Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

That was the gist of one of the questions asked at the start of a Twitter chat tonight. Running with the hashtag #breastdebate it was hosted by Philips Avent, a manufacturer of baby bottles, breast pumps and assorted other infant accoutrements. The question (actually phrased as “Do you think mums should be allowed to feed without covering up?”) was asked by Cherry Healey, a British television presenter.

I can’t help but feel cynical about the motives of Philips Avent in hosting a ‘debate’ about breastfeeding, but that’s not what this post is about. This post is about attitudes to breastfeeding. Before I get any further I want to say that although I am very pro-breastfeeding (I’m a trained peer supporter) I don’t have a problem with mothers who use formula, whether through choice or circumstance.

There is a lot of negativity towards breastfeeding in our society. I suspect that this is partly to do with the fact that over the last couple of generations formula feeding has become increasingly normalised and breastfeeding has become more marginalised. In my opinion it’s also to do with society’s attitudes to women and their bodies; breasts are largely seen as sexual in purpose and function. Their primary function, to nourish infants and toddlers, is overlooked. So we have the bizarre situation where in 2013 a mainstream tabloid publishes photographs of topless women every day but a woman nursing her baby in public is something abnormal to be stared at.

Under UK law a woman cannot be prevented from nursing her child in public, no matter how old the child is. This means that no-one has the right to ask a nursing mother to stop feeding her child or ask her to feed the child in the toilets. No-one has the right to ask a nursing mother to cover up, to leave the premises or refuse her service because she is nursing. To do so contravenes the Equality Act (2010). Of course some women do feel uncomfortable nursing in public and choose to cover up with a muslin cloth or a nursing cover (these have become an increasingly lucrative market in recent years). But no woman should be made to feel that she has to cover herself. Children are entitled to eat in public whether their food is breastmilk, formula milk, purée or solid food.

Both my children have been breastfed. My daughter self-weaned at the age of 2 years and 2 months, my son is still nursing at almost 18 months. I am fortunate and have rarely been criticised for nursing in public (and those who did criticise got short shrift!) but I frequently hear of women being confronted, being told that what they’re doing is disgusting and numerous other comments of that ilk. To me that sort of attitude speaks volumes about the critic; anyone who feels that way nearly always has some questionable views about women and their bodies.

So to answer the question – yes, women should be (and are) allowed to breastfeed in public. In fact “allowed” is completely the wrong word; women have the right to nurse in public. So come on breastfeeding mums, get nursing!

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Comments on: "Should mothers be allowed to breastfeed in public without covering up?" (17)

  1. The first paragraph of this post made me so angry!!! How dare a formula company host a debate like that!!!
    When I first had S, I was nervous of feeding her in public, and scared that I would be asked to leave somewhere or told off! Then my health visitor told me it was covered under anti-discrimination laws, and that was it – boobs out all over the place, daring people to try and make me cover up!
    In the States women have it a lot worse – even less is done to promote breastfeeding, women are told they’re disgusting, that it’s wrong to use a “sexual” part of the body to feed a child.
    I am a firm believer that this government does not do enough to promote breastfeeding, and allows the formula companies to be ubiquitous throughout pregnancy, and in maternity wards. Countries that bar all formula advertising have much higher rates of breastfeeding…
    ok I’ll stop ranting now…

  2. I have loads of respect for you for being proud of feeding your children:).It is not heard of much about children of their ages to still be nursing.I think it is quite common in other countries but here there is such a sensitivity to it.I often hear women as well as men saying it is wierd and offensive.why?I work on a maternity ward and often speak to my patients while they are feeding their babies and it is so wonderful to see them so comfortable and bonding with their new babies.:)The midwivrs do a fantastic job at promoting breastfeeding but whether or not the mums continue at home idon’t know.I know most of us talk about the double standards of page three and lads’ mags but in my experience it always seems to be women who have more of a problem.You say about attitudes to women’s bodies and that breasts are seen as ,primarily,sexy but a lot of women i have spoke to say they don’t want to “ruin “their breasts from feeding??!!Vanity taking over giving your baby the healthiest start in life maybe?Although it is an individuals choice how they nourish their baby and as long as they’re happy that’s all that matters.:)

    • Yes, happy healthy babies are the priority. It’s interesting what you say about breastfeeding ruining breasts; I believe it’s now been proven that it’s pregnancy, not breastfeeding, that changes the mammary tissue so perhaps that will begin to change.

      As for feeding older children I have friends who still nurse their 3, 4 and 5 year olds. I was quite upset when DD weaned at only 2! 😉

  3. I am very lucky to have never encountered such discrimination, however, no amount of public staring or rudeness would stop me, it may upset me, but would never stop me! I have a friend who would not breastfeed as she and her husband believed she would end up with boobs like spaniels ears! I just laughed and said, oh blimey, mine will end up like basset hound ears 🙂

  4. Phew, I’m glad I didn’t notice this on twitter at the time! Really sounds like Phillips are trying to undermine a new mother’s confidence to me. What a stupid hashtag. Do we really need to start another debate on this.

