What's Your Problem With Mums Breastfeeding In Public?

It's 2022 and mums are still being shamed or told to cover themselves while breastfeeding in public spaces.
Amanda Caroline da Silva via Getty Images

Another week, another news story about a mum being shamed for breastfeeding her baby in public.

This time, mum-of-two Gemma Balmbra, 26, was reportedly told to “cover up” by a female staff member at an Asda store in Edinburgh when she breastfed her crying six-week-old baby at the checkout, according to Edinburgh Live.

The 26-year-old was left “shaking with anger” following the incident and, after making a complaint, has received an apology from Asda which stressed its breastfeeding policy was not followed in this instance.

“We have spoken to Gemma and reassured her that we are looking into this with the Straiton store and we will remind our colleagues of our policy on breastfeeding in our stores,” an Asda spokesperson said.

Unfortunately Balmbra’s story is not unique. Every week it seems like there’s a new article about a parent being shamed for breastfeeding in public. So it begs the question, why do some people still have such a problem with it?

Mums are legally allowed to breastfeed their babies in public – whether that’s a café, shop, library or on public transport – and it’s discrimination to treat a woman unfavourably if she is doing so, according to The Equality Act.

Yet they’re still subjected to comments or unwanted attention that makes them feel uncomfortable or embarrassed for feeding their babies in what is – let’s face it – one of the most natural acts between a mother and her child.

Caroline Marshall was breastfeeding her six-week-old baby near the back of her church when a female choir member suggested she could go and feed her baby in the children’s play area.

She didn’t move, but she tells HuffPost UK she felt uncomfortable with the exchange. “At first I was surprised! Of course, a little angry,” says Marshall. “But then I actually felt sad for her – it was another woman and perhaps she just didn’t understand we are trying to make feeding in public so much more normalised now.”

A survey by NHS Start4Life suggests 72% of people say they support women breastfeeding in public. A majority, yes. But when you break the stats down, it means roughly one in four people (the remaining 27%) still take issue with it.

So what exactly is the problem?

Experts and studies unanimously agree it’s mostly to do with the sexualisation of women’s breasts.

“Some people are uncomfortable with public breastfeeding because we’re conditioned to see breasts as sexual objects first and foremost,” Dr Kimberly Jamie, associate professor in the department of sociology at Durham University, tells HuffPost UK.

“But mothers are expected to be pure, asexual, even virginal.”

On top of that, society is only conditioned to see the ‘right type’ of breasts in this sexualised way.

Breasts are all around us in magazines and on screens, but not saggy, uneven, scarred or lumpy breasts – “and most definitely not lactating breasts,” Dr Jamie explains. Breastfeeding in public disrupts this sexualised narrative. Add a baby into the mix and it further complicates the issue.

The act of breastfeeding in public also makes people uncomfortable because it questions deep-rooted ideas about women and their bodies in public spaces, she suggests.

“Women’s bodies are expected to be clean, bounded, not leaky and traditionally covered up. Breastfeeding brings the messier, leakier side of women’s bodies into the public domain and takes up public space in an inherently gendered way.

“Public breastfeeding isn’t the same as men with their shirts off at the smallest hint of sunshine – it’s taking up space in a way which only women can, which is uncomfortable given how male-coded public space is.”

One extreme – not to mention, horrendous – example of how breastfeeding can be sexualised in public spaces comes from mum Firgas Esack, who was feeding her son, then six months old, in a park in Forest Gate, London, six years ago when she spotted a stranger masturbating nearby.

“I heard him muttering away to himself whilst crouched behind one of the carved statues with his trousers around his ankles.”

Esack had been walking home from her local swimming pool with her two-year-old and six-month-old when the youngest woke up cranky. “We stopped off and sat by the pond whilst I fed him – and Drum [my other son] had an orange,” she tells HuffPost UK.

Usually she would cover herself, but her go-to muslin was at the bottom of her bag, with shopping on top of it, and there didn’t appear to be anybody else in the park as it was during school hours.

But within moments of feeding her son, she realised they weren’t alone.

“I realised we had a peeping Tom when I heard him muttering away to himself whilst crouched behind one of the carved statues with his trousers around his ankles,” she says.

“It wouldn’t have occurred to me back then to have reported it or filmed it and posted it on social media or anything like that. That ‘flight’ instinct just kicks in and you scoop