Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Jennifer Ramsey, Glasgow, Scotland, UK
Photo: Heather Crofts
A response to indignation at breastfeeding in public spaces and media storms.
I’m proud of my children and love the relationship they are building with each other, independently of me. Occasionally, however, whether through tiredness, illness, or just bad temper, one will level upon the other the most ludicrous or bizarre insult. When, for instance, one tells the other “you smell of poo,” or that she is an “uncle” not his sister, I feel that it’s best they do not engage directly with the insult but wait until communication can resume on a more sensible level. I’ve never known retaliating to infantile insults to end well and, most importantly, responding only serves to give the insult a legitimacy it doesn’t warrant. Talking about why you want to keep your paint set out of reach of a visiting 18-month-old toddler is a good thing. Answering at all when you’ve been asked why you have an alien head and tail is probably not.
And that’s why I’ve been disappointed by so much of the public reaction to a recent event that took place in a London hotel. A mother was breastfeeding her baby while dining in the hotel when a waiter produced a large cloth napkin and asked her to cover the feeding baby so as not to “cause offence.”
I’ve never known retaliating to infantile insults to end well and, most importantly, responding only serves to give the insult a legitimacy it doesn’t warrant.
It hasn’t all been bad and the mother in the incident said she’d been amazed by the support she’d received once the event became news.
Yet many supposedly intelligent and reasonable people acted as though they were entering into a real debate on breastfeeding in public spaces, as though it were possible a valid argument might exist against a child’s right to be fed.
In all the talk that followed the report, individuals mulled over whether or not they were “for” breastfeeding. As though allowing a baby to eat was on a par with choosing which soccer team to support. Public figures, journalists, and celebrities were all commenting as though this were a serious conundrum with two sides to consider.
Breastfeeding is a way to meet an infant’s basic human rights.
The right to food is a fundamental human right protecting the right for people to feed themselves in dignity. Stopping a baby being breastfed or harassing the infant’s mother for nursing is quite simply not allowed, and in the UK there is protection in law under the Equality Act 2010. It is not permissible to try to stop a woman breastfeeding her baby. The law has been clarified so that a business may even be responsible for how other customers treat a breastfeeding mother on its premises.
The law extends to the protection of companions with a breastfeeding mother and makes clear the duty to ensure members of staff are trained about the rights of breastfeeding women.
In Scotland it is an offence in law to stop a child being fed milk (breast milk or artificial milk) in a public place or on licensed premises.
And perhaps the inclusion of artificial milk and breastfeeding here is an important one. Would a waiter have urged someone feeding a baby a bottle of milk (artificial or human milk) to cover up with a white linen shroud?
You see, the thing about breastfeeding is it isn’t like deciding to have a coffee or a cigarette. Breastfeeding isn’t an activity like yoga or rock climbing or oil painting that some people are passionate about while others don’t give a hoot.
Breastfeeding isn’t so much about the mother, either, as about a mother meeting the needs of her child. It is about the child’s right to food when it is needed. It is about any person being able to enjoy time in public spaces. We should all have the right to eat somewhere clean and safe, to nourishment without fear, anxiety, or harassment.
Breastfeeding is a way to meet an infant’s basic human rights. Breastfeeding provides perfect nutrition, warmth, human contact, interaction, security, and love. Even more than that, it can increase the chance that a child will live at all. Infants who are not breastfed are 15 times more likely to die from pneumonia and 11 times more likely to die of diarrhea than those who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Breast milk is a super food for babies. Overcoming barriers to breastfeeding will save children’s lives.
A study in Brazil found that infants who were not breastfed at all had a 14 times greater risk of death than those who were exclusively breastfed. Victora, C., Smith, P. et al., Infant feeding and deaths due to diarrhea: a case-control study, American Journal of Epidemiology. 1989; 129:1032–41.
Like the right to an education, a nationality, a name, breastfeeding is of serious importance. And that’s why I felt sad about the people who seriously thought there was a debate to be had here. I feel sad about the effect these media storms have. How they serve to make breastfeeding seem like something people could reasonably be offended about. For women like me living in a culture where breastfeeding is not the current norm—I’d never even seen a breastfeeding baby until I was pregnant with my first child at 28—media hype created by stories such as these has an insidious effect. The idea that breastfeeding might not be normal seeps into our subconscious and takes root.
It’s right and decent to stand up and speak out against injustice and wrongdoing. Feeling offended by and challenging racism, sexism or bullying is laudable. Wonderful and positive changes have grown out of those sorts of challenge. But there are other things we have no right to be offended about or, more accurately, no right to expect our offence to be pandered to. If people feel offended by those of us with red hair, they can hardly expect all redheads to cover up or keep out of sight. Bigoted offence just shouldn’t be entertained.
And so next time a breastfeeding mother and child are asked to move or cover up, I hope people will simply respond that such a request is an offence in law and due process should follow.
On second thoughts, like the ridiculous insults my children can sometimes throw at each other, I hope we can grow out of and beyond this pettiness, and move up to a new level, one of support and respect, valuing the incredible contribution we can all make to humankind. Especially mothers!
Jennifer Ramsey has been co-Leading La Leche League Glasgow since 2008. She first found LLL in Ireland after the birth of her first child. She now lives in South West Scotland with her husband and home educates her children, Holly (9), and Thomas (4).