    I’m pretty lucky no-one has ever said anything to me whilst feeding, although apparently I’ve had a few odd looks. Shock horror I still feed my 2 year old in public. He doesn’t ask very often but when he does I’m not going to deny him some milk because a few people might have a problem with it.

    Actually there was one time when someone from my NCT class (who was also breastfeeding) came along and actually put her scarf over my babies head. I can’t believe I didn’t challenge it, I think I was just so shocked. That really was an odd thing for her to do.

    • That is a very peculiar thing to do! Most nursing mothers show far less breast when feeding their child than is on display in nightclubs, yet that’s normal and breastfeeding isn’t…

  5. I started my right to feed where I chose when my husband thought breastfeeding might embarrass his dad and could I feed our new baby upstairs – I said if he was bothered HE could move! We’ve been fine ever since 🙂 To my knowledge, with 5 kids and 18 years of being a parent I have only been asked to move once, and then it was in Starbucks by an elderly woman who was “upset” and complained to staff. Credit where it’s due, the staff told her if she had a problem she was welcome to leave!

    Sometimes I have chosen to put a shawl around me and my baby but that was more because I was mortified about not getting myself sorted properly as a novice feeder – by the time number 5 came along it wouldn’t have occurred to me. It makes my blood boil that there should even have been a debate about “being allowed” to feed – I’ll feed my baby when and where I please thank you very much, and if you have an issue with that then maybe you should have a long look in the mirror and question what exactly makes you so uptight.

    Great blog post!

    • Thank you. 🙂 I agree that those who are upset or offended by breastfeeding need to examine themselves very closely, I certainly wouldn’t be happy being around people with such peculiar views about women’s bodies and infant feeding.

  6. I would have to disagree with your statement ‘formula feeding has become increasingly normalised and breastfeeding has become more marginalised’. In the circle of friends we have made since our son was born, the majority breast fed their babies (roughly 80%). I only ever heard disparaging comments about Mothers who didn’t breast feed. In my eyes it has increasingly become a badge of honour to some people. I realise this isn’t point of your post but I felt it was worth mentioning. Back to the point you were making, I whole heartedly agree that there is nothing wrong with breast feeding in public. I don’t see the problem and an argument that it offends falls apart very quickly.

    • That’s interesting, in terms of percentages I would say that my experience has been the opposite! You’re right that for some people it is a badge of honour though. I get very irritated with the breastfeeding vs formula arguments and have no time for anyone being nasty about how a woman chooses to feed her child.

  7. Claire SA said:

    My sister breastfed both her children for the first six months – it was difficult for her to start with as she had never been comfortable with her own body (borderline anorexic at one point) and throughout it all she felt much better about herself if she went upstairs or fed expressed milk with a bottle in public. This was her choice and it meant that both her and the babies were calmer during feeds, which can only be a good thing. She weened them as soon as possible and put them on cows’ milk (sometimes formula) as a supplement instead. Neither seems particularly damaged by the whole experience. Interestingly, the one that was weened on home-cooked food is now a fussy little thing, and the one weened on jars, tins & pretty much anything else will eat anything that stays still long enough. Guess which one was the girl and which was the boy?!
    My point being – feed the baby. Doesn’t matter how or with what – just make sure it’s healthy. If other people have a problem with the way you do it or what you do it with or where you do it, it’s their problem. It’s your body, your baby, your decision. Don’t get pushed into something you’re not comfortable with.

  8. We should start offering blankets to scantily clad women who aren’t breastfeeding and asking them to cover up!

  9. Red bird said:

    I am a mother myself and I don’t agree with breast feeding in public places unless it is an emergency situation. We live in the day and age that women are able to prepare to go to dinner or a festival and plan to pump and bring a bottle. We are required by law to wear clothing so why should we make an exception for a women’s breast to be exposed. Also, if the mothers that are Breest feeding in public would take in consideration how it makes others feel, I don’t want to sit at dinner with my husband and daughter and watch a women bring her breast out and feed her baby. My point is, be prepared when going out there is not excuse to involve others. It’s private between parents and baby.

    • We are required by law to wear clothing, yes. Most nursing mothers show less breast when feeding their child than when wearing a low-cut top, which presumably you don’t have a problem with?

      And yes, women can choose to express milk but not every mother is able to. Some infants won’t accept a bottle and why should a mother have to change the way they feed their child just because you don’t like it? Breastfeeding in public is protected by law. If you don’t like it that’s fine, just don’t look.

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