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
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The Independent Online
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.