Breast is best, but not in public

As 'World Breastfeeding Week' nears, Liz Hunt asks why so many people feel the practice should be kept to private places

It Was A hot, sticky, afternoon earlier this month in Castlecourt, Belfast's busiest shopping mall. Two women had settled themselves with their babies on a bench in a secluded walkway with few shops. They were sheltered by rubber plants and their carefully positioned prams.

Chatting animatedly, the women cradled their babies and, with a few deft adjustments to their clothing, put them discreetly to the breast. Ten minutes later the babies were still feeding contentedly. Shoppers wandered past, oblivious to what was happening, or choosing to ignore it. But someone was watching them, and he didn't like what he saw.

Up in the mall's security office, a closed-circuit camera had picked up the tableau and was relaying images back to the row of screens, apparently "embarrassing" the people watching. A woman cleaner was dispatched to tell the women that they had to move because breast-feeding was banned in other than allocated areas. These included the "cradle-room", for mothers with babies, which had been locked on the women's previous visit to the centre.

The New Man may wander in and out of fashion, and the cult of the Earth Mother can rise and fall, but one issue dear to both their hearts has proved resistant to change: breast-feeding in public.

World Breastfeeding Week, which starts a week tomorrow, is this year tackling the issue head on, and aims to persuade everyone, from shopkeepers to chief executives and policy-makers, that every child should be allowed to benefit from its mother's milk. It will be an uphill struggle if the experience of two Belfast members of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, related above, is anything to go by.

The message to mothers that breast is definitely best - but preferably behind closed doors - was reinforced earlier this month by official advice to foreign tourists that breast-feeding in public was not acceptable in Britain.

Health visitors, midwives and support groups reacted angrily to the "absolutely outrageous" advice in a leaflet produced by the British Tourist Authority, which was circulated abroad. They said it undermined breast-feeding initiatives and contravened government policy. But a tourist authorityspokesman defended the decision, saying the leaflet was in response to complaints it had received from tourists who had felt embarrassed when breast-feeding in public in this country.

Unfortunately, those tourists have a point, according to Patti Rundall, director of Baby Milk Action, and European co-ordinator of World Breastfeeding Week. She said: "There is a prudishness still about it all that acts as a barrier and continues to marginalise breast-feeding mothers."

While British males abroad will reveal all at the first ray of sunshine, and spend hours ogling bare-breasted women on the beach, they draw the line when it comes to one of most natural acts in the world. A 1993 survey by the Royal College of Midwives found that more than 50 per cent of men object to women breast-feeding in front of them.

Husbands and fathers are often the most strongly opposed. "They just don't like to see their partners revealing bits of themselves to the world, and they don't see why other women should," Ms Rundall says.

But it isn't only men. Lynda Lee-Potter, the Daily Mail columnist, once chastised mothers who exposed "their enormous blue-veined breasts" to the public. Mel Tabor, a counsellor with the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, says that women who themselves have not breast-fed are often the most hostile to the practice. "There is a lot of emotional baggage attached to breast-feeding and women can feel threatened by those who seem to be doing it quite happily in public," she says.

While some women will brazen it out and feed their babies wherever they are, many will retreat to the car, or to the Ladies, where they will feed their babies while balanced on a stool which is usually positioned close to the nappy bin. Not a pleasant place to spend 30 minutes or more as your baby sucks away.

Restaurants are notorious blackspots when it comes to breast-feeding: while four out of five say they would allow mothers to breast-feed their babies at the table, few women are tempted to try, according to the RCM. And one in five restaurants say they would ask a breast-feeding mother to leave or to move to the toilet or the manager's office, if another customer complained.

Fast-food outlets, including McDonald's, scored particularly badly. There is nothing to suggest that attitudes have changed in the three years since the survey, despite the RCM campaign, winningly titled "Eating out together", which aimed to persuade women that they should take on the opposition and feed their babies in public.

But the British, for once, are not alone in their attitudes to a female body function. It is rare to see a baby being breast-fed in public in Germany, and most mothers would not do so. Italians do not like to see their bambini suckling in public, either; in fact, mother-and-baby facilities are rare for a country where children rank with football as national obsessions.

The Irish are similar in attitude and have one of the lowest breast- feeding rates in Europe. Baby milk or infant formula are also among the nation's most lucrative exports.

The French are, as ever, decidedly capricious. While no self-respecting Parisienne would render herself deshabillee for the purpose of feeding her child, in smaller towns and cities, particularly in the south, it is not uncommon.

The Spanish turn a blind eye to breast-feeding, but it is the northern Europeans who win hands down. Not only do Norway, Sweden and Denmark have the highest breast-feeding initiation rates (almost 100 per cent), women feel perfectly comfortable breast-feeding in restaurants, on public transport and in the workplace, and their menfolk don't mind at all.

The benefits of breast-feeding are indisputable: human milk contains the ideal balance of nutrients for a baby and provides valuable antibodies to protect it against infections such as gastroenteritis, which is 10 times more common among bottle-fed babies.

It also encourages physical closeness between a mother and her baby which strengthens bonding. There are beneficial health effects for women, too, with evidence that breast-feeding reduces the risk of premenopausal breast cancer.

Increasing breast-feeding rates is one of the aims of the Government's White Paper The Health of the Nation, but ministers have been criticised for failing to support the initiative financially. Between 1988-92, it spent just pounds 265,000 on promoting breast-feeding - around 16p per baby. Changing attitudes which are so deeply entrenched will require more than that.

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering