Babies get hungry and mothers have milk – it’s time we all got over breastfeeding in public

It would be ludicrous to suggest that an infant should be governed by the same rules of restraint as the rest of us



Breastfeeding mothers have been coming together across the country since last week in a show of solidarity with Wioletta Komar, who was reportedly turned away from a Nottingham branch of Sports Direct earlier this year for nursing her (then) three-month-old son.

At least 40 demonstrations have already taken place, involving more than 780 mothers. It follows a spate of nationwide protests sparked by the ‘Free to Feed’ campaign set up by Emily Slough, who was secretly photographed feeding her baby daughter in Staffordshire in March, and labelled a ‘tramp’ when the shot was posted online. As the high turn-out sadly goes to show, discrimination against breastfeeding women continues apace, despite legislation and social efforts to change attitudes to the contrary. You only have to trawl through Twitter to hear similar stories – journalist Jenny Kleeman wrote of her shock at being told she was to stop breastfeeding her son in a London coffee shop by a security guard because it ‘wasn’t allowed’.

It’s likely that those who decided to express their outrage in so public a way did so with some trepidation. For it is one thing to find a quiet corner, lift up your shirt and feed your baby; and quite another to do it in front of a gaggle of paparazzi. Yet those sleep-deprived, hormonal new mums obviously felt that some arguments are just worth having. They mustered the courage to propel themselves to the centre of debate, steeling themselves for prejudice and the familiar rhetoric of ‘taste’, ‘decency’ and ‘propriety’, arguments that seem more in keeping with 1950, not 2014. Plus ça change.

Staff at the sports retailer, which has not yet responded to the allegations, are said to have told Wioletta that she ‘breached company policy’ – and we can only speculate as to the exact Ts&Cs that might be contravened by a nipple going into a hungry baby’s mouth. A ‘no food and drink’ policy, perhaps? Whereby the baby is treated as any other consumer? Fine, if you equate drinking breast milk with gorging on chips and kebab, dripping grease and fat on the floor, like a man I saw on the Tube recently, who retorted that ‘he paid his taxes’ and could do what he liked. If we’re being stringent about a ‘no food and drink’ rule then let’s take it further and expand it to a ban on burgers and egg mayonnaise sandwiches in all public places, please.  

In reality, newborn babies make very little mess, and if they do then it’s usually self-contained – to a nappy, or a shoulder. They make almost no mess at all while breastfeeding, and who would really deny a hungry baby, with no power of recourse or communication other than to cry to show that it’s wet, in pain or needs feeding, the comfort of its mother’s breast for the sake of a few, unlikely drops of scattered milk?

As for the ‘it’s not going to starve if you wait for 15 minutes’ retort; well, the shrill and desperate cry for food is not easily ignored, unless you want to also tear your heart out of your chest and leave it beating and bloody at the feet of someone trying valiantly to enjoy their coffee or shopping trip. The only way to get any peace at all in the face of a screaming infant is by letting a parent pacify them. And most are so aware of disturbing the quiet with a crying child that they’ll do whatever it takes, wherever it takes them. It would be ludicrous to suggest that an infant should be governed by the same rules of restraint as the rest of us.

Then there’s the question, supposedly, of ‘decency’. Getting a private part of your body out in public is daunting enough, without stern looks and snide comments to contend with. And while there’s of course an exception to every rule, it would be hard to find a mother who actively sets out to expose their breasts simply to shock a prudish passersby. Why else would shops sell nursing wear, with discreet cut-outs, removable panels and handy hooks? If we were all so desperate to get them out, there’d be no market for it.

Breastfeeding in public is protected by the Equality Act 2010, but it’s hard to stand up for your rights when you’re being called a ‘tramp’ or being asked to ‘cover up’ by an airline,  and that’s why these women should be so rightly praised. And if there are people out there genuinely uncomfortable with an accidental flash of breast, then I feel sorry for them, for it must be a nightmare ever visiting a beach, or travelling abroad, or going to a nightclub, or pretty much looking at any fashion billboard. Of course, you could always just operate one of life’s simplest manoeuvres – looking away?

I’m not militant about breastfeeding; I was able to feed my daughter in accordance to WHO guidelines (they recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of life, and suggest continuing for up to two years of age or beyond) for 15 months, but know many women who couldn’t or chose not to breastfeed, and are raising perfectly healthy, bottle-fed babies. And perhaps I was lucky, for I experienced very little negativity.

But I am militant about people making new mothers feel bad about doing what comes naturally. Wioletta says that she had to leave Sports Direct and feed her son in the rain, and was left “very upset and shaking” after being made to feel “like a criminal”. Aren’t we the ones that should feel ashamed?

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