Do you find breastfeeding offensive?

If you do, tough. New laws will make breastfeeding in public every mother's right. Marie Woolf reports
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The Independent Online

The National Gallery has nearly 50 paintings and portraits featuring bare breasts on its walls, including a Tintoretto entitled Origin of the Milky Way.

But when Catherine Gulati settled discreetly into a corner to breastfeed her 11-month-old baby during a visit to the gallery last year, she was ordered by an attendant to stop. Now that the notion of breast is best is accepted wisdom, Parliament is considering changing the law to make it illegal to prevent a mother from feeding her child in public.

Ministers are preparing to follow the example of Scotland, where the law was changed last year, and legislate for the right of women to breastfeed their babies in a public place.

The legal change would cover all public spaces, from parks to shopping malls and even shops. But Parliament - including the House of Commons chamber - would not be covered by the law because it is a Royal Palace.

The rethink by ministers follows an outcry over women who have been prevented from feeding their babies by restaurateurs, policemen and members of the public. Even some doctors' surgeries have banned breastfeeding in their waiting rooms. Pro-breastfeeding groups, including the National Childbirth Trust, say that the anxiety about being stopped in public is putting many mothers off - and encouraging them to bottle-feed instead.

A survey by the NCT found that 63 per cent of breastfeeding women had been subjected to "unsupportive comments or behaviour from other people". Forty per cent with babies of four to five months old said they had problems finding somewhere to feed in public. The NCT has warned that, unless the right to breastfeed is made explicit in statute, feeding mothers risk being threatened with public order offences or even indecency laws.

The trust compiled a dossier of harassment of nursing women, including the case of Margaret Boyle-White, who while breastfeeding her 28-day-old daughter on a park bench last month was stopped by police following a complaint from a member of the public. She said she was made to "feel like a criminal".

Georgina Cleverley, 32, was recently told to stop breastfeeding during a meal with her family in a restaurant. "Amy was about 11 weeks old. She was due to be fed and I had to feed her very discreetly in a corner," she said. "I had my coat on and even turned myself towards the wall. The other customers didn't notice. But the woman who owned the restaurant said she would not allow me to feed her in the restaurant. She said we would have to go to a room upstairs. It was very humiliating."

An amendment to the Health Bill now going through Parliament, which would make it a criminal offence to stop a woman breastfeeding a young baby, has prompted the Government to reconsider the issue and admit it will "review" the law. "We support the principle of this and will keep the issue under review. We are not ruling out a change in the law and are collecting information on this," said a Department of Health spokeswoman.

The cause of breastfeeding has been supported by a number of high-profile mothers, including the actress Kate Hudson, who is said to have breastfed her son in front of the director when filming Skeleton Key.

Polls show that 84 per cent of the public believe breastfeeding young babies in public should not be a matter of controversy. Yet compared with other European countries, the UK has one of the worst records when it comes to breastfeeding. Only one in five babies receives breast milk by the age of six months.

The Department of Health has spent millions of pounds on information campaigns to encourage women to feed their children naturally. The Government's target is to raise the number of mothers who breastfeed to 75 per cent.

Among those pushing for a change in the law is Annette Brooke, the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman on children and families, who says it is vital the Government sends a signal to the public that breastfeeding is an acceptable activity. A motion that she put down in Parliament last month has already attracted the support of 120 MPs from all parties.

Patti Rundall of Baby Milk Action, a pro-breastfeeding lobby group, said: "The medical profession in the 20th century had got it all wrong. It was not until around 1980 that attitudes began to change. But mothers still feel intimidated and are being stopped if they breastfeed. It's ridiculous."

Official: breast really is best

According to World Health Organisation guidelines, breastfeeding is recommended for the first six months.

A recent survey by the Department of Health found that the UK has one of the lowest rates in Europe. Almost a third of mothers in England and Wales never try to breastfeed, compared to just 2 per cent in Sweden.

A study from the Institute of Child Health found that teenagers who were breastfed had healthier cholesterol levels than those who had been bottle fed. In contrast, benefits of bottle feeding include easy monitoring of intake, more freedom for the mother and more participation for the father.

According to Unicef, if all babies were fed only breast milk for their first six months, the lives of an estimated 1.5 million infants would be saved every year and the health and development of millions of others would be greatly improved.

Jonathan Thompson