Legislation which will impose fines on businesses or public organisations that prevent mothers from breast-feeding children in public was yesterday given the go-ahead by Scottish MSPs.
The Bill, which was launched last year by the Labour backbencher Elaine Smith, was passed 103 votes to 13. Only Conservative MSPs voted against the legislation, which they branded an example of "the nanny state taken to the extreme", and called instead for a voluntary code to be introduced.
Under the provisions of the new legislation, which will now be submitted by the Holyrood Parliament's presiding officer to the Queen for royal assent, a fine of up to £2,000 can be imposed on any organisation that obstructs women from breastfeeding children under two-years-old.
The Breast-feeding (Scotland) Bill is expected to become law in the new year and is primarily aimed at bars, shopping centres or restaurants which usually admit children but prevent children from being fed breast-milk or bottled milk.
The Scottish Executive is keen to encourage mothers to breast-feed as part of a campaign to improve the nation's dismal health record.
Scottish Executive statistics claim that only 36.5 per cent of women breast-feed infants aged six to eight weeks, which is well short of a national target to have more than half of women still breast-feeding their babies at six weeks. Within the UK as a whole, breast-feeding levels are lower than the rest of Europe, even though there is clear evidence that a mother's milk can reduce rates of gastroenteritis and respiratory disease among babies and lead to lower rates of diabetes and obesity in children.
A study by scientists at Bristol University found that breastfed babies also grew up to have lower blood pressure than their bottle-fed counterparts and were less likely to develop heart disease. The researchers also estimated that if 90 per cent of babies were breast-fed it could prevent 3,000 premature deaths a year in the UK among 35- to 64-year-olds.
Other research has claimed that breast-fed babies are less likely to be overweight, have fewer behavioural problems and may be more intelligent.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of an infant's life, as it provides all the nutrients a baby needs, and that solid foods should be introduced while breast-feeding continues for up to two years or beyond.
Ms Smith, the Bill's champion, who is MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston, said: "I do hope that given time this small piece of legislation can make a significant difference to attitudes towards breast-feeding in Scotland and vastly improve the experiences of nursing mums and babies. It's important to increase the rates of breast-feeding in Scotland for the health of our children.
"This Bill will send a strong political message that breastfeeding isn't something shameful but is something that should be protected and supported as normal nurturing behaviour."
MSPs hope that the Bill will bring about a cultural change in attitudes to feeding babies in public, especially if it is backed by an awareness campaign.
Dr Eleanor Scott, a former community paediatrician and the Green Party health spokesman, said: "Young disadvantaged mothers are the least likely to breast-feed, yet these mothers and their babies have the most to gain. It is ridiculous that they may be denied good health because of hostile attitudes.
"Breast-feeding is a human rights issue - not just about the right of the mother, but the right of the child to be fed when she or he is hungry and to be fed human milk."
When Holyrood's health committee first looked at the proposals it received 48 responses, nearly all of which were supportive. It also heard evidence from representatives of the National Childbirth Trust, the Breast-feeding Network, the Association of Police Officers in Scotland and the Scottish Licensed Trade Association. The Bill does not just cover women breast-feeding but anyone feeding milk to children in licensed premises such as pubs and restaurants, where children are allowed.