Our Call to Action campaign highlights the role we can all play in developing a culture where breastfeeding is supported and normalised. A key part of this is to create a welcoming environment for women to breastfeed out and about. In this guest blog, breastfeeding counsellor Emma Pickett, who also wrote a blog about the dangerous obsession with the infant feeding interval, addresses women’s worries about public breastfeeding and suggests how to overcome them.
Often, when I’m visiting a mum in her home and have helped her to breastfeed more effectively and comfortably, she asks, “But what would I do if I was feeding outside the house? How would this work if I wasn’t sitting here?”
It reveals just how much the subject of breastfeeding outside the home nibbles at the minds of many new mums.
Mothers and babies are not allowed to be discriminated against on the grounds of breastfeeding. Their access to businesses and services is not allowed to be restricted. You are not allowed to ask them to move on or to stop. It’s not complicated. It really isn’t. The Equality Act 2010 protects mums in England and Wales. In Scotland, it is a criminal act to stop anyone breastfeeding up until the age of two.
But the law doesn’t automatically change how people feel.
The idea of breastfeeding in a public place feels scary when the whole breastfeeding things feels new and you are getting used to your body behaving unpredictably.
Are feelings based on reality? A Start4Life poll showed that 72% of the UK population “support” breastfeeding in public. Yet a third of mums still feel uncomfortable.
The media loves a story of a breastfeeding mum being harassed. And there’s no doubt that there are some poorly educated employees and members of the public sailing beyond the law and embarrassing themselves regularly. But these stories make headlines precisely because they are rare and juicy. If 72% support breastfeeding in public, a heck of a lot more really aren’t that bothered. And I’ll bet in the tiny group that are bothered, most will mumble an internal dialogue that the mother doesn’t pick up on.
Yet it doesn’t stop it feeling scary even when we know the statistics.
In my years of breastfeeding, I have fed all around the world – on planes, trains, mountain-sides, cafes, doorsteps, bus stops – and not once have I ever received a negative comment or glance or been asked to stop. The response has either been warm and supportive or indifferent. I have spoken to many experienced breastfeeding mums and breastfeeding counsellors and none of them have ever received a negative comment.
Yet it doesn’t stop it feeling scary even when experienced breastfeeding mums tell you not to worry and in their experience everything is fine.
What might help breastfeeding mums who feel intimidated?
Acknowledge what the scary bit is for you. What is the thing that you are really, really worried about? The thing that worries you won’t necessarily be the thing that worries your friend.
Are you worried about people seeing your breasts? People seeing your new baby tummy? People seeing milk dripping or spraying? People seeing you in pain? Not having your stuff with you? Are you worried about people saying something negative? Depending on what your worry is, you might address the problem differently. What is the absolute worst thing that would happen in your worst nightmare? Imagine it. How is it likely to go?
The need for public support and protection
For one person, it might be the middle-aged bloke yelling across the room that it’s disgusting that you are breastfeeding outside the home and he doesn’t want to see that. He’s joined by everyone else, rising out of their chairs and moving towards you with threatening expressions on their faces.
Is that what happened in that internet story someone posted on your birth group? I bet actually someone came to the mum’s defence: the person on the train who protected her or the employees in the bowling alley who formed a line and threw the bloke out (and several of these videos are set up by actors to test public reaction and get a nice bit of internet clickbait by the way).
The new mum would have felt scared but she probably also felt protected by those around her and angry on behalf of her baby.
Step one: Focusing on baby
If it’s more likely that you are worried about looks, don’t look around the room. Why should you? I remember when my own son was less than six months old and I was feeding him in a café in an unfamiliar town, I scanned the room before I started. I clocked a man across the room chatting to a friend and when I was feeding, I looked over again. Why did I do that? What on earth was I doing? Almost certainly giving off a nervous vibe which is the sort of vibe an unkind person might sometimes thrive on. As it happened, the café customer I had first clocked called across, “You’re alright love. Good on ya.” OK, that was pretty embarrassing too as it happens but I expect he had felt obliged because he sensed I was nervous.
