"I would constantly remove myself from situations, and go hang out in the car or go hang out in the bathroom," said Hilmer, 43, of Madison, Conn.
Added to that, she had to lug around a blanket in her baby bag to provide coverage as she nursed.
"It's the most natural thing in the world to do, but you feel like you need to be discreet," said Hilmer, who is the author of Blindsided by a Diaper: Over 30 Men and Women Reveal How Parenthood Changes a Relationship.
But Hilmer's bag got lighter after the birth of her sons, Mikey, in 2002, and Danny, in 2004. Gone was the blanket, replaced by a sleek nursing tank top from Glamourmom LLC, a company that sells nursing clothing with a patented, built-in nursing bra.
"But once I was wearing the nursing tank top that Glamourmom created, it just felt so much easier," said Hilmer, who is friends with Glamourmom-creator Line Rothman.
"I felt like I could be out in a park. I could even be in a restaurant and have people remotely close by, and I didn't feel uncomfortable because people really couldn't see anything."
Like Hilmer, today's mothers aren't restricted to their home when they need to nurse; breastfeeding in public isn't necessarily as much of a problem as it once was.
"It is much more accepted, and it's easier," said Jane Crouse, public-relations associate of La Leche League International, a nonprofit group committed to breastfeeding education.
"Breastfeeding is fashionable. And it's easy to do and easy to look good while you do it," she said.
When Chandra Mistrot, 28, of Center City, began breastfeeding her newborn daughter, Calista, in August, her worries were more "personal fears than public ones," she said.
"I don't think there are very many issues nowadays with it," said Mistrot. "It's just a natural part of the life cycle, and I think everybody's starting to accept that."
That freedom in part comes as a result of products that provide coverage, greater support systems for mothers and an increasingly informed public that is aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding.
"More women are breastfeeding," said Crouse. "The initiation rates are higher. I think more people are being encouraged to at least start."
'Supportive of Moms'
According to the National Women's Health Information Center's Web site, breastfeeding for babies could "result in being less overweight later in life" and even affect I.Q. scores. Breastfeeding also makes "it easier to lose the pounds of pregnancy," and "lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancers" for mothers.
In turn, "recent studies show that babies who are not exclusively breastfed for six months are more likely to develop a wide range of infectious diseases, including ear infections, diarrhea, respiratory illnesses and have more hospitalizations," according to the center's site.
Breastfeeding is also beneficial for companies because "breastfed babies statistically are healthier," which means less time mothers spend away from the office to take care of ill children, said Barbara Downing, president of the Nursing Mothers Alliance, which serves Philadelphia and surrounding areas.
"More and more employers are being supportive of breastfeeding moms," said Debi Ferrarello, the director of family education at Pennsylvania Hospital. "It's kind of like the cool thing to do now — to be breastfeeding-friendly in the work place."
In addition to health benefits, technology and clothing innovations make nursing easy and stylish.
"We actually have moms who are using their laptops or talking on the phone while they're pumping their breasts," said Ferrarello. "And [these are] really great breast pumps that only take 10 minutes start to finish. And great fashions that make it easier."
Before Claire Ekelund created the nursing-covers company Bébé au Lait with her husband, Ronnie, "the only thing that you could choose was a blanket" or nonfashionable covers to use while nursing, she said.
Instead, Ekelund made her own cover to nurse her daughter, who was born in 2003, and it eventually turned into a business in 2004.
Now her covers come in a range of colors and designs, and have a distinct "rigid neckline" so mothers can see their babies as they nurse. Bébé au Lait recently introduced a line of silk covers intended for evening or more upscale occasions, said Ekelund.
Likewise, Line Rothman created nursing tank tops with a built-in nursing bra out of need. The prospect of having to nurse on a plane trip to Denmark in May 2000, shortly after the birth of her daughter in March, led to the creation of Glamourmom.
"After being pregnant for nine months and then you don't have your own body for at least another nine months as you're trying to get back in shape, just to feel like you're wearing your normal clothes is a treat," Hilmer said about the Glamourmom tanks.
Still Some Resistance
But although breastfeeding is more acceptable today, it is not "completely acceptable," noted Downing.
"If you think of us as a society, we tend to see breasts in a sexual nature as opposed to how we feed infants," she said. "So I think some moms do have that concern, like 'this makes me feel weird; this is not what they're for.' "
Breastfeeding for the recommended 12 months can also be difficult for working moms, even with advances like more effective pumps.
"Certainly, we see a drop off when moms return to work because, honestly, it's hard," explained Downing. "It's hard to go back to work and leave your baby anyway. But then to find 15 minutes every couple hours to pump and store that milk for your baby, and then nurse the baby as soon as you see them at night … I have a lot of respect and admiration for working breastfeeding mothers because it's just physically hard."
Still, Hilmer sees it as a way to get one-on-one time with her children.
"It's just such a sweet, caring time with your baby," she said. "And I really appreciated that time especially with my second and third child. Because you're so busy during the day … that the only quiet time I had with the baby was when I was nursing."