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History of Breastfeeding in Art

History of Breastfeeding in Art

Breastfeeding has been an essential part of history; its impact has featured in many ancient stories from Hera’s breastmilk that made Hercules invincible to the goddess in Greek mythology who gave immortality to anyone that drank her breastmilk.

Its importance is showcased in many artists’ depictions of motherhood throughout past centuries. The act of providing milk to a child was regarded as so important some cultures even believed breast milk had magical powers. Yet in 2019, some mothers are being told to ‘cover up’ when breastfeeding in public.


Why is breastfeeding taboo?

Breastfeeding in public is perhaps seen as a taboo due to many reasons, from the way breasts are portrayed in the media to a lack of understanding of the physiological needs and benefits. The sooner breasts are understood for their natural purpose, the sooner public breastfeeding will be widely accepted.

According to the Royal College of Midwives, almost a third of the UK think breastfeeding in public is wrong; suggesting that many people still believe women should only breastfeed behind closed doors.

Our Aim

At Lansinoh, we think that women who breastfeed or breast-pump in public should not feel judged, as the choice is yours. By showcasing artist’s depictions of breastfeeding throughout years of art history, we want to highlight the importance of breastfeeding, even in public, and normalise the act for new and expectant mothers.


Firstly, we spoke to breastfeeding expert, historian and author of ‘Got Milk? Not in Public!’ Jacqueline Wolf, whose work looks to answer questions like why there is a lack of understanding towards breastfeeding mothers.

She said: “The insistence that babies should only be breastfed behind closed doors demonstrates a lack of understanding of both human milk and babies’ needs.”

According to the NHS, breastfeeding provides many benefits from helping to fight a baby’s infections to creating a stronger bond between mother and child. But by overlooking the main physiological purpose of breasts, breastfeeding may always be frowned upon in public unless attitudes change.

“Most women are not comfortable breastfeeding in public because the public is not comfortable seeing them breastfeed. Human babies are constant feeders by design – which is why women in many cultures wear their babies on their bodies, just so they can feed often.”

Can I breastfeed anywhere in public?

UK law outlines that a woman has the right to breastfeed anywhere in public, yet despite this, some mums still feel like there is a negative attitude towards the act. The only time a woman may be told to stop breastfeeding in a public space is if it is posing serious health or safety risks or if she is in an area which offers services to men only, such as specific religious services.

The pressures of breastfeeding in public

I felt paranoid trying to breastfeed in public

Women may feel uncomfortable breastfeeding in public spaces due to stigma or pressure from people who think of breasts for sexual purposes only, when the reality is, breastfeeding even publically has been a perfectly natural act for centuries.

Motherhood blogger, Charlotte admits to breastfeeding her baby in toilets as a way to avoid possibly causing problems with people.

She said: “I felt paranoid trying to breastfeed in public; it felt like everyone was looking at me. I’ve heard stories from so many mothers on how people have told them ‘it’s disgusting’ and that they should ‘put them away’.

According to NHS and Public Health England data, less than half of women continue breastfeeding after two months due to such pressures and feelings of embarrassment.

It’s important to support all women in their choice to breastfeed. Charlotte added: We really need others advocating for us. If you see anyone giving a breastfeeding mama a hard time, step in and find a way to stop it.”


The media’s impact on breastfeeding

The media is not short of negative breastfeeding stories where mums are being told to stop breastfeeding in restaurants or supermarkets. These stories can discourage mums and in order to combat this, a voice needs to be heard throughout the media in support of them.

Charlotte addressed the media’s view on breastfeeding: “The problem is that our society and the media sexualise breasts so much that people can’t separate it from a woman feeding her baby.

“There is nothing sexy about having a child sucking on your breast constantly, it can hurt, it can make your nipples bleed and people need to realise that.”

Mums across social media often share their breastfeeding stories and photos in encouragement.

“Social media is helping to normalise breastfeeding in public. Mum influencers and bloggers are spreading very positive messages about breastfeeding.”


Breastfeeding is a choice

Women should be made to feel safe and accepted when breastfeeding, even in public. It is important to support women with their choices to breastfeed in public or to not breastfeed at all.

Davina Gordon, motherhood journalist admits she felt judged for not immediately breastfeeding her baby, Sonny. She said: “If a mother wants to breastfeed in a café or a bus stop, that is her choice and she should be supported.

“Equally, if a mother bottle-feeds her baby from birth, she should not be judged for being ‘less of a mum’, which is how I felt at times. It’s the mother’s business – it’s her baby and her body.

We need to create a supportive environment for breastfeeding women, where every woman feels equal to breastfeed wherever they are. Follow the campaign on social media and join the conversation online.


Image credits

We have used the following images on the homepage:

  • A woman holding her sleeping baby after breast feeding it. Mezzotint. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY
  • A woman breastfeeding her child. Line engraving by MD after J.Ch., n.d. [16–]. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY
  • A woman breastfeeds a baby and other children stand around her. Engraving by de Larmessin after Pierre. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY
  • Hortense breastfeeding Paul (1872 ) – Paul Cézanne (Public Domian)
  • Bern, Mittelland, Trachten – Jeune mêre allaitant son enfant – Gabriel Ludwig Lori (Swiss National Library, GS-GUGE-LORY-E-16, Public Domain)
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