Breastfeeding: it’s a divisive subject, even among mothers. But aside from the question or whether or not to breastfeed there is the issue of whether or not women should do it in public. After all, we’re told that it’s “best for baby” and the UK now has legislation in place designed to protect breast-feeding mothers in public spaces. Yet the issue remains contentious with complaints of indecency and inappropriateness being aimed at a group of women who are typically very discreet when it comes to attaching baby to breast in public spaces.
Perhaps this is why young mothers interviewed in a recent BBC documentary were avoiding breastfeeding completely; because of their fear of the reactions they could garner (“I’ve got a baby, so obviously I’ve had sex. Now I’m getting my boobs out in public, so they’ll think I’m easy, too.”) Were these girls overreacting? I decided to contact the UK Lactivists (a genius name that, surely, doesn’t need explaining) to find out how they felt about breastfeeding in public – after considering my own experiences of feeding my son, some five years ago. The next three stories, while mine, are sadly repeated by almost every breastfeeding mother I’ve spoken to.
The first happened in a large Easton supermarket when my son was about two months old. I was halfway round the store, my trolley was already loaded with chilled goods, and I realised that my son was hungry. I toddled off to the baby feeding room (also known as the disabled toilet) and found it filthy and smelling horrendous. My complaint to a staff-member saw me furnished with a stepping-stool in the dairy aisle and I was left to get on with things. For the next thirty minutes I huddled over my baby (as much for warmth as for modesty) while almost every man who walked past me offered to lend a hand.
The second story takes place in one of the UK’s most notably “baby friendly” companies. They provide feeding mothers with private rooms that are furnished with expensive rocking chairs and, in the really good stores, free nappies and baby food. Especially around my first Christmas with my son, these rooms were a haven of peace and relaxation where I would dig in and get comfortable, able to take my time without being hassled, stared at or bothered. But, after three visits and two collective hours of feeding and winding in the same day, a comfy chair and soft décor only go so far – serene contemplation turned very quickly into boredom and loneliness.
Finally, we have the Swedish furniture shop experience. Upon telling a staff member that I needed to feed my child, they pushed my trolley for me to the bed section, right out in the shop floor and asked if I fancied making myself comfortable there. If not, I’d be welcome to use the staff lounge. The bed section, however, was just fine for me, especially as a female staff member was standing discreetly off to one side to redirect approaching customers. No boredom, no bystanders, no being closeted away.
After making contact with the UK Lactivist group and asking what their experiences were, the answers were largely the same: almost all of the respondents noted having been stared at, challenged or hassled while feeding their children in public spaces. Ally, a Lactivist member, says this:
“…it was only last week that I run into a tough situation. My son was screaming for food and the nearest place to feed him was Marks & Spencers. I went in and asked if there was an area I could feed him, and the lady told me there were feeding facilities for us upstairs, which I thought was fab … in actual fact, it was a TOILET with a very basic chair. I was mortified. Feed my baby in a toilet? I ended up feeding him in the cafe, which I found embarrassing to say the least. It was heaving and everyone was staring. Not good.”
And Sam, another group member, offered her account, too:
“…in the waiting area for children’s outpatients of all places! I was greeted with a smile by one mum until I started feeding my son – when I glanced back at her she was glaring at me. The second time the mum sat opposite me moved as far away from me as possible – not sure how she even saw since we were hidden behind his pushchair… The first time I fed him in public was after I changed his nappy. It was a standard toilet/ nappy change room but was also described by the supermarket in question as a “feeding room” and had a simple chair in it. Sorry, not feeding my son in the same room as a bog, thank you very much – I went and sat in the car instead.”
And in response to the question “Have you ever felt judged during your breastfeeding relationship?” several respondents have given up public feeding completely. For example:
“Yes, I will not feed in public now, ds2 is now 13 months and people stare. Also feels like lots of pressure from all sides that once baby has teeth it is too old to bf, nobody says it to my face, but I now wouldn’t tell people I still feed unless they ask. Not because I am worried about their opinion, I just can’t be bothered with the look of disgust on some peoples faces!” (Claire)
But there is also a feeling of having been segregated from other shoppers by the advent of the baby room, as if by removing breastfeeders from their shop floors, commercial spaces are able to avoid the issue of harassment entirely. And yet, time and time again breastfeeding women are expected to sit – sometimes for up to an hour – in an uncomfortable chair with a baby in their arms next to a toilet. Aside from the fact that it’s boring, insulting and will separate you from the people you went out with, there’s no way the facilities can be described as hygienic, pleasant or relaxing. Would you expect a bottle-feeding mother to get on with it in a toilet? Would you eat your lunch in there? At a time when the numbers of new breastfeeders are rapidly falling, it serves only to discourage new mothers from taking up the breast and underlines the implication that breastfeeding is something that should be kept private – that the sexualisation of breasts is utter and unfailing.
Apart from being cheaper and more convenient, the benefits of breastfeeding have been well-catalogued by medical research: emotional and health benefits for mother and baby.; examples include lowering of stress and a reduction in female cancers later in life – and more benefits are seemingly still being discovered. And while the NHS now has breastfeeding lessons in place for new mums, the World Health Organisation promotes breastfeeding on a global scale and organisations like La Leche League and the NCT offer free advice and support to mothers, none of these are able to offer help to mums who feel judged and uncomfortable in the UK’s public spaces.
However, Lactivists are challenging businesses such as shops, restaurants and cafés to protect breastfeeding mothers by declaring themselves to be “safe spaces”. This means that breastfeeders are welcome anywhere that the public have access to, even if more secluded facilities are available, and that a “baby feeding room” sign will never be stuck on the door of a disabled toilet. By asking businesses to challenge the harassment that breastfeeding women experience, they hope to make breastfeeding a more reasonable option for new mums to consider, giving women a haven to sit, feed and enjoy their surroundings without fear of the reactions of others.
Lou LaRoche is launching Bristol: Hollaback! a campaign the end street harassment in August 2011.