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Of course there is a vocal minority of women committed to breastfeeding, and the South Africa La Leche League facebook page has over 10,000 members. But mainstream urban Southern Africa seems to be where America was 30 or 40 years ago on the issue, and you are definitely charting some new territory if you want to give your nursling an al fresco snack.

Nonetheless, I charged forward. I nursed Cy (with the light help of a linen blanket) in the courtyard of the Hout Bay shopping centre, at the border post after crossing back into Botswana, in front of a nicely placed space heater at Spyro’s Greek restaurant, at an ice cream shop while Lila picked out her flavor, and of course, in the endless line at the Department of Home Affairs while I myself snacked on chocolate-covered pretzel sticks to keep my blood sugar up. Either I was a brave trailblazer charting the way for proud breastfeeding mothers to follow, or just one more example of a brazen American who can’t conform to local custom. I’d like to believe the former of course.

If public breastfeeding in southern Africa is complicated, things only got more dicey when I went back to work and started pumping. There’s no privacy in the office, so I race home at lunch every day to pump, feeling like I’m about to pop. When my colleagues get stuck in a too-long work meeting, they get a little bored. I get leaky and sore. The other day I waited too long. Picture me, one hand on the wheel and the other on my shirt all the way home, silk blouse be damned. I passed groups of schoolkids in uniform, teenage boys in hip-hop outfits, and ladies selling lollipops on the side of the road, all while squeezing myself in an unintentionally lewd act of desperation. Sorry, Botswana.

Considering that scenario, public nursing seems downright decorous. If you are going for it, I have some tips. In the spirit of anyone else brave enough to breastfeed in public overseas or anywhere else, here are ten things that will help.


A small sampling of the many varieties of formula popular in Gabs

My Top Ten Tips for Nursing in Public:

1, Eat fast. No matter the time of day or how carefully I plan things, the baby always wakes up hungry right when my own plate hits the restaurant table. You’ll have only a few minutes to inhale your meal before a full protest breaks out, so do it quickly. Forget big salads or meat that requires two hands for cutting: I recommend soft things you can swallow without chewing.

2, Go bold. Invariably when my baby wants to nurse in public, I am sitting directly across from a distinguished older gentleman who I’m sure will be horrified when I whip it out. Don’t hem and haw: go right for it and if baby cooperates, no one will even notice.

3. Don’t be cowed into using the restroom stall. If anyone suggests it, say “Would YOU like your next meal in there?”

4. Remember to keep the exit path clear: if there’s no easy way to lift your breast out of your shirt, the whole situation will quickly devolve into a tangle of blouse, blanket and flailing baby. Low-cut necklines are your friend.

5. Ditch the nursing cover. Nothing screams “I’m baring my breasts now!!!” like mounting a multi-colored floral-patterned hoopskirt around your neck.

6. Be whimsical. I like to order a steamed milk for myself while I get down to the business of feeding my baby.

7. Scan the room for allies. You’re looking for the sympathetic older woman who smiles at you in nostalgia for her own breastfeeding days. She is the one who will pick up the sock that fell unnoticed from your baby’s foot or unstrap the back of your Ergo when you can’t quite reach.

8. Pick your seat with care. Barstool = fail. Park bench with armrest = score.

9. Keep snacks on hand. It’s hard to think of something that creates immediate, urgent hunger pains more than nonstop breastfeeding. If you forget to stash nuts or dried fruit in your purse, you will find yourself digging a very old sample packet of Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic-Food out of your desk that was designed for distribution to malnourished African children. It doesn’t feel good to do this (or taste good).

10. And finally: drop your assumptions. That distinguished older gentleman who looks like he wants to enjoy his coffee in a breastmilk-free zone? He’ll be the one to stop on his way out, newspaper in hand, to tell you what a good mother you are for feeding your baby when she is hungry. It’s okay to well up a little bit when he does this. You can blame it on the hormones.

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  • Amy Curti Reply

    Loved this picture of your life and attempting to do what you need to do- being true to you- and also culturally sensitive! Would 7’s have it any other way?

  • Adila Marengo Reply

    Love your Post. Sadly nursing in public and without a cover is consider faux pas in South Africa. This I say as a South African. Try to nurse at a braai, and you will be admonished with dirty looks from the other women and banished to go and nurse in the bedroom. Sad, because it is really alienating. With my first son , we traveled to Italy and to Germany and I never felt the need to cover up. In fact once when I was in Italy at the hairdressers, I was trying to get latch my baby discreetly and asked f bcould move to somewhere in the back of the store when one of the hairdressers came up to me and insisted that I ” not be scandalized” and “feel free to feed the baby” despite all the mirrors in the salon. In fact he sat me down somewhere nearer the shop front because he felt the baby needed light and told me that he could make pauses while doing my hair if I needed to burp the baby and I should just tell him. Germany was über cool that way, people take it as a normalcy. But then again Germany is “crunchy” in all things au natural and organic.bI guess it may have something to do with the fact the South Africans at very prudish about nudity , anything to do with bodies unless it is in some stupid “macho big boob blonde” -context , and sadly South Africans have a general messed up notion of propriety.

