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!