There has been a few stories in the press recently about negative reactions towards mothers breastfeeding in public. Kasey Kahne, a US NASCAR driver tweeted his disgust at seeing a mum feeding her baby in public, mums formed a flash mob in Brighton in response to an incident where a mother feeding her baby was berated by other diners and Jeremy Clarkson stuck his oar in with some unsavoury comments about breastfeeding in public.
As a mum who breastfeeds, this serves as another reminder why breastfeeding rates are low in this country. Whilst searching for the above news articles I came across some comments where mums openly said that fear of these negative reactions not only prevent them from breastfeeding in public but also prevent them from breastfeeding at all.
I have to say that I have never encountered any negative reactions when I have breastfed my children, and I have fed them everywhere – cafes, churches, restaurants, zoos, theme parks, the beach. You name it, I’ve fed there. I honestly believe that these negative encounters are very few in number.
But who wants to hear a news story about a little old lady approaching a woman feeding a baby in Asda, patting her on a shoulder and pressing a pound into her hand “for the bairn”? No, the public would much rather hear about the breastfeeding mother who was accosted in a cafe by 5 people, 4 women and one man, who told her that watching her feed was “unpleasant” and she should cover up. Far more salacious.
Unfortunately, it is these negative stories that will stick in people’s minds, which is why, even though they may be few in number they need to be nipped firmly in the bud.
Under the Equality act of 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against a mother because she is breastfeeding. This means it is unlawful to harrass, discriminate or victimise a mother who is breastfeeding, and any establishment who provides a service to the public have a duty to uphold this.
The fact this law even exists is, in itself, a sad state of affairs – a woman’s right to feed her baby in the most natural way, designed by evolution itself, should be a given. However, we have to accept that due to the most successful marketing campaign ever by formula manufacturers, we do live in a bottle feeding culture.
This is not something I am going to discuss here, it has been discussed by far more knowledgeable heads than mine, such as Gabrielle Palmer in her eye-opening book “The Politics of Breastfeeding: How Breasts are Bad for Business”.
Although breastfeeding rates are rising, the majority of children aged 6 weeks and over are given infant formula, according to the Infant Health Survey of Infant Feeding 2005 (only the early results are available for 2010) 52% of 6 week old infants and 75% of 6 month olds were not breastfed.
One of the things that inevitably comes up in discussions around breastfeeding in public is the rather disgusting comparison to such delightful activities as defecating in public. I don’t even want to discuss how incredibly wrong this is for fear my brain will implode.
Instead I have been wracking my brain for another analogy and I found one. Locusts. There are several countries (Uganda, Swaziland, Cambodia to name a few) where locusts are eaten. Personally, the thought of eating locusts makes me want to vomit. I have to fast forward the dining scene in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” because I can’t bear watching the diners eat beetles and monkey brains.
So imagine I am in a eating establishment in Cambodia (or other country where Locusts are eaten). There is a local on the next table who orders locusts and happily starts chomping away. My reaction would be to look away and concentrate on my own food. I certainly wouldn’t go up to him and say “please stop that, I find it disgusting” or “please can you sit somewhere else where I can’t see you” or just sit glaring at him to make him feel uncomfortable.
Why wouldn’t I? Because it would be incredibly rude – the disgust I feel is MY problem, to him it is a perfectly normal thing to eat. He would be confused and probably rather angry had I acted on my feelings and confronted him.
Yet, here in the UK, some people would not hesitate to do this to a mother breastfeeding a child!
And let us just remind ourselves of the difference between locusts and breastmilk straight from the breast.
Locusts – tasty snack (for those into that sort of thing). Not really necessary for human health, and being eaten by an adult perfectly capable of making the decision for himself that it is acceptable to eat his snack where he is sitting.
Breastmilk, on the other hand, is a life sustaining fluid that provides nourishment and more to a baby who is unable to speak up for himself, provided by his probably sleep deprived, hormonally imbalanced mother.
A mother who, especially if she is a first timer, may still be healing from the birth, unsure of herself and her parenting choices, and tired from the 24 hour demands of looking after this tiny helpless baby. Someone who may well be quite vulnerable.
Even the most together mother, who may be on her second, third or fourth baby and who is confident in her choices could be undone by someone making her feel that this simple act of feeding her hungry baby is something that should be confined to the home.
It comes down to how breasts are portrayed in the media. I find it strange that no-one bats an eyelid at seeing a busty pair of breasts in a national newspaper, but the small amount of breast that might be seen when a mother is latching on her child is considered shocking.
Believe me the vast majority of mothers are like me and do try to keep under wraps because we don’t want to show our breasts to everyone. I do tend to roll my eyes at people who accuse mothers of ‘letting it all hang out’, because the only time I have ever seen that is in a group where everyone is a breastfeeding mother.
Even then women tend to use such groups as a practicing ground for breastfeeding in public without flashing everyone. You could argue that, using my analogy, the locust eating is culturally acceptable in Cambodia and breastfeeding in public in the UK isn’t because we have a bottle feeding culture.
Well firstly I don’t believe that bottle and breastfeeding cultures are mutually exclusive. There is room in this country for both, especially as we have clean facilities to make up formula safely which developing countries may not have. Also, for centuries breastfeeding in public has been acceptable, it is only in the last 100 years, due to the mass introduction of formula, that suddenly it has become so taboo.
Except it is not that taboo – although most babies still do not receive breastmilk beyond 6 weeks, the majority of the public are not offended, and perhaps more accurately, do not even notice a mum breastfeeding in public. It is just that the minority who do object are loud and get the media attention.
Don’t even get me started on people like Jeremy Clarkson who say “just give the child a bottle”. No. Never. I will NOT ‘give my child a bottle’ just to satisfy some prude. I will not try and find a time to pump a few precious ounces of my breastmilk, to then have to transport it safely, to then have to try and persuade my child to take it after finding some means to warm it up, or faff around making up formula just to avoid offending sensibilities.
Why should I when I have the perfect transport and delivery system that is instantly available, which means I can feed her as soon as she starts making hungry signs at me? Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti bottle feeding or anti formula, both have their place. However it should be for the mother’s convenience if she chooses to bottle feed, and no-one else’s.
She should bottle feed if it convenient for her to do so, not because someone else is scared they might accidently see some breast or – gasps – a momentary glance of a nipple. After all it is the mother (and hopefully Dad too) who has the hard work of making up those bottles and formula and pumping milk (not Dad in this case!).
I Googled Locust eating. I am never doing that again.