Breastfeeding in public… in Lima

The boy is almost six weeks old. I took him to church today for the second time. I’m still not used to the additional planning and hassle of taking a baby with me, but I’m learning. At least I don’t have to worry about bottles and formula. But then… I am an American, and I’m not absolutely sure what the “rules” are about breastfeeding here. Back in the US it can be a charged political issue, depending on where you are. Which means that however you feel about breastfeeding, if you do it in public, someone is going to feel that you are A) making a political statement, or B) committing a terrible breach of etiquette.

I’d seen women nursing just about everywhere here, and the children being nursed are a surprising range of ages, so I figured wherever I need to feed him, it’s probably OK.  But I’m still a bit timid about it, so I try to find an out-of the-way spot and not expose acres of skin.

At church, he wanted to nurse for most of the liturgy, so I nursed him in the pew for a while, and when he got fussy and needed a diaper, I went out to nurse him outside and in the church hall. No big deal. The pew was tucked into a corner and nobody even noticed. After church we caught the bus to the mercado, and went to lunch at a pollo a la brasa place. The boy had passed out in his sling as soon as we left church, and stayed asleep through most of lunch. As we were finishing up, though, he got cranky and hungry again, and we had to scurry to pay and leave so we wouldn’t be those people with the screaming baby in the restaurant. We walked out, and looked for a good place to sit and feed him. He cried all the two blocks up to the merchants’ street, where there are nice shady benches.

Those benches are in the middle of a large and busy pedestrian thoroughfare, but I spotted one that was sheltered on one side by the back of a vendor’s booth–something resembling privacy– so we sat down there, next to a nice-looking middle-aged couple, and I rearranged clothes and sling to nurse him. He happily settled in for lunch. The woman next to me asked how old he was, and whether he was a “mujer” or an “hombre”, and what was his name. Then, a lady with a three- or four-year-old boy in tow stepped out of the foot traffic toward me, speaking rapidly and enthusiastically to the boy. I picked out the words “bebe”, “leche” (milk), and “teta” (breast)…  something to the effect of “look! the baby is drinking milk from this lady’s boob!”  Everyone around us seemed to think this situation was totally normal, so I mustered my best smile-and-nod, and we did the usual round of questions again– age of baby, yes he’s a boy– and she did the usual cooing and “bonito!” (or “que lindo”, or “chiquito nino” etc.), and I said “gracias” and she went on her way.

The lady next to me pointed out that he had mushed half his nose into my boob and I should rearrange him to breathe more easily. So I did. Hardly had she finished helping me with my latch when another woman with a slightly older boy in tow stopped by to admire the baby (all the while he is still eating) and to chat with the woman next to me, while they both peered at the baby and discussed the color of his eyes. The maintenance ladies in our building had almost the same conversation about him when we first brought him home– apparently it is a generally known fact here that all gringo babies have blue eyes, but few people ever have a chance to verify this firsthand, so when an actual gringo baby comes along, it must be checked out.

It all reminded me of those anxiety dreams I had back in school, where I’d show up for class, but had forgotten to wear a shirt… I’d feel terribly self-conscious about it, but nobody seemed to notice, so eventually… it was ok and didn’t really matter. Breastfeeding is not political here, as far as I can tell. It’s perfectly normal, and having a cute baby in your arms gives everyone permission to come talk to you, whether the baby is eating or not. I’m still not sure how to react to this, but so far smiling, nodding, and saying “thank you” to compliments seems to be acceptable.

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