The first time I ever breastfed in public was in a pub in Central London during the 2012 Olympic Games. I started feeding my 3 week old, sat at a table with friends and family, primed to watch Mo Farah compete in the 5,000m. Within minutes I was told I would need to sit outside as the pub didn't allow children in the bar area. I dutifully sat outside on my own, while Mo Farah flew over the finish line and got his second gold medal of the London Games. I think about that day often - as, I'm sure, does Mo Farah.
Skip forward two years, by which time I was on maternity leave for baby number 2, when I used to be a member of a very active Facebook group called the "Streatham Mums' Network". In December 2014 one post got the most comments ever seen in the group. A Streatham mum had visited Claridges and been asked to cover up while breastfeeding her daughter. The group exploded with comments from people who thought her treatment was unacceptable and others who thought it was fair. It even hit the national press. One thing that was said time and time again, though, was that a woman's right to breastfeed in public is protected by law.
But if that's the case, why are women being told to cover up? Either the law isn't being enforced properly, or it actually doesn't provide the protection people assume it does. Only recently, we hear about a woman asked to stop breastfeeding in a hospital.
The NHS advises women to breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months of a baby's life. Short of barricading the door, eating out of cans for 6 months, and slipping into a Netflix-induced coma, a mum will probably need to leave the house at some point in that time. So women have to breastfeed in public.
"Breastfeeding out and about is happening all the time," says Shereen Fisher, Chief Executive of the Breastfeeding Network (BfN), a national charity that wants to see women and families able to make informed choices about how to feed their children. "Occasionally, it attracts negative fuss and attention. The impact of these usually media-sensationalised events is that many women who may be thinking about breastfeeding worry about breastfeeding in public." In the most recent Infant Feeding Survey, over one in ten mothers who had breastfed in public said that they had been stopped or been made to feel uncomfortable doing so.
So what law is supposed to protect public breastfeeding? Most people quote the Equalities Act 2010, which states that a woman must not be treated 'unfavourably' because she is breastfeeding. But what does 'unfavourably' mean? Is it unfavourable to ask a woman to sit in the toilets to feed her child? Almost certainly, yes. Is it unfavourable to expect her to sit apart from her friends and face the wall? Again, almost certainly, yes.
But what about if she is asked to cover up, like in the Claridges case? This is not so clear cut. She can still talk to her friends - still eat her food and drink her tea - so is being treated 'differently' the same as being treated 'unfavourably'? Yes, I believe that making a woman do something she doesn't feel comfortable doing is 'unfavourable' treatment. But that is my opinion, rather than law.
My firm, Hogan Lovells, began working with BfN last year to try and get to the bottom of this uncertainty. We wanted complete clarity on what the position was for women who are told to cover up when breastfeeding in public. We both agreed that this clarity is lacking, and the uncertainty will continue until a discrimination case is brought before the court.
So what would certainty look like? In Scotland they have The Breastfeeding etc. (Scotland) Act 2005 making it a criminal offence to "stop or prevent a person feeding milk to a child under the age of 2 years." When asked what should happen if the customer of an establishment complains about a breastfeeding mum, Scottish government guidance on the Act is to "Politely explain to the customer that the [...] Act [...] allows a mother to feed an infant wherever and whenever she wants. Perhaps offer to relocate the complainant."
This makes it very clear to service providers what their duties are, and to mums what their rights are. It's the law. "If we want to make communities more breastfeeding-friendly," continues Shereen, "it is important to make the law as clear as possible for employers, hotel staff, swimming pool attendants and everyone. It shouldn't just be the responsibility of the 'nursing mother' to know her rights. It should be common knowledge that breastfeeding is both normal and important and we all have a responsibility in supporting it to happen."