Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Breastfeeding in Public

“Put those puppies away, love. We’re trying to conduct council business!”

Another nail in the coffin for positive breastfeeding awareness has been hammered in this week.

Emma Mitchell was visiting her local civic centre was told she could NOT breastfeed. While attempting to research how to become a babysitter (in line with her local authorities’ guidelines) was told she couldn’t breastfeed her son on the premises. Staff at the Civic Centre in Oldham told Ms Mitchell that breastfeeding was not allowed within the confines of centre as it was a multicultural centre.

Despite reassurances from Emma that she would feed her son discreetly she was told to go to the nearest shopping centre in Manchester to find somewhere to feed him. Had she listened to the helpful instructions of the receptionist Emma would have to leave the civic centre trek to the shopping mall to feed her son and then come back to the centre for the information she that was after. The unpleasantness of the experiences caused Emma to leave the centre and go home, without the information she came for in the first place.

The council’s spokesperson, Councillor Akhtar had this to say: “not every building is suitable for breastfeeding and that is the case with the very busy, open plan layout (of the centre)”. Nothing about the multicultural nature of the building was mentioned. To appease the journalist, he added that feedback from residents was always welcome and that they will review procedures.

I very much doubt that the Oldham civic centre will suddenly move premises, given that they stated it was due the nature of the building that prevented Emma being able to feed her son. This story is just another example of how little tolerance the general public has for the sight of a woman breastfeeding. This intolerance, in my opinion, contributes to our poor breast feeding rates here in the UK. The NHS can be temporarily smug regarding a raise in newborn breastfeeding rates but this still doesn’t change the fact that beyond birth rates fall dramatically only days after starting feeding. Stating that at least eight out of ten babies is breastfed at least once after birth really isn’t that much to be excited about. Once is never enough! Recent evidence shows that the number of women continuing to breastfeed past 6-8 weeks is still ridiculously low. Poor advice, little support and public condemnation all contribute to women giving up far too soon.

In the background of this latest piece of news is the fact that the government stepped back from funding National Breastfeeding Awareness week, a campaign that launched eighteen years ago to encourage new mothers to feed and to continue to feed their children. The latest ONS data shows that as well as feeding figures being low, that there is still a huge discrepancy between socio-economic groups regarding those who begin and maintain feeding. There is great regional variation, however, and striking difference between women of different backgrounds. Those with professional and managerial jobs and higher levels of education are most likely to begin breastfeeding. Across the UK, 90% of women in managerial and professional jobs began breastfeeding (up from 88% in 2005), compared with 74% of those in routine and manual occupations and 71% of those who have never worked (both up from 65% in 2005). There is also a direct relationship between the amount of education a woman received and starting to breastfeed. Among those who left full-time education after the age of 18, 91% initiated breastfeeding, but among those who left at 16 or earlier the figure was only 63%.

While educated, professionally successful women can access help that they can pay for themselves, the government campaigns were the only source for the rest of society. The NCT confirms this. Rosie Dodds, senior policy adviser for the National Childbirth Trust, said: "It's great news that more women are starting to breastfeed and that more are getting the support they need to stop smoking while they are pregnant.

"Four-fifths of new mothers plan to breastfeed – we don't yet know how many are enabled to continue ... We do know from previous surveys that most find that they have to stop breastfeeding before they want to because they do not get the help they need. Every year more than 200,000 mothers stop breastfeeding in the first few days and weeks – 90% of these mothers would have liked to continue (had they had enough support).”

There can be positive approaches to the sad realisation that in this day and age, breastfeeding still makes the authorities, the public and the media squeamish. This is made manifest in the recent flashmob breastfeeding events that have been taking place over the UK. In Manchester, not too far from the Oldham civic centre, hundred of women gathered in a shopping centre to breastfeed their children.

Image: dailymail.co.uk

You’ll notice from the picture that quite a few fathers were there to lend their support! Recently, in Paddington railway station over 170 mothers gathered together to spontaneously feed their babies and toddlers in the middle of a busy day.

Image: Henleystandard.co.uk

On a personal note I have breastfed two of my kids with varying degrees of success. It is something that is not always easy and when there is the added public pressure on you to cover up and be ashamed of what you are doing this can cause problems. I’ve seen myself hiding in disabled toilets, sweating, along with my babies under blankets and leaving longer than I would have liked between feeds in a bid to make other people feel comfortable about MY breastfeeding.

We have had some very interesting discussions over at BDT HQ on this subject. The increasing sexualisation and fetishisation of breasts has perhaps detracted from their intended use. Breasts are on display everywhere these days but only for the consumption of the male gaze. Women are now used to controlling how little or how much is exposed knowing that the viewer is a man. Whether it is on the street, in a nightclub or in a board room meeting, levels of exposure determine levels of attention and usually solely from males.

Also since the advent of industrialisation, modern society has become incredibly prudish when it comes to natural bodily functions. Civilised, progressive society employed women to rear their children for them in the form of nannies and nursemaids to feed them. The introduction and wholesale of formula made breastfeeding seem archaic, unseemly even.

Saying this, I have been in the situation where someone has started to breastfeed a baby without prior warning and it has made me feel uncomfortable. I know this is my reaction though and quickly dealt with it so as the other woman did not feel uncomfortable. I come from an area where women do not breastfeed and none of my family have attempted to breastfeed so I haven’t had to sit on the other side looking in. I had a meeting with a publisher who at the time had just given birth to a new baby. Over coffee while I was discussing my plans for my feature, she lifted up her top and started to feed the baby. I saw everything and became very interested in the bottom of my coffee cup while the infant suckled away and she gave me feedback on my ideas.

Please feel free to share your opinions and experience in the comments box below.

If you are breastfeeding and experiencing problems or are feeling pressure from the public then please check out these sites.

The Lactivist – a fantastic resource run by breastfeeding mothers and a very busy Lisa Lactivist. Any questions big or small are answered by Auntie Lactivist at any time. There is also an associated Facebook page and blog.

La Leche League

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