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Barbara Higham, West Yorkshire, UK
Photo: Betsy & Tobias
The right to breastfeed in public, even in swimming pools.
Reports in the news appear on a regular basis about mothers being told not to breastfeed their babies in public places.
Yesterday I read that following a two-year battle, nursing mum Victoria Hodgson received an out-of-court settlement of £2,000 from the Western Pool in Peel on the Isle of Man (which is in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland). The legal action arose after Hodgson had been asked to leave the water while breastfeeding her then four-month-old daughter on a step on the central island of the baby pool. The mother claimed she was “humiliated” and that the manager had asked her husband to get her to stop “doing that,” describing it as an “indecency and nudity issue” which was “causing offence to some of the younger lifeguards.”
The couple and their children returned to the pool the following week when the mother was once again asked to stop breastfeeding her baby. She was told, “Your breastfeeding could kill someone!” the Daily Mail reported.
She brought the legal action against the pool, arguing staff had contravened her legal right to breastfeed in public areas without discrimination. Both the Breastfeeding Act 2011 in the Isle of Man and the Equality Act 2010 in England safeguard this right. Treating a woman unfavorably because she is breastfeeding a child contravenes the Equality Act 2010.
“A business cannot discriminate against mothers who are breastfeeding a child of any age.”
The Equality Act 2010 has specifically clarified that breastfeeding women are protected. A business may ask a breastfeeding woman to leave its premises if the reason for this request is not due to her breastfeeding. However, if the woman later claims that discrimination occurred because she was breastfeeding, the business will have to prove that there was in fact no discrimination.
The Quick-Start Guide for Businesses who Sell Goods and Services states:
“DO make sure women you’re providing services to are allowed to breastfeed on your premises if they want to.
DO also ensure that mothers breastfeeding babies are not discriminated against, no matter how old the baby is.
DO train all your employees, especially those who deal with the public, to be aware of the protection from discrimination given to breastfeeding mothers under the Equality Act 2010.
DON’T forget, under the Equality Act 2010, discriminating against someone because they are with a breastfeeding mother is also prohibited, so companions of breastfeeding mothers who are also treated unfairly may have a claim, too.”
When cases such as Hodgson’s are reported in the media, there is often more than a hint of an implication that the mother is making a fuss about nothing. The fact that a mother has been ridiculed or bullied is made light of, particularly in the comments sections by the public.
In the coverage of this case, it was reported that the mother was asked not to feed in the pool as staff feared she could not adequately supervise her other children in the water at the same time. This seems unreasonable to me. My guess is that from her vantage point, in the center of the pool, she would have been able to keep a close eye on her children. Nursing a baby does not make you blind to what is going on around you.
The swimming pool’s new breastfeeding policy makes clear that women are welcome to breastfeed in the café, changing village, and spectators’ area. If staff members see women breastfeeding in the water, they are instructed to “explain politely that following a risk assessment in the pool and within the pool surround this is not permitted but that alternative areas are available.” I imagine such restrictions on nursing in or near the water will likely dissuade many nursing mothers in future from taking their babies and older children swimming at this particular leisure facility.
Additional objections to nursing in the pool include the possible discomfort of the other swimmers and staff. Whether a mother covers up when nursing a baby should be up to each individual and her own comfort level, not determined by the comfort level of possible spectators. Breastfeeding a baby is nearly always fairly discreet. The nursing baby covers the nipple and a good part of the breast too. All women in swim suits are exposing a certain amount of their flesh. If exposed breasts upset you, perhaps a public pool is not the place for you.
And what about the contamination risk? The idea that mother’s milk getting in the water of a swimming pool might contaminate it and endanger the health of swimmers is ridiculous. Breast milk poses no risk to anyone in a public swimming pool—even if the mother squirted it liberally into the pool or her baby regurgitated it in the water! Human milk is antibacterial and antimicrobial. Just think about what else may be present in the water of any swimming pool—urine, fecal matter, dead skin, sticking plasters that have fallen off, saliva, hair. Eeeew! That is why the water is chlorinated to kill bacteria that might pose a health risk.
Stopping a baby from being breastfed or harassing the baby’s mother for nursing is against the law not only in the UK. The right to breastfeed anywhere, anytime is protected, for instance, by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and by U.S. state laws. In Australian Federal Law breastfeeding is a right, not a privilege. 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.
Breastfeeding isn’t an activity that a mother chooses to do or not do based on how others feel about it, or only where others find it convenient or appropriate. A mother should not require approval or permission to feed and nurture her child.
Breastfeeding isn’t even about the mother and her rights really, it is about a mother meeting the needs of her child. It is about the child’s right to food, the right to be nourished with dignity, and actually that right is a basic human right.