When the Equality Act came into force on October 1, 2010, it secured the right for women to breastfeed in public without facing discrimination. A woman now cannot be denied services or asked to leave a public place on the grounds that she is breastfeeding.
Low breastfeeding rates
Many new mothers are nervous about breastfeeding in public, partly due to concerns about being asked not to or being insulted for doing so. This, perhaps, helps to account for the low breastfeeding rates in the UK. The government’s advice is that infants receive nothing but breastmilk up to the age of six months. However, according to the Infant Feeding Survey 2005, despite the fact that 76% of mothers begin breastfeeding, rates then drop to 63% at one week, 46% at six weeks and just 25% of babies receive any breastmilk at six months.
How to feed her child is a personal decision to be made by each mother, supported by her family. Having said that, breastfeeding provides numerous health benefits including protection against ear, urinary tract and gastrointestinal infections for the baby as well as a reduction in the risk for the mother of developing pre-menopausal breast or ovarian cancer. The Infant Feeding Survey found that 84% of mothers are aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding. As such as a society we ought to address any issues that prevent mothers who wish to breastfeed from doing so past the first few weeks.
Nobody bats an eyelid if a baby is bottle-fed in public. After all, a hungry baby tends to be a noisy baby, so the sight of a mother reaching for a dummy or a bottle is often a reassuring sight for those trying to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee.
Why, then, is it viewed as less acceptable in some quarters to breastfeed in public? Once a baby is latched on you actually aren’t likely to catch sight of anything that might offend you. And even in those seconds that it takes for the baby to latch on – or, if at a curious age, to look around the room while in mid-feed – you won’t see anything that you wouldn’t get an eyeful of if someone was sat next to you reading a tabloid paper or a lads’ mag.
And that gets to the nub of the problem – women’s breasts are seen as sexual. Facebook found itself facing protests in 2008 when it acted to remove some breastfeeding photos from the site, as any images showing exposed nipples are deemed to violate its terms on obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit material. Breasts are sexual but we are also mammals and they fulfill the separate function of supplying food for babies.
It is because of this dual role that some people don’t like the idea of breastfeeding and do not like to see it being done in public. They might not mind women choosing to breastfeed, but would prefer them to do so in the privacy of their own homes where we don’t have to see it going on. This just is not fair on breastfeeding mothers, however, as recognized by the Equality Act. If members of the public are queasy about breastfeeding in public then it is there attitudes that ought to be addressed before they send breastfeeding mothers into purdah.
A woman’s work is hard work
Feeling uncomfortable about feeding in public is not the only factor behind the UK’s low breastfeeding rates. Despite it being seemingly the most natural thing in the world, breastfeeding can be painful and it can be hard work. The Infant Feeding Survey found that a third of breastfeeding mothers experience problems with feeding while still in hospital or during the early weeks.
Problems with breastfeeding, especially painful problems, are often down to issues with the position of the baby of the way he or she is latching on. Many women in the UK have not actually seen other women breastfeed before they start doing it themselves. Perhaps if we were not so prudish about talking about breastfeeding and about seeing women feeding their babies in public in the UK then women would have a better idea of how breastfeeding works before they set about trying to do it.
Breastmilk is easily digested and a newborn baby’s stomach is about the size of a marble. This means that, especially in the early weeks, a breastfed baby will feed often. This can be up to every two hours and, before they have built up much stamina, a feed can take three-quarters of an hour. That might leave not much more than an hour before the next feed starts, so if a mother feels unable to feed in public this could leave her confined to her home.
As well as it being a bad thing for mothers of newborn babies to be put in the isolating position of being stuck indoors, many mothers who do choose to breastfeed may start out with an unrealistic idea of how often their baby will need to be fed. While bottle-fed babies may need to be fed every four hours or so, breastmilk is not the same as formula and so a breastfed baby will be likely to be hungry again sooner.
Living in a culture where the images of babies that predominate in the media are of bottle-fed babies, women may have the impression that babies should only need to be fed every four hours, and that their breastfed baby will move towards this pattern. This can be an unrealistic expectation, and it can be disappointing for a mother to realize that her baby will continue not to adhere to such a schedule.
Disappointments such as this could be avoided if women knew more about breastfeeding before they give birth. A more open attitude to breastfeeding in public and more realistic coverage of breastfeeding in the media might help women to have more realistic attitudes about what to expect.