Why is breastfeeding in public such a problem?

Why should the opinion of a rubber-necking prude deter you from feeding your child the way you choose?

The right to breastfeed in public is protected by law in Ireland, which means that nobody can be asked to stop nursing, to leave a premises, or to use separate facilities such as the toilet. Photograph: Thinkstock

The right to breastfeed in public is protected by law in Ireland, which means that nobody can be asked to stop nursing, to leave a premises, or to use separate facilities such as the toilet. Photograph: Thinkstock


Human breast milk tastes sweet. The thinner foremilk, which comes gushing out first, quenches the baby’s thirst, and then the rich and creamy hindmilk kicks in, comforting and sustaining, often sending both the infant and their mother into a dreamy state of sated bliss. It’s designed to feel delicious, for both participants, and, as a former breastfeeder myself, I can confirm that it definitely does.

But if contemplating any of this makes you feel squeamish or uncomfortable, that may go some way towards explaining the lamentable dearth of breastfeeding mothers in this country.

By international standards, we’re pretty much the pits, with barely more than half of mothers (56 per cent) choosing to feed their babies themselves, compared with 83 per cent in England, and 90 per cent in Scandinavian countries. At 64 per cent, the North isn’t much better.

Even at that, fall-off rates after the first few weeks are high, which leaves the majority of children on the island bereft of the lifelong health-boosting benefits of this extraordinary substance. Why?

Societal distate

For lots of reasons – initiation problems, lack of support, returning to work, perceived restrictions on personal freedom – but it’s the thoroughgoing societal distaste for the sight of a baby with a milky nipple in their mouth, that barely suppressed collective shudder, that deters many women from either starting at all or from keeping going as their children get older. (Even though the worldwide average age of final weaning is 4.2 years.)

A tiny mite surreptitiously latched on under his mum’s jumper might be just about tolerable, but a large, wriggling two year old demanding and getting a feed frequently attracts glances of disgust and disapproval.

Which also explains why you see so few of those mothers who do choose to breastfeed doing so in public, where they’re exposed to both the spoken and unspoken hang-ups, and double standards, of a residually inhibited nation. Breasts of the pert and plastic variety we can handle, but for many people the lactating kind are a step too far.

As for the radical idea that breasts are gloriously polymorphous, both sexual and functional, erotic and nurturing: well, that’s a conundrum with which only the liberated few feel entirely comfortable.

Protected by law

The right to breastfeed in public is protected by law in Ireland, which means that nobody can be asked to stop nursing, to leave a premises, or to use separate facilities such as the toilet (not an uncommon suggestion, sadly enough, which again illustrates the lurking suspicion that breastfeeding is somehow unclean).

Mothers in Northern Ireland also have recourse to equality legislation. Indeed, the department of health there – following the example of Scotland, which passed a similar law in 2005 – is now considering specific protections for breastfeeding women, making it an offence, punishable by a £2,500 fine, to prevent them nursing in public.

In the US, many states have enacted legislation that ensures mothers can feed their children in any public or private place where they otherwise have a right to be.

Breastfeeding is widely accepted and uncontroversial in most European countries, though an extensive YouGov survey last year found that French women, in particular, are the least likely to consider it acceptable in public, compared with people living in the UK and the US, with 40 per cent expressing disapproval.

Indeed, the French feminist philosopher Élisabeth Badinter has urged women to stand up for their own independence, and their right to bottle-feed, in the face of “despotic, gluttonous babies who devour their mothers”.

‘Yuck factor’

It’s a choice, of course. As Prof George Kent of the University of Hawaii, an international expert on matters of human rights and infant nutrition, puts it, “children should be viewed as having the right to be breastfed, not in the sense that the mother is obligated to breastfeed the child, but in the sense that no one may interfere with the mother’s right to breastfeed the child”.

Specific protections in law are important, and to be valued, but while the underlying “yuck factor” remains in society, nursing women will continue to come up against officious managers or prudish, tut-tutting old (and young) biddies who invoke spurious reasons for their own prejudice, such as “it’s company policy”, “it’s offending other customers”, and even “it’s unhygienic”.

In a case highlighted recently by the parenting website parent.ie, a breastfeeding mother, Casey Yu, was twice asked to cover herself up on a Delta airlines flight, apparently because other passengers had complained.

After Yu publicised her experience, she received an apology from Delta, as well as an assurance that flight attendants would receive mandatory training on how to deal with such situations in future.

What else can be done to challenge such fear-driven hostility?

Out and proud

In the UK and the US, large groups of angry breastfeeders have recently taken to descending upon shops and other facilities where nursing mothers have been rebuffed and holding mass feed-ins, their babies clamped defiantly to their chests.

It’s rather a thrilling sight, but one-off protests like these don’t really change anything.

The only way we’re going to get over our pathetic hang-ups about this most natural of activities is for nursing women not to hide away – as though implicitly acknowledging that they’re doing something grubby and shameful, and possibly even borderline indecent – but to be out and proud, every day, answering to nothing and nobody but the immediate needs of their baby.

Perhaps that’s when we’ll realise that it’s the rubber-necking prudes, not mothers providing their children with the ideal food, who have the real problem.

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