    • Sara Sullivan Reply

      Adila, that’s fascinating to hear about your differing experiences in Italy and Germany. Cape Town felt so “European” to me in so many ways so I’m surprised this value doesn’t always translate. I hope that as more women feel emboldened to nurse publicly in SA it will eventually become more accepted.

  • Anonymous Reply

    I’m a black South African and in my culture its normal to breastfeed in public without a cover! I too breastfeed anywhere I want, I once breastfed at Wimpy with the sign right above my head I was waiting for someone to come tell not to feed my hungry baby.

    • Sara Sullivan Reply

      I seriously cannot believe that Wimpy sign! Good for you for boldly ignoring it. And interesting to hear that as a black South African you have had a different experience nursing without a cover in general. Love it!

  • Caryn♡ Reply

    I’m a relatively ‘new’ breastfeeding mom Iiving in Sa. It is quiet sad that there aren’t a whole lot of breastfeeding friendly places &that u can be made to feel awkward at times. I however have a very supportive Husband (makes all the difference) &I pretty much breastfeed where ever. Banks, while doing my grocery shopping, restaurants u name it. I think it’s all about being confident :).

    • Sara Sullivan Reply

      Caryn I agree that the confidence thing is huge. That’s why I think being a member of La Leche League and reading about other women’s experiences is so important. I know it has helped me not feel “alone” even when I am the lone person nursing in public. And agree that a supportive husband is key.

  • Yumnah Reply

    I am a Muslim South African living in London. I don’t wear head covering and dress in a Western style, but my family is quite conservative. My LB is 15mo and since birth I have nursed in public with him, at family functions, at the mall, in restaurants and I have NEVER had one negative comment or look (to my face anyway), in fact quite the opposite I am constantly told how fortunate my baby and I are that we are still nursing.!! I am always surprised when I hear of people’s negative experiences. In fact the only person who seems embarrassed about my NIP is my British American husband!!!

    • Sara Sullivan Reply

      Yumnah it’s so interesting to hear your perspective. Your experience, encompassing multiple cultural and national territories, is especially useful to hear. That is amazing (and wonderful) that you have never gotten a negative comment. Funny about your British American husband being the shy one: I imagine he will come around before too long.

  • Marie Reply

    Sara, I always love your posts but this one especially. Breastfeeding can be very challenging, doing it publicly even more so, and doing it publicly while living abroad…well, the lactation goddesses are smiling on you. Thanks for the post and keep on hooting!

    • Sara Sullivan Reply

      Haha to keep on hooting. I will do! Thanks for the lovely comment Marie, and I’m glad for the benediction of the lactation goddesses!

  • Ashley Reply

    As always wonderfully written!!!! I laughed at how I could relate with a lot! Especially the soon as the meal hits the table, EAT! That was the greatest gift Percy gave me so often… holding off the baby so I could scarf down my food fast! Although, one difference is my Motswana friends used to actually “scold” me for being so worried about covering up. I tried to use the Hooter Hider (literally what it is called) and so many times Motswana men and women alike would say “just feed the kid. Don’t worry about that cover! We Africans just pop it out!” So, I actually found it easier to breastfeed here because it seemed very accepting. I don’t doubt you have met some people who think it is weird, but I do hope you will meet some of the people I met who say just go for it!! Good luck!!

    • Sara Sullivan Reply

      Thank you Ashley! I was really curious to see what others had experienced here. Love the “We Africans just pop it out” line! I will remember that next time I hit up Sanitas or Riverwalk with the baby and hope for the best.

  • Amy Lovejoy Reply

    I too found point five the most important. Cover ups, of any kind, be damned. I have always thought that the shaming that goes into making women feel like this is something that should be done out of sight accounts for 50% shorter nursing relationships. I loved the pictures too.

  • Starlene Reply

    I really enjoyed this. I was laughing out loud a few times.

    What’s the reasoning (flawed as it must be) that baby girls must stay home bound for 3 months but boys only 1?

    The Chinese practice, which is the strongly prevailing one here, is that baby AND mother have a 1 month confinement period. They have an older woman relative or paid confinement nanny during that time that helps with the baby and takes care of mom. They make all kinds of traditional foods designed to help the mom increase her milk supply and its nutritional value. In this way they are very supportive of breastfeeding, I suppose. They also have all kinds of beliefs about what you can and cannot do (that I’m not acquainted with), a lot of which relate to fortune, being too “heaty” or cooling, and who knows what else. The only one I know is that the mother cannot wash her hair during that month because it would make her too cold. I can’t remember if baths and showers are allowed or only just cleaning with a wash cloth.

