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Column: Breastfeeding in public is natural, and we need to see it that way

Feeding our babies is the most normal thing in the world, writes Chris Finn – so our attitudes have to change.

Chris Finn

BEFORE I GAVE birth to my daughter who is now four years old, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever breastfeed in public. I’m a social creature, so I knew that if I was going to breastfeed for any length of time, I would have to do it out and about. Staying at home was not an option!

However I was nervous about the thought of breastfeeding – not only in public, but in front of my own dad, father-in-law and other male relatives. I thought my issue would be fear of exposing my breasts (though once I had my little girl, I realised that keeping my breasts covered was easy enough and I was more worried about exposing my post-baby belly!) Thankfully a top tip from my local breastfeeding group was to buy some string tops, which I could pull down under my breast when feeding, with my outer top sitting just above my daughter’s face as she fed, ready to drop instantly should the need arise. All sorted, easy as anything, away we go, right?

Well yes for me, but it’s not the end of the story for everyone. On Monday February 6, Friends of Breastfeeding organised the Irish element of an international protest about Facebook removing pictures of mothers nursing their babies. As part of that I participated in media interviews, some of which included guests with views very different to my own. There were those who thought breastfeeding in public shouldn’t happen, that it was a private thing and some who compared it to having sex or urinating in public.

They held the view that if sexual images are not allowed on Facebook, breastfeeding images shouldn’t be either! They didn’t seem to grasp the major difference; that having sex or urinating in public is against the law, while breastfeeding in public is protected by law.

Breastfeeding is just a baby eating, something which babies need to do frequently – and why shouldn’t they do so where everyone else eats? The logical argument follows that if something is acceptable in public, why shouldn’t you post a picture of it on Facebook? I don’t know of any other situations where something is appropriate in normal social circumstances, but not appropriate on social media!

‘Fear of breastfeeding in public is one of the biggest obstacles’

The good news is that by far the majority of Irish mothers who have breast-fed in public have never had a negative reaction. The bad news is that out of mothers who are breastfeeding at four months, 49 per cent of them have never breastfed in public. Research on why mothers stop breastfeeding – or choose not to – shows fear of breastfeeding in public to be one of the biggest obstacles.

The root of our issues in relation to breastfeeding in this country seem to stem from the lack of value we put on breastfeeding. Improved breastfeeding rates would be a major step towards slowing our obesity epidemic, reducing the rate of breast cancer and cervical cancer for mothers and reducing childhood illnesses such as ear infections, diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections and gastroenteritis.

Yet even though the HSE and World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend breastfeeding to age two and beyond, for the first six months exclusively we still have the worst breastfeeding rates in the world.

“But breastfeeding is really hard” some say. “Not all mothers can breastfeed and they shouldn’t be made to feel guilty if they can’t.” Absolutely, no mother should be made to feel guilty. However mothers deserve the facts, including the basic concept that by far the majority of Irish women can breastfeed if they want to. In Norway 99 per cent of mothers breastfeed and we are not genetically any different so it is logical to assume that similar numbers here are capable. However, the support for breastfeeding in Norway is very different.

And there’s the crux of the issue: support, or lack thereof. As women, we lack confidence in our ability to sustain our babies with our milk alone, even though our body has provided everything that baby needed for the previous nine months. Babies are fed constantly when in utero, so it’s reasonable to expect that they will need to feed often after they are born. But many of those around us will dent our confidence with comments like “is that child feeding AGAIN?”

Our society designates a nice long gap between regular feeds and ‘sleeping through the night’ as the markers of parenting success. But breastfeeding is the biological norm, so maybe we need to look at why babies who are not breast-fed aren’t doing the same as breastfed babies, rather than the other way around.

‘We don’t talk about the ‘benefits’ of using our lungs’

What Friends of Breastfeeding are hearing from mothers is that while they themselves are happy to feed their child whenever they need, they are getting such comments from generally well-meaning friends and family. Basic concepts like ‘demand and supply’ – the more a baby feeds, the more milk your body makes – are not commonly known because our culture is so unfamiliar with breastfeeding.

So what if you are nervous about breastfeeding in public? The first suggestion Friends of Breastfeeding would offer, is to go to your local breastfeeding group as a safe, semi-public environment to help you get started. It could also be an opportunity to meet other breastfeeding mothers who might come with you for that first outing where you breastfeed in public. It can be a great confidence boost to sit opposite someone else who is breastfeeding, helping an older child with their lunch or who knows what else!

Beyond that you’ll probably realise that most people don’t even notice you are breastfeeding – discretion being a huge part of the reason breastfeeding isn’t seen in public. You can also always look for the Friends of Breastfeeding, ‘Breastfeeding Friendly Initiative’ logo in their window, which means that the business is aware of the rights of breastfeeding mothers.

As a society, we need to assess our values around breastfeeding and accept a few practicalities around our attitudes towards it. Guess what? Breast is NOT “best” and there are no “benefits” to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is the biologically normal way to feed a baby, so any alternatives should be considered relative to that. We don’t talk about the “benefits” of using our lungs in comparison to being on a ventilator or give up walking if we get a blister on our foot. We accept that sometimes these things happen and get on and fix the blister. Problems with breastfeeding need to be considered with the same importance placed on breastfeeding as walking.

Mothers need to know that if they do have breastfeeding problems, there is almost always a breastfeeding solution. Sadly however, what many mothers are telling us is that the most commonly offered solution to breastfeeding problems in Ireland is a bottle of formula.

Chris Finn is National Co-ordinator of Friends of Breastfeeding and mum to a four-year-old daughter. Friends of Breastfeeding work to support mothers to have the breastfeeding experience they choose. See their website at friendsofbreastfeeding.ie or check out their Facebook page.

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Chris Finn

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