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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 Blanket, Her 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.