considerate of others around them when nursing. It IS possible to be a good mother and a good neighbor at the same time.
  • Angela April 20th, 2009 at 6:12 pm · Reply This post brought tears to my eyes! I am planning on flying from CA to FL with a 3 year old and an infant without my husband and I’m nervous about nursing on the plane. My 3 year old is not nursing, but I wonder how I’ll entertain him on that long flight while his little brother is nursing. Anyway, thank you for sharing this story! It made me feel a little better.
  • Sheryl @ A Much Better WayApril 21st, 2009 at 12:03 am · Reply Thank you for this wonderful post. It gave me goosebumps. I have been there done the breastfeeding on a plane routine. While never bothered or harassed, I have always felt defensive and prepared to fight as if someone is planning on harassing me at any second.
  • Emma April 21st, 2009 at 3:53 am · Reply A lovely story!I remember flying to the USA from the UK when my daughter was almost 1 and still nursing. The looks I had as we got on were awful but I simply nursed her whenever she needed and we had no tears at all!It was great when we got off the plane – everyone commented on how good she was!As my husband was traveling with me we just swopped seats when needed so that my daughter was feeding from the breast nearest to him – this way I didn’t feel too exposed.
  • amy April 21st, 2009 at 8:31 am · Reply What a beautiful story! It brought tears to my eyes. I’m so thankful that women was there for you.Teresa, you have it all wrong. It’s not about making OTHERS feel comfortable/uncomfortable. There’s nothing obscene about breastfeeding. It’s about a breastfeeding mother feeling comfortable caring for her child. Here in Canada it is our Human Right to breastfeed wherever, whenever and NOT to be asked to move or cover up.
  • Jake
    Twitter: Jakearyehmarcus
    April 21st, 2009 at 7:55 pm · Reply I have to agree with Amy, Teresa. You are doing it right if you and your child are happy. The two boys of mine in this story are now nearly 15 and 12 so this was before airplane harassment became a news story but I was still poised for the worst. In a post-Gillette time, I would have felt even more worried than I was. The positive outpouring I have gotten from this blog entry has made me determined to highlight as many positive public breastfeeding experiences as I can.
  • Teri April 30th, 2009 at 10:32 pm · Reply Jake, This is my first time reading your blog. Wonderful story and a reminder that, while we usually only hear the negative stories, most people are kind, reasonable, and even thoughtful. Maybe it’s up to us to stop assuming the worse…although that’s tough to do! Thank you. I’ll be back….
  • Yakini September 3rd, 2009 at 7:04 pm · Reply What an AWESOME post!!! People have no idea just how grateful we are to just get that kind smile or helping hand, during a time like this. Ive traveled a lone with an infant, and to describe the experience as “stressful” would be an understatement. Bless this kind woman’s heart!!!!@SweetWifey
  • FutureMama September 6th, 2009 at 1:09 am · Reply Wow! what a great story! I’m so happy that woman helped you out! I’ve never witnessed anything like that on a place but I imagine it could be REALLY challenging! I can’t wait to experience that bond with my child though! Thanks so much for sharing this post! I linked to it on my blog! :)
    FutureMama´s last blog ..Breastfeeding Post Contest Winner! My ComLuv Profile
  • Jen September 6th, 2009 at 12:30 pm · Reply I loved this post and feel for the woman made to cover up. Personally, I probably would have covered up anyway, as I don’t want everyone staring at my junk ( :p ) but I don’t think it should be forced. The world needs to just get over it! Breast is best and kids have to have it. :)
    Jen´s last blog ..Well… My ComLuv Profile
  • Marah February 5th, 2011 at 10:57 am · Reply thanks for linking up for the blog hop!
    • Jake
      Twitter: Jakearyehmarcus
      February 5th, 2011 at 1:46 pm · Reply:) I tried to add the widget but the code isn’t working for me. Any idea who I ask about that?
  • Rebekah from Simply Rebekah
    Twitter: SimplyRebekah
    February 6th, 2011 at 5:10 pm · Reply What a lovely post to remind us that we should treat everyone with kindness. Breastfeeding of not! :)(I found you through the blog-hop.)
  • Darcy
    Twitter: Syrana
    February 7th, 2011 at 9:55 am · Reply Stopping through on the hop. This is a great story – it’s a shame that in general we are less than helpful to most strangers we encounter, mothers or not.
  • Taleah
    Twitter: sister_t
    March 18th, 2011 at 2:18 pm · Reply What a lovely story. It made me cry!
  • Erin May 3rd, 2011 at 11:27 pm · Reply I was bracing myself for a bit of anger, but instead I had tears. Great story. And yes, THIS is how you treat a mother who is breastfeeding! THank you for linking up to the Blog Hop- I may not have seen this otherwise.
  • Janine @ Alternative Housewife
    Twitter: AltHousewife
    May 3rd, 2011 at 11:32 pm · Reply That made me cry a little too! What a beautiful story.