I once spoke to a mum who took off her glasses when she fed to stop her being tempted to look around. It’s probably not going to help the breastfeeding if you’re nervous so just give your focus to your baby for that moment. They will latch on more easily and oxytocin is more likely to be produced.
Step two: Overcoming embarrassment
Is the scary thing actually about being outside of the house with a new baby? I think for many people the nightmare is not the weird shouting person but it’s that you will have a crying, screaming loud baby and you won’t be able to sort it out. They might get themselves in such a frazzle that they can’t even latch on. And then what would you do?
At home, you try some skin-to-skin or walk around for a bit and try another room. You are not disturbing anyone else unless you have thin walls and neighbours who are home. But in a café there are people everywhere and they’re also very close. People who want to relax and talk to others. People who have their own stresses. And you are making so much noise.
I promise that everyone in that room is feeling sorry for you and wishing they could help. We are British and get embarrassed so our embarrassment and discomfort for you might look like edginess for other reasons but we really just wish we could help.
That’s not about breastfeeding really, it’s just about fear of loss of control.
The solution to this is time. After a few more weeks and months, it feels easier. Babies still cry but you feel better about not being able to retain control. Choose places to go where you know you could escape if you really needed to. Go with people who offer you emotional support. Who you have with you when you breastfeed outside the home in the early days is really important. Go to a café with your partner or your mum to practise. Meet other mums in a welcoming library space and tell them if you are worried. It’s important to have people with whom you don’t have to pretend you are sailing through this parenting experience and who you can ask for help. See if you can find some friends that don’t always meet outside the home.
Step three: Making yourself comfortable outside the house
It’s not just who you are with, the way you breastfeed helps too.
I’ve met mums who say that they don’t want to use a cushion at home because they won’t have one when they are out and about. Sod that. If you want to use a cushion, use a cushion! Be as comfortable as you can for each breastfeed that you do. There’s no point in making strict rules about these things.
Babies change shape really quickly – all over their bodies. They get heavier and their heads move differently for starters. But we change shape too. I’ve supported mums who find breastfeeding is getting trickier after a couple of weeks and it turns out that they were previously resting baby on their arms and their arms on their baby belly. When their belly started to go, their arms were doing more work and they started to get more tired.
If you find yourself loving your cushion at home, the idea of breastfeeding without it seems terrifying. Well, if you want to put it in a plastic bag under the pram and take it out with you, who cares? Do it!
But you may find that this other chair is a different height anyway? Perhaps it doesn’t work quite the same with your cushion? You may want to rethink. You could improvise with a rolled up jacket or even your change bag but I would try and develop a position where the baby’s weight is supported by your torso and not a cushion nor just your arms.
Have a look at Nancy Mohrbacher’s resources on Natural Breastfeeding. If you lean back a bit, a baby can be supported securely against your body and cushions and all the rest of it doesn’t matter. You don’t even need to do it in a sofa (though coffee shops are good at those). You can slouch in quite an upright chair by scooting your bottom forward and putting your leg out in front of you to support you.
Truthfully, the position you use in the corner café might not be super perfect. It might just be good enough.
Breastfeeding for comfort and reassurance
For a breastfeeding baby, breastfeeding isn’t just about the milk. When you are out in the big wide world and you are very small and everything else seems very loud and big, being attached to mummy also brings calm and contentment.
And all of this is about your baby. They can’t stand up for themselves. They can’t write a rude comment on that article when someone makes a stupid comment about public breastfeeding. They can’t shout at the television when a daft celebrity makes a lazy statement. What would they say to you? What would they say when you were feeling nervous?
I doubt they would want you to feel stuck at home. They want to see the world too. They would want you to leave the house whenever you wanted to. But also not to feel that you had to.
And they might thank you for helping to create a world where other women feel able to breastfeed in public. Every time you breastfeed outside the home, you make someone else feel that little bit better and normalise it for the next generation – for the little girl who may not have her own baby until 2040 and might not even remember that she saw you but it’s in her subconscious somewhere. For her partner who will support her. For the woman who is now going to breastfeed outside her home next week.
You can add your voice to Unicef UK’s Call to Action campaign, calling on UK governments to take urgent action to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.
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