Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Stigma of Breastfeeding in Public

Yet again, a story has cropped up in the press regarding the vilification of women breastfeeding in public.  A 36 year old mum was breastfeeding her 10 month old daughter in a cafe, only to be shouted at for "being a disgusting woman" and literally ordered out onto the street, humiliated and devastated.

The mum claims she was being discreet, however the female cafe owner said she had her "whole boob out" and it was "embarassing"as she didn't want "a one year old suckling in her cafe".  Either way it is so saddening that in this day and age, where we know breastfeeding is the best way to feed our babies where possible, a woman can be made to feel disgusting for doing so.  There is no or very little provision for breastfeeding in public, and going to a "public toilet" as this cafe owner suggested is just not an appropriate option.  There is no way I'd feed my baby in a public loo...I'm not trying to take a crap in a public place, I'm trying to feed my child in the way nature intended!

The comments that have followed this news article are as shocking as the story itself.  "Can't you find somewhere else to do it??? LIKE IN YOUR OWN HOME!" ranted one reader.  So, if we breastfeed we should stay at home, shame faced and dare not venture out into public?  Please!  There was a time not too long ago where women were considered filthy for going out into public if they were menstruating, do we want to return to these dark ages? Others suggested expressing milk for when out of the house.  Why on earth should we bottle feed a baby who happily breastfeeds?  It isn't benefitting anyone in this situation except for the odd few who seem unable to comprehend that breasts were actually designed for this purpose!

We hear a lot about women who choose to bottlefeed for personal reasons, or who are sadly unable to breastfeed, feeling looked down on by the general public as if they haven't fulfilled part of the criteria of motherhood.  I've always found the opposite to be more true. Breastfeeding is still considered to be a minority occupation.  When I took my son for his 6 week check the doctor was visibly amazed that I he was still breastfed.  I was congratulated as if I'd run a marathon, for something that I consider absolutely normal to me. That has to be indicative of how few mothers continue with breastfeeding, certainly where I live anyway.  It is that which makes anyone who feeds their baby beyond the early days a bit of a novelty...dare I say...a freak to some. It certainly isn't the norm.

My first two children were only breastfed for a few months before putting them onto bottles.  I was young and  I wanted the freedom that bottle feeding allowed.  They could be babysat by their grandparents so I could go out and have fun.  This was my choice.  However, by the time I had baby number 3 I was settled into a committed relationship and lucky enough to be a stay at home mum, so breastfeeding was the natural option for me to take. I had no reason to put her onto bottles and I loved the closeness and comfort I was able to provide.  I fed her for 18 months.  Baby number 4 was breastfed until she was nearly 3!  I am still breastfeeding my 20 month old son.  Feeding a toddler in public is much more of a challenge but I have techniques that I adopt if it becomes necessary to do so.  No-one has ever complained and few people seem to actually even notice, thinking I'm just cuddling my baby under my cardigan!!  This does make me wonder if the woman at the centre of this latest outrage was a militant feeder who wanted to get this publicity by flaunting what she was doing?  Just a thought, but even so, breastfeeding an infant should never be referred to as disgusting.  We should be encouraging and empowering women to make the choice to feed their babies, not making them afraid or embarrassed.

In some cultures breastfeeding is marvelled at.  In Mongolia it is practised with enthusiasm and without inhibition and for a long time until the child self-weans.  65% of Mongolian children are still breastfeeding by their 2nd birthday.  It is normal, accepted and encouraged.  Breastfeeding mothers in the UK are protected by the 2010 Discrimination Laws that entitles them to not be treated any differently for feeding their child in a public place.  However few people are familiar with this protection and it offers little comfort when being frowned out or worse by strangers with deep seated issues.

We are continually bombarded with breastfeeding cases and studies.  Breastfeeding makes babies better behaved and more intelligent as adults says one report.  Solely breastfeeding until 6 months old causes iron deficiency says another.  It is hard enough being a parent without having to worry about everything and be made to feel guilty for either bottlefeeding or breastfeeding our babies.  If our children are loved, nurtured, safe and well nourished, then we are doing our job as a mother perfectly well.

We should all have the freedom to make the choices which are right for us.  We're all mums...we should all be on the same team giving support to each other.  Roll on the day when we can do what is best for us without stigma, criticism or feelings of guilt!


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