85% of British mothers say they cannot breastfeed in public due to the stigma attached, yet 93% of parents say that they should be able to give their babies the best start in life by Breastfeeding regardless of where they are, according to a survey recently released by The Baby Show.
What are the advantages of breastfeeding?
The advantages of breastfeeding cannot be understated, both for the mother and her baby.
Often referred to as "liquid gold," breastmilk contains powerful antibodies that help babies fight off viruses and bacteria as well as providing the perfect mix of fat, proteins, and vitamins for a baby to grow. Some other benefits include breastmilk being more economical in terms of time and cost as well as it being completely clean and the right temperature. The act of breastfeeding also helps improve a mother's maternal bonding with her child as well as helping the involution of the uterus and restoring the pre-pregnancy body figure.
Why is the UK's breastfeeding rate so low?
Yet the UK has among one of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world despite 89% of new mothers having every intention of breastfeeding their newborn. This may be because 68% of new parents believe the government doesn't provide enough funding to help the 84% of mums who need help with breastfeeding, according to the survey. However, it may also be because of the stigma which surrounds breastfeeding.
Although ingrained in law across the UK with fines for organisations who prevent breastfeeding in public places, witnessing a woman breastfeeding in a cafe, restaurant or pub was uncomfortable for an average of 46% of people in the UK.
Despite it being illegal in Scotland for over a decade to prevent children under two being breastfed in a public place, a separate survey by the Scottish Maternal and Infant Nutrition Survey revealed that many women were still being asked not to feed their babies when they are out while over a quarter of the mothers surveyed said that they had been made to feel uncomfortable while breastfeeding in public.
For example, 24-year-old mother Lucy Foster in early January was left feeling humiliated by Tesco café staff in Plymouth when she asked if she could breastfeed her baby after ordering a cup of tea. A staff member responded to her by saying "it depends" and she was forced to feed her seven-week-old baby in a storage area which was cluttered with tables, chairs and Christmas decorations.
Similarly, in Australia, Brisbane software executive and mother of two, Kathy Smith, was forced to feed her child beside a toilet with no seat and several sanitary bins at The Qantas Club Lounge at Melbourne Airport despite recommendations from the Australian Breastfeeding Association being that nursing areas should be as hygienic as food preparation areas.
What steps have been taken to increase awareness of breastfeeding in public?
Meanwhile, high-street retailer Gap launched an ad for its new collection of cosy, comfortable intimates and lounge clothes called "Love by GapBody" which has garnered much praise after it featured a black woman breastfeeding her 20-month-old on its cover. The ad, which was originally posted on Instagram, features two photos of the Nigerian US-based model, Adaora Akubilo, who is seen breastfeeding her 1-year-old son Arinze. The latter was a natural moment on set after Akubilo asked for a break to feed her baby which the photographer, Cass Bird, asked if she could capture.
The ad is being regarded as groundbreaking, not just because of the breastfeeding but also because only one third of children are breastfed at six months despite the NHS recommending exclusive breastfeeding for this time as the milk has everything they need - they don't even need water, even in hot climates - and then followed with supplemented feeds for another two years.
Additionally, it is significant that a black woman is feeding a baby since black mothers are statistically less likely to breastfeed than white mothers, which many believe is down to the lack of representation of black mothers in the breastfeeding world. Indeed, in 2012, Black Breastfeeding Week was created in an effort to reduce the infant mortality rate of black babies and also to move away from the association often made between black mothers breastfeeding and slavery, as many female slaves acted as wet nurses for their oppressors.
Akubilo said that she found the photos "affirming" and also used her social media platform to say that it may not have been so easy for her to breastfeed at work in any other industry where many women are not given an adequate amount of breaks to use a breast pump. The model described these cases as "heartbreaking" and encouraged mothers to know their rights.
“I don’t want women to feel shamed,” Adaora said. “It’s so important to encourage mothers.”
Although Gap's ad campaign used the hashtag, #LoveByGapBody in its post and indeed seems to have had lots of new customers "fall into the Gap" after 16 consecutive down quarters and the planned shuttering of 200 Gap and Banana Republic stores, it has also led to the hashtag #NormalizeBreastfeeding going viral. #NormalizeBreastfeeding is a movement which was started in 2014 by Ghanaian-American mother of three Vanessa A. Simmons, which encourages women not only to nurse in public (as is their legal right in most states) but to do it shame-free if it means not using a cover.
