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Breastfeeding in public: Why all the fuss?

We look at the ongoing debate on a woman’s right to breastfeed in public.

13 September 2016
by Claire Smith

Many nursing mothers have been met with derision when breastfeeding in public – whether they are covered or not. In fact, criticism of nursing mothers is so rife that a group called Normalise Public Breastfeeding in South Africa has been formed purely to propose a bill that will prevent mothers being stopped from breastfeeding in public.

And government completely backs breastfeeding. As Ruth Mathias from La Leche League South Africa (a non-profit supporting breastfeeding women) explains, the Department of Health’s 2013 Infant and Young Child Feeding Policy aims to actively promote, protect and support exclusive breastfeeding as a public health intervention to optimise child survival.

Why all the outrage?

But some in our society just aren’t comfortable with the idea of women feeding their babies in public. “Incidents that I am aware of are usually vague in their reasoning; that it is inappropriate, that someone may see a breast and that it offends others. I am not really aware of any genuine argument other than it makes some people uncomfortable,” says Mathias.

Could a lack of understanding around the act of breastfeeding be at the root? “I suspect it has to do with the low breastfeeding rate in South Africa; many people are just not exposed to breastfeeding and see it as unusual – abnormal even,” continues Mathias. “Breasts are seen by many as primarily sexual objects rather than the natural way to nurture a child. I think that the feeling of being offended comes from the perception that a sexual part of the body is being exposed.”

Certainly, the crux of the matter is that breastfeeding is a natural way to feed a baby. Nutrition is a basic human right. As such, it should be allowed to happen wherever and whenever is needed – and not confined to toilet stalls, as is often the case in shopping centres and restaurants.

Some public spaces do offer areas to feed babies, with comfortable chairs and so forth. “However, these aren’t always available at the moment when a baby needs to be fed and this still removes the mother from public situations where she may want or need to be,” says Mathias.

Do what works for you

“Most women who breastfeed in public do so to feed their child and want to be discrete doing it. Mothers who attend La Leche League meetings are sometimes worried about nursing in public and we suggest trying it out in front of a mirror to reassure them that nobody can really see anything,” says Mathias. “Most mothers wear clothing that makes it easier to feed discretely and some cover their babies with a cloth. Often mothers nurse in public without anyone really noticing anyway.”

Of course there are mothers who choose not to breastfeed in public. And that’s also okay. The bottom line is that mothers should be able to choose how, when and where to feed their infants. The important thing to remember as parents is: don’t ever feel forced to do something you’re uncomfortable with. 

Finding a balance

Public breastfeeding needn’t be offensive to anyone, nor should it be embarrassing. Mathias suggests that it comes down to dispelling the mystery and stigma around breastfeeding. “Education is key. Exclusive breastfeeding rates in South Africa are very low and this negatively affects us all. Debates in the media often centre on nursing in public and people’s emotional reactions to it rather than the positives of breastfeeding.” 

“The more people are exposed to breastfeeding as a normal part of life, the more new mothers will learn about it,” adds Mathias. Once the majority accepts an action as a necessity, it is no longer viewed as out of the ordinary.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com