    At the end of the month they have a party for the baby’s 1 month celebration. This is instead of any baby shower like we would have in the U.S. Usually you would give a red packet (cash in a red envelope) as a gift but could give something else. I just recently learned you never give baby shoes as that’s wishing terrible fortune. Sadly I didn’t know this the first time I went to a 1 month celebration for a baby and I gave a set of really cute baby socks. I hope socks aren’t considered as bad as shoes. The parents of the baby give a gift to everyone who attends which includes red colored hard boiled eggs and some other traditional food items that I can’t remember.

    I actually felt much less comfortable NIP here than I ever did in the US even though it’s not necessarily a shameful thing here. The thing I have trouble with, actually, is because there is a high population of Muslims and plenty of woman who are completely covered except their faces, I just felt that NIP was a bit too disrespectful towards them. Maybe I am wrong. I don’t know. In any case, I still NIP’d but I tried to be more mindful and sometimes even went as far as TRYING to cover up, though not always.

  • Julianna Reply

    This post was a hoot! Couldn’t resist…sorry. Another beautiful post, as always.

    The cultural differences related to nursing in public are so interesting. I always nursed in public, and I wasn’t particularly concerned about covering up when the babies were tiny infants, but as they got older (3 months or so) and more curious about the world, they’d only nurse in public if they were under a cover, so they couldn’t be distracted by all the exciting sights and sounds around them. Their modesty was super inconvenient!

    A friend of mine was nursing her daughter in the Ergo in Trader Joe’s while she popped in for a few quick groceries and a store employee tried to direct her to the restroom. We started a letter writing campaign to TJ’s corporate HQ and in a few hours got a lovely letter of apology from someone really high up in the chain of command. (I can’t remember who.) But it shocked me that in this day and age anyone should object to public nursing. If seeing someone nursing in public bothers you, look away. (We probably don’t enjoy watching you chewing, either.)

  • Krista Reply

    I found your blog through your comment on the Travel Belles website, and am so glad I did. 🙂 I loved this post so much. 🙂 I don’t have children, yet you still had me shaking with laughter. 🙂

  • Mariko Reply

    Hi! My husband, 1-year-old son and I are thinking of moving to Gaborone, and I came across your blog. It’s fantastic – really insightful, entertaining and down-to-earth, thank you! I was wondering whether I could ask you a few questions which I’m worried about as we try to decide whether the move is right for us. Could I be cheeky and ask you here?

    1) Are there many toddler classes/playgroups around that expat kiddies attend?
    2) I heard that it can be difficult to find good domestic staff in Gaborone. I see that you’re very happy with your nanny. Would you agree that it’s difficult and how did you find your staff?
    3) I get the impression that people tend to go everywhere in a car, rather than walk e.g. to the shops. Is that true?
    4) We’re definitely thinking of trying for a second little one while in Gaborone, but I understand it’s not considered very safe to give birth there. Could you tell us a little bit more about why?
    5) I’m a magazine editor (of English publications) – in your experience, are there many part-time or freelance journalism jobs around?
    6) What other family activities are available in addition to home entertainment, safaris and shopping malls?

    Sorry to bombard you with questions, and many thanks!

    • Sara Sullivan Reply

      Hi Mariko,

      So sorry: I just saw your comment tonight! I can give you the full rundown on your questions by email if you want (there’s a link to email me on the “About Me” page of this website), but the short version is:

      1. There are definitely toddler classes and playgroups around. The best I think is SensoBaby at REWA. They have a website at
      2. I know lots of people who are happy with their staff. There is a large population of domestic helpers from Zimbabwe living here on work permits. If you are willing to hire someone who isn’t native to Botswana, your options will be quite plentiful in particular.
      3. Yes, it’s very car-centric I’m afraid and not a very walkable city.
      4. I had my son in Cape Town rather than having him here in Gabs, although I have plenty of friends who have given birth here. I was worried about the availability of a quality NICU should it be needed.
      5. I can’t say I know of any freelance journalism jobs in town: it is a very small media market. It’s also hard to get a work permit unless a company sponsors you.
      6. You have to be creative with family entertainment: we do a lot of activities ourselves and you’ll find tons of pool parties, barbecues (called “braais” here), kids’ parties, dinner parties, etc. at people’s homes. It’s a relatively small city (although it’s growing), so you have to make your own fun in a way. That being said, it can be a great post for families as it’s safe and has a nice quiet lifestyle for kids. Hope that helps!

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