The hashtag has also been picked up by former adult actress, Jenna Jameson, who shared a photo of her breastfeeding her 10-month-old baby, Batel Lu, on Instagram in Britain whilst breastfeeding awareness has also become common in Hollywood. Actress Jessica Alba, for example, shared a photo of herself breastfeeding her 7-month-old son Hayes at work. While it is recognised that Alba is the founder of $1.7 billion worth Honest Company and has the luxury of not worrying about breastfeeding at work, she later posted a photo on Instagram of her breastfeeding her son in a Target dressing room with a dog filter and arrow to her "tired eyes." While Alba understandably sought privacy, according to California law, mothers are allowed to breastfeed their children in any public or private location and Target specifically allows breastfeeding anywhere inside its facilities. By using the hashtags #workingmom, #entrepreneurlife and #breastfeedingmama, the actress is removing the stigma around it one post at a time.
A similar campaign also increased awareness of normalising breastfeeding in India when Gilu Joseph, a South Indian actor, poet, model and air hostess posed breastfeeding a child on the cover of a fortnightly Malayalam magazine entitled "Grihalakshmi" with a headline which roughly translates to "Mothers Tell Kerala, Please Don't Stare, We Need to Breastfeed." Despite the concerns of her mother and two sisters, the eldest of whom is a nun, Joseph said that while she understands their point of view, she was not going to be deterred from doing what she thinks is right.
While the majority applauded the effort to de-stigmatise breastfeeding in India, some were disappointed that a Christian lady was being portrayed as a Hindu woman, that she was not a mother herself, that it could have been more inclusive for unwed mothers if vermillion and other symbols of a married woman were not used and also that this was a glamorised version of breastfeeding.
Gilu responded to this saying that the assignment was simply given to her by the magazine, which wanted to send a message to all the mothers and wives to be fearless while exercising their right to breastfeed and also commented that it was not easy to make real breastfeeding mothers pose for pictures, though many were ready to speak out about it. They are hoping, though, that this first edition of the campaign will motivate more mothers to participate and share pictures and experiences of feeding their babies in public which will be featured in future editions.
What about mothers who cannot breastfeed?
It should also be noted that we must not shame mothers who cannot breastfeed such as those who suffer from post-natal depression which affects 1 in every 10 women within a year of giving birth and for whom breastfeeding often impacts their mental health significantly, making it even unhealthier for both the baby and the child as well as those who suffer from medical conditions which make breastfeeding painful. Mastitis is one of these conditions which is a painful infection of the breast tissue which causes extreme flu-like symptoms among breastfeeding mothers which actor Aaron Paul's wife, Lauren Paul, has suffered from twice after giving birth to their first child, a daughter named Story Annabelle. Additionally, a separate study by Our Lady of Valme hospital in Seville found that some out of the 25% of C-Section births, one in five mothers go through pain that lasts beyond three months and may not be able to breastfeed their baby. Anxiety significantly increases a woman's risk of suffering discomfort after the operation, the study also suggested.
How do we stop the stigma surrounding breastfeeding?
Unfortunately despite it being the 21st century, breastfeeding in public still remains a taboo, shameful issue, however, in something as natural as breastfeeding, the only shame is society's attempt to turn this most basic expression of love into a dirty secret and it's about time we ended that stigma.
Yes, there is more representation of breastfeeding in the media, more local schemes to help increase breastfeeding, more effective resources and literature, more spaces where breastfeeding is welcomed alongside more technological help, such as using apps and Alexa for advice, we still have more to do.
We need to educate people about the benefits of breastfeeding which is something that 77% of new parents agree with. Additionally, we need to have space for new mothers to comfortably ask questions and get advice about breastfeeding during and after pregnancy. For example, 64% of the women surveyed felt that access to 24/7 breastfeeding support such as a phone-line, website or chatbot would make mothers more likely to have a positive experience of breastfeeding while 59% said they would be more likely to try breastfeeding and 58% said that they would perhaps breastfeed for longer.
We also simply need to stop sexualising breastfeeding in any way so that a baby can be cared for in public and given the best possible start in life. The more breastfeeding is done publicly, it will #NormalizeBreastfeeding, become less taboo and we will have generations of healthier babies.