Breastfeeding in class

Adrienne Pine, a professor at American University, is in a bit of a tempest. On the first day of classes, the single mother’s baby had a fever and could not be brought to day care. So Pine brought the baby to class. As it happens, she teaches an anthropology class called “Sex, Gender, and Culture.” During the class, the baby got hungry, so she breast fed him. This started a bit of a campus brou-ha-ha, and Pine wrote a very detailed and (to my eyes) defensive description of her side of the story.

I have mixed feelings about this, but mostly I think Pine did the wrong thing.

Allow me to say at this point that I have absolutely zero problem with public breastfeeding. Allow me to say, too, that I am a professor and a mother of three. One of my kids has an unusual number of health problems. I have faced the choice Pine faced many times, and I am sympathetic to her situation. Professors can’t just call in a sub.

It is inappropriate to bring a baby to class. Whether you breastfeed or not. A baby is distracting, and if the baby gets fussy (as babies are wont to do), then that’s more of a distraction. The first priority should be creating an environment where students can learn.

So what should she have done? There are other options. She could have recorded a lecture and posted it online. This is what I usually do when I need to miss class. It was her first day of class, and I agree it’s not ideal for the first day of class, but neither is bringing a sick baby to the classroom. She could have posted some sort of interactive document (a Google doc, a blog post, what have you).

As for breastfeeding, I actually think this is much less of a big deal than bringing the baby to class at all. It’s really not a problem at all. But still, I probably wouldn’t do it. She claims she is not a “lactivist” in her screed, and looks down on such people. As such, if she brought the baby to class, and if the baby got hungry, and if she couldn’t pump, she could formula feed him just this once. Should people be distracted by breastfeeding? No. But they are, especially when they are 18 years old. Pine said she feeds her baby on public transportation all the time. That is just dandy, because people on public transportation are not required to focus on what she’s saying. It would be great if people didn’t care, but they do. And if you’re breastfeeding in front of them, your students are not paying attention. Again, I don’t think this is the major issue.

I am hesitant to accuse Pine of courting the controversy – the dilemma can happen to anyone. But I did find her screed off-putting, especially in her vitriol toward a female student reporter who wanted to write up the story for the campus paper.

The mitigating factor is that it was the first day of class, and you really really don’t want to start on the wrong foot by missing the first day of class. In this case, though, I think it would have been in the students’ interests to have done other than what Pine did. Would that there were more options for women.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Pardon. The way I understand first day of class is: you receive syllabus. Perhaps the professor reminds you which books are needed. Then you get to leave. This is the minimal necessary to complete a “first day of class.”

    If one needed to excuse herself for a bit of a “breather”, she could have easily asked the kids to have a group discussion.

    Hindsight’s 20/20 isn’t it?

    • I always had a thorough hatred for professors who felt compelled to give a full lecture on the first day.

      I mean, come one. I was drunk. No one wants to sober up in Algebra class.

      • You got to take Algebra in college? I could have showed up drunk for /that/. Unfortunately my multi variable calculus class freshman year was at the ridiculous time of 0700 and while I may not have been drunk, I was hungover a time or three.

        As for Professor Pine, I never got to take a class anything like “Sex, Gender, and Culture.” Wrong kind of school I suppose.

        • Depends what kind of algebra. Drunken Galois theory is probably a bad idea.

      • Uh oh. I do a lecture the first day. I mean, usually, it’s “What is Philosophy?” or something.

        • I hate Profs who blew off the first day. Srsly? If I had to put on my big boy pajama pants, so do you.

          • Kazzy’s and Jonathan’s comments taken together are why student evaluations make me want to put my head through a wall.

  2. I actually would feel uncomfortable if a woman breastfed her baby in public. This is entirely visceral and conditioned. Intuitively, I file it under the public nudity heading.

    The basic intuition I want to pump is that public spaces should by and large be G-rated experiences (because of the children) This makes bikini ad posters and ad beauty salon ads showing nude models artfully posed to cover the naughty bits more than a little problematic. Is it too much to ask that parents have a certain degree of conrol in shaping the sexual morality of their children or is said mores always to be held hostage to more sexually liberal among us. Consider, that in a G-rated public square, parents who wished to raise sexually precocious young ones are free to gve them the talk at 10 if they wished and parents who wished to raise their kids as monks and nuns could do the same as well. The same couldn’t be said for an M-rated public square. Everyone would be inundated with sexually stimulaitng pictures all the time.

