Breastfeeding in Public: 4 Reasons Why It’s Good For You

“Scientists now believe that the primary biological function of breasts is to make males stupid,” wrote Dave Barry in a 1990’s humour column. Although I’m sorely tempted, I won’t comment on the veracity of this statement. But it certainly does seem that the main biologic function of breasts – to wit, to provide sustenance for nursing babies – can certainly make for some less-than genius reactions amongst the public, including men AND women.  And that, of course, brings me to Claridge’s.

 

The Claridge’s Controversy

Last month, as the news cycle has made abundantly apparent, supervisors at the world-famous Claridge’s Hotel in Mayfair decided to ask a customer to cover up an offending (in their judgment) mammary with a napkin. (Before they did so, they might have wanted to consult the 2010 Equality Act, which defines discrimination to include treating a woman unfavourably because she is breastfeeding. But more on that later.)

Plenty of people have backed the hotel. Those with the strongest opinions have one thing in common: they believe their own convenience and comfort should be placed above the wellbeing of breastfeeding women and their children.

To them I say, take a deep breath.  Go beyond your own feelings of discomfort. (N.B, in a leisurely moment, you might explore why you have them – but that’s another topic.) Simply look the other way, and go back to texting or sipping consommé, or cutting your deals, or doing whatever it was you were doing before you got distracted by the sight of a mother performing a natural and loving act with and for her child.

Please do it. Here’s why:

1. You’d be helping babies – and mothers – stay healthier.

Public health bodies, including the World Health Organisation, unanimously agree: the healthiest nutrition for a newborn is breast milk. Not only does it decrease the likelihood of the baby contracting a range of diseases, but it also promotes the mother’s physical and mental health. Let’s be responsible citizens here, and not place any bars in the way of something that’s so important for overall public health and the future of our children.

 

2. You’d stop turning lactating moms trying to do the best they can for their children into stressed-out, second-class citizens.

Here’s the issue: during the first six months a baby may need to be fed 8–12 times within a 24-hour period. And mind you: the child – not the mother (or Nigel Farage or Claridge’s Hotel) decides the timing and duration of breastfeeding. It is a hard truth for new mothers to grasp, but there it is: they are there to serve, whether or not it’s convenient, private, or quiet or, indeed, in keeping with their own wishes or preferences.

The point is, these women are not whipping out their breasts to make some kind of a point or to confront you with the intricacies of lactation as you consume your coq au vin. They are merely trying to ensure their children are fed, comfortable, and not wailing their little heads off – something that, by the way, will doubtless create far more havoc in the dining room than one uncovered breast could or should. When your attitude and actions make it difficult or awkward for a woman to meet her child’s need for nourishment in public, you create a huge stressor for her. It would be kind and generous of you to give her a break.

Yes, lactating women could just stay home, but frankly, that’s ridiculous, and, if you’ve ever taken care of a child, a form of torture. Newborns are lovely, wonderful, adorable… and can be an assault on every fibre of a parent’s being. Any new mother (and father) will tell you that getting out helps maintain sanity.

Some will say, all right, lactators can come out – but why do they have to breastfeed in public? Why can’t we insist that they must find a quiet and private spot for it?  Frankly, most women would prefer this because it makes for a better nursing session for them and the baby, but sometimes it’s just not on. Plus, to order that women must hide behind curtains or towels, or step into a coat closet, a toilet (who eats on the toilet?) or storage room – all of which I was asked to do when I was breastfeeding – suggests that what they are doing is embarrassing, something to hide away. It’s not, and our collective actions as a society should not ever try to make it so. 

A “coat closet” moment can be just a little glitch in one’s day, but often the damage goes deeper. My three children are now in their 20s, but it still stings when I remember how awkward and hurt I felt when I was asked to go into a back room to feed them. I had to keep reminding myself that breastfeeding is not grotesque or freakish or disgusting – unless something in the eye of the beholder makes them think it so. (And what’s THAT about, anyhow?)

 

3. You’d gain a fuller understanding of breasts – beyond the one our sexualised culture spawns.

It can’t be that you’ve never seen a naked breast in public. By my estimate, everyone in Britain could see, oh, I don’t know, at least 3 or 4 a day without really trying hard. The Sun, with its daily topless offering, is the biggest-selling newspaper in Britain. On magazine covers, billboards, TV shows, music videos, the Internet, women are so regularly sexualised, and bare or almost-bare breasts so ubiquitous, that we don’t even notice. Pornography that would have put its makers in jail when I was a kid – horrible and degrading images of women being beaten, violated, crying, gang-raped – is now available at the click of a mouse, free, for any 11-year-old to find. Is it just me who finds it strange that this commercial feasting on breasts goes on all around us, while a baby feeding on one causes consternation?  When you see a breast being used to nourish rather than to simply stimulate, it might just broaden your perceptions and take away some of the numbness caused by over-exposure. Worth a try.

 

4. You’d actually be abiding by the law.

Despite all the hoopla and public debate that the Claridge’s incident has generated, breastfeeding in public is actually an uncontroversial issue in most countries. Many have specific laws that protect the right of women and children in this regard. In England and Wales, breaches of the Equality Act can be brought to county courts within six months of the date of the act. Demand for compensation can cover any inconvenience, including injury to feelings. In Scotland, it is furthermore a criminal offence to try to prevent a woman from feeding her child (under the age of two) in public. As for the United States, most states have laws that allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. (The exceptions are West Virginia and Idaho, in case you have any upcoming travel plans.)

So, mothers:  we support your right to nurse wherever and whenever your child needs it. If you experience any resistance or harassment, please give me a call. I’m glad to offer legal support.