By Tracy Brown
© Time Out Amsterdam, March 2011. Illustration by Eryc Simmerer
Taking part in vibrant city life while staying within nipple’s reach of a newborn seemed impossible when my son was born four months ago. I wanted to breast feed, but I was apprehensive about nursing Liam in public.
The Netherlands Nutrition Centre recently published a report that found that 45 per cent of people who live in the Netherlands disapprove of women breastfeeding in public. I’d noticed few nursing mothers in the city, but in a place known for tolerance – not to mention wantonness – could breastfeeding really be considered offensive?
Amsterdammer Niamh Palmer, 28, says she always went home when it was time to feed her daughter. ‘It wasn’t because of how people might react,’ she said. ‘I just think for some women it isn’t so easy to do.’
And it’s true; it’s not easy. Baby and nipple do not meet like magnetic kissing dolls. It’s more like a mid-air airplane refueling. It requires a lot of handling and adjusting, and, like my new E-cups, defies ‘subtle’.
Events such as Mama Café Amsterdam provide comfortable environments for nursing moms. These meet-ups, which take place at various cafés around the city, are a perfect opportunity to socialise with other pregnant women and new mothers, and to ask questions of midwives and lactation specialists. And, as is stated on the Mama Café website, you’re free to breastfeed.
Baby-centric activities abound in Amsterdam. Liam and I have participated in everything from baby massage to infant swimming to the playgroup at the English Bookshop. But I missed cafés, restaurants, museums and bars. If I wanted to have a social, cultural experience that didn’t involve singing ‘The Wheels on the Bus,’ I ‘d have to think outside the bra.
Recently, while browsing the post-holiday sales at De Bijenkorf, Liam and I ducked into the second-floor café. It was packed with well-dressed and perfumed shoppers, mostly middle-aged couples. Liam began to fuss. I reached into my V-neck sweater like an assassin reaching for a gun. As Liam glug-glugged from under my carefully draped scarf, I waited for some kind of fallout, but our public just carried on sipping their champagne and cappuccinos, unfazed. Was I no longer limited by my lactational leash?
I’ve since fed Liam everywhere from on the tram to the Begijnhof chapel, from the lobby of the Hermitage Museum to the Pont. At the Beiaard on Spui, Liam had his lunch while bartenders nonchalantly reached behind me to collect empty glasses. When Liam became unexpectedly peckish while browsing the picture books at Waterstone’s, we sat conspicuously on a bench facing the ground floor till. Shoppers went about their business, leaning over us to access the Recommended and Sale shelves.
Liam and I recently met up with four of my friends and their babies for lunch at Mazzo. A table of women and babies corralled by prams, we were anything but discrete. When our waitress caught his eye while he was feeding, Liam whipped his head around to follow her, stretching my nipple like a bungee cord.
We have our awkward moments. In my local Bagel and Beans, I noticed Liam’s cheeks were hollow as he sucked. I gave my nipple a quick squeeze to see if I was empty, and two strong streams of milk shot out: one nearly blinding him, and the other disappearing across the room. If anyone noticed, they kept it to themselves.
I have felt some resistance. At the Three Sisters pub, Rembrandtplein, assistant manager Vincent Visser told me it’s fine to breastfeed there, ‘if you go somewhere private, not in the centre of the room.’ At Mulligan’s Irish Pub, bar manager Sean McLoughlin told me he is pro breastfeeding, being a father himself, but not in a bar. ‘It’s full of drinking men, and, let’s face it, a boob’s a boob,’ he said. In sum: breastfeeding is not offensive, but it’s a lot to ask a regular to react to a bare breast with neutrality.
Perhaps when taking the anonymous poll, more people were willing to admit their discomfort with public nursing. But my experiences fit with the spirit of peaceful coexistence here: when it comes to nursing in public, Amsterdam lives up to its tolerant reputation.