    I know that the human body is natural and everything and breast feeding is great and all and if you ask me for an objectiv reason as to why we should ban public nudity (except on nude beaches), I can’t give an objective answer.

    It is possible that I am just being neurotic about this, but I doubt that I am. I realise that this can lead to mandatory burqas for everyone everywhere and I realise that a lot of my instincts on this is shaped by existing norms. Miniskirts are still G-rated in our modernised and westernised societies, but in conservative muslim societies, anything smaller than a burqa merits a PG rating or higher.

    • I have the heart and soul of a librarian spinster. I didn’t breastfeed my kids, but if I did, I would have sought to do so in private where possible, and covered up when not possible.

      But it doesn’t bug me at all when others do it, and I think they should be able to. However, they cannot insist that people have absolutely zero psychological reaction. People don’t work that way.

    • Murali-

      Why is breast feeding not G-rated? I mean, the process itself involves a child!

      • I thought things tend to be defined based on “what makes a 12-year-old get a stiffy.”
        Then I realized that sitting on a bouncy school bus could lead to that.
        So then I realized that it was really “what makes a man get yelled at by his wife for looking”

        • I’d be more okay with the former definition because it seems far less subjective and culturally specific. Though, as you point out, it has its weaknesses.

          Americans are oddly prudish on a number of topics, despite our wanton displays of sex. I had parents get mad at me because I used the words penis and vaginas with their 4-year-olds. Apparently using the anatomically correct, scientific terms was… wrong. I was tempted to ask if they’d rather I called a square a “boxey” and a circle a “roundey” but bit my tongue.

      • Why is breast feeding not G-rated? I mean, the process itself involves a child!

        Interesting question. I’ll make 2 points:

        1. Stuff like this is not really amenable to rational discourse. Why does violence get more of a pass than nudity or sex? I don’t know. Why do muslim countries consider ankles sufficiently erotic that they should not be bared in public? I don’t know. Modesty standards are

        a) arbitrary
        b) possibly grounded in some kind of patriarchal norm (given the way double standards between what is acceptable for a man to bare and what is acceptable for a woman to bare) and
        c) is one of those norms that changes over time in such a way that people’s attitudes do shift with them such that a situation where there is a significant group of people with such radically more liberal modesty norms than the majority that they find themselves unduly constrained by dominant norms rarely arises.

        2) public breastfeeding = possibility of nip slip = not for children’s eyes (except wen you are a baby and too young to understand what is going on)

        • Nudity is quite cultural, and in quite a few places (Italy and Japan spring to mind) is considered less bad than violence.

          Hell, in sweden, women occasionally stroll around nude. it’s just what’s done.

      • I can’t think of anything less sexual than breastfeeding. I breastfed in public. When Junior was hungry he was hungry and I’m not going to find a possibly nonexistent space that was likely dingy and lonely to hide out in for 20 to 30 minutes several times a day. I can’t imagine that many people are turned on by watching a baby feed, but to each there own. If it bothers you, don’t watch. Trust me, you are the least inconvieanced person in that scenario.

    • I find American Apparel “rape adverts” to be far more problematic than “simply naked” folks.
      … at ten? isn’t that a little late?

      • I find AA adverts to be problematic on so many levels.

        I don’t know that particular adverts that you are referring to but Dov Charney is one of those guys who seems to know he is a creep and gets off on how uncomfortable his creepiness makes everyone feel.

        The worst ads were from 2004-2006 or so. They featured extremely young women (they looked like high school runaways) in very sleazy 1970d style apartments. The poses looked like someone offered them a place to crash if they did a porn film that was about to begin shooting.

        • the one I saw that really offended me, had a girl — fully clothed, mind — looking like she’d imbibed date-rape drugs (a sort of vacant stare) and was sexually aroused.

          It’s a bare appeal to the raw part of a guy’s nature that says “you wanna get lucky?”

