Private practices in public spaces: research into spatial cues supporting breastfeeding in the Nijmegen-Arnhem region of the Netherlands

Tamy Stav

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Stav, T. (1). Private practices in public spaces: research into spatial cues supporting breastfeeding in the Nijmegen-Arnhem region of the Netherlands. Gender, Place & Culture, 26(3), 315–337.

Breastfeeding barriers , breastfeeding in public , lactation advocacy , lactivism , public space , public/private dichotomy

What features of the physical environment may support women to breastfeed in the public space? Based on in-depth interviews with eight women who were breastfeeding during the research period, this article explores this question. Three factors were examined as contributing to the comfort of nursing women in public space: peer support, a sense of protection, and cultural signifiers. Using five scales of physical attributes, tested through a visual research tool, a range of public spaces were examined to give insight into the features that contribute to women’s ability and willingness to nurse in them. The results show that a sense of place attachment does not affect women’s willingness to breastfeed; that physical comfort is desired, but can be waived aside; that physical shelter is important; that peers (in the form of other parents) or their expected presence, form a strong source of support; and that perceived formality, or work-related context, is the strongest deterrent reported to breastfeeding. I conclude that using private sphere attributes in public spaces could make them more accessible to the practice of breastfeeding.

Main finding
Nursing participants find breastfeeding in the public sphere unpleasant and uncomfortable due to the physical and intangible symbolic aspects of public spaces. Common themes for participants were fears of imposing oneself on others, causing discomfort, and standing out in an otherwise homogeneous crowd. The strongest deterrent to breastfeeding is the perceived formality of space. Places meant for breastfeeding, and places intended for professional work did not comfortably mix to the participants. On the other hand, the presence of other breastfeeding women provides strong support for breastfeeding in particular spaces. Participants were more comfortable breastfeeding in locations that provide physical shelter in the form of varying degrees of privacy and the ability to create one’s “own space.” Elements of physical factors such as the weather or the atmosphere are desired, but not required, while comfortable seating is more important. A sense of place attachment or familiarity with space does not affect women’s willingness to breastfeed, with the affordances of public space’s layout prioritized.

Description of method used in the article
Following preliminary interviews with lactation consultants local to the Nijmegen-Arnhem region, eight Dutch women with similar mainstream lifestyles and values were selected from the author’s and the participant’s professional network to be interviewed. Participants were breastfeeding during the time the interview took place and lived in the Nijmegen-Arnhem region. The semi-structured interviews lasted one to two hours. The participants were asked about their breastfeeding experiences and were shown 22 pictures of various public and semi-public spaces in random order. The pictures represented varying degrees of five physical aspects: place attachment, spatial enclosure (shelter), physical comfort, peer presence, and formality. Participants were asked how they would feel nursing their child in each given location, what would make the space comfortable or uncomfortable in that situation, and where they would choose to place themselves within the space.

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Interviews Photo / Video / Sensor
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Geographic locations