          • The one I reminded clearly featured a young woman on her knees on what looked like a very bad kitchen floor. The decor was very sleazy 70s, wood paneling and all.

            She had a look on her eyes like she was about to perform fellatio and the man/photographer in front of her, just unzipped his pants.

            She was also fully clothed in a gym shorts and tank top kind of way.

            Again, Dov Charney knows he is a creep. Further he knows everyone is creeped out by him and takes pleasure in this knowledge. This is a man who simply does not learn his lessons based on the stories and lawsuits I have heard.

      • Well, I’m 27 and I haven’t gotten the talk, so… But I presume that the natural point at which to give girls the talk is when they start menstruating.

  3. Rose-

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything you wrote here. But I wonder about some of the implications…

    You mention that you are often in the situation Pine found herself in. And you then mentioned what you do when you miss a class. This makes it seem that there do exist occasions where you miss class because of the health needs of your child, which are extraordinary (in the dictionary definition sense of that word). I don’t know what your school or the typical university’s policy is on missed classes, but supposing it is such that you miss more classes than is normal or allowable, your situation with your child might be grounds for firing. Or maybe it would violate some form of anti-discrimination policy. It seems like situations like yours could put your employer in a bind, where they must weigh making accommodations for the unique needs of a particular family against meeting the their primary responsibilities to their chief constituents, the students. Going further, I could see schools avoiding (either implicitly or explicitly) hiring folks with situations like yours. Seems like quite the rabbit hole.

    I don’t really know that I have a concise or clear point here. But I wonder about the potential for lines of one kind or another being crossed. Certainly, no school or employer wants to be known as the one that fires and/or refuses to hire the parents of kids with medical needs. But neither do they want to be known as one that is derelict in their primary duties.

    • There was only one time where I think it affected my teaching, and that was during an intensive three-week summer course. Otherwise, I am just crazy careful to teach on opposite days of my husband where possible, to only schedule appointments on off days, and to never miss class for my own illness under any circumstances. My department has never seemed to have any issue with it, and has continued to give me more plum teaching gigs, so I assume it’s okay.

      I will probably not bring up my kid’s level of disability at a job interview. Not only because people think about missed days, but because people assume your attention is absorbed.

      However, to your larger point, in every single other family I know with a kid with Ridiculously Rare Syndrome, one parent stays home. Even very wealthy. If we have to do something less flexible than academia, I will not be able to hold that job.

      • It is great that you and your husband have been able to strike the balance you have. Kudos.

  4. In unrelated news, my brother went to American University.

    I am sort of surprised that American University does not have a day-care center for employees. You would think that a largish university would have a School of Education and Day care options for staff but maybe not.

    I have mixed feelings on bringing kids to work. My mom did it when I was younger and my grandparents were not available for babysitting. This is one of those areas that make me sigh as a liberal, it seems like every other developed nation is able to figure out how that sick kids need to be taken care of and that people should not be punished by their employers for taking care of sick kids. But not the United States because we are different.

    On the other hand, you are right kids do not belong in college classrooms and can be distracting. Something similar happened in my Contracts Class in law school. Only it was worse because the woman was not a teacher or a parent but had a job taking care of kids. So she brought in a two-year old or so charge a few times and one time the kid got fussy. The professor demanded the woman leave and said no kids.

    My reaction was mixed because yes the kid was distracting but it was obvious that the woman needed to be a nanny to afford law school. She was also a retester, this mean she failed her first year but was allowed to audit the first year classes again and take the finals. If she did well the second time ar0und, she could advance to 2L. Retesters only need to pay a few hundred dollars per an audit but they are not eligible for student loans.

    As a professor, how would you react if a student brought their kid to class and explained the situation?

    • Re: Daycare

      Pine mentioned that she thought sending the kid to daycare with a fever would be wrong. She is probably right about this because other kids could or would get sick but it still might have been the best option.

    • I’d as best as possible accomodate. Probably start a tape recorder, and say “get the hell out if it starts being a pain.” Tapes provided free of charge.

      True, she doesn’t get to ask qs that way… but, she probably wouldnt’ be paying much attention if the kid’s being that much of a burden.

    • I know that some corporations offer a type of “backup care” as part of their benefit program. It is often provided by a third party in the company’s building. Employees get X number of days they canutilize for anything from school holidays to snow days to sickness, as the centers are equipped to handle sick and contagious kids. I interviewed with one of these companies, which housed centers in two major downtown Manhattan buildings (I believe Goldman and Citi… This was back in ’05). Seemed like a great idea and a real receuiting tool for younger employees with families. Probably a hard model to provide universally because you need to pay staff to be there even if only one or two kids show up.

      • Well, that last point is off. It matters not how many kids show up. Basically, the company takes on the expenses of offering free, (very) part-time care to parents.

    • FYI, my university, which is a giant flagship state university with tens of thousands of students, has no daycare options for children under three. At all. Tuition for the 3-5 daycare is $10,000 and covers only the academic year.

      I think she should not have sent her kid to daycare with a fever. But, as I said, there are other options she could have pursued. Or just called in sick.

      A student has never asked me to bring a kid to class. If he or she did, it would depend on the age. 6 and over and well-behaved, no problem. In fact, I might bring my oldest kid to class this semester to see what I do (with my husband waiting to whisk him away in case of behavior issues). Under that age, I would see if the IT folks could arrange a skype or wimba for the student. I would not want a 2 year old in the classroom. In an absolute one-time emergency, I would allow it, with the understanding that fussing means out the door.

  5. I breastfed, I have been a teacher and a student, and I agree that a class is no place for a baby. There seems to be a growing trend that says it’s OK to bring children anywhere. At least, this can be distracting and irritating–at most, it can be tragic.

    I have no problem with discreet public breastfeeding. I don’t think I have to clarify what I consider “discreet”.

      • Absolutely. I nursed my son in public and unless he was kicking his feet people often didn’t realize what I was doing. I didn’t flash anyone the high beams, and (more importantly) didn’t spray anyone down when the milk let down. That was often the more challenging aspect of nursing for me. If one side let down, so did the other. I learned to have a pump handy for the other side.

        I mean, I support breastfeeding 100%. I’m not going to go to a bathroom to nurse my child, that’s just disgusting. I wouldn’t eat in there, would you? I have gone out to my car to nurse if there wasn’t a suitable place for nursing where I was. I mean, the car seats reclined, so it was often more comfortable than a bench somewhere.

        At the same time – a college lecture isn’t the place for that – as was suggested, have the kids discuss a chapter in their book or some ‘busy’ material while you take 15 minutes in your office with the baby to nurse?

        • At the same time – a college lecture isn’t the place for that

          and Rose, from the OP:
          people on public transportation are not required to focus on what she’s saying.

          I think that gets to the real issue. It’s not about the publicness, it’s about the person doing it being “on display,” so to speak, in a situation where the act will draw attention, and distract those who are trying (or supposed to be trying) to focus on the person “on display” for other reasons. For example, when lecturing I take my keys out of my pocket and put them on the lectern because otherwise I’ll put my hand in my pocket and be fidgeting with them through the whole lecture.

          If the situation was a student who was breastfeeding, I’d see it differently. In that case discreteness is as possible as it is on the bus. I’ve never had a student do it, and I’m sure I’d be a bit startled the first time, but by the third time I’m sure I’d have stopped really noticing.

  6. Late to the game but I’ll add this:

    When I read the post here I thought “Meh, bad judgement, but live and learn, right?”

    Then I read her “response” to the drama and I was completely overwhelmed with her disconnect from reality as well as her absolute inappropriate attitude with the school paper. She did her self no favors with what came after.

  7. If it was one of my profs – I’d be thoroughly unimpressed. It doesn’t make a good first impression (really, for a first day of class, given how little you generally do, it would probably make a better impression to just email everyone with “Family emergency, can’t come in today, here’s the syllabus,” and a text summary of the intro lecture if there was one). Seems unprofessional to bring your kid to class, and even more unprofessional to be breastfeeding them in front of the class, since the lecture format pretty much requires the class to watch you doing so.

    I don’t have a problem with people discreetly breastfeeding in public – on the bus or something – but doing it in the middle of giving a presentation, in a professional setting, is ridiculous, and throwing a fit when people object to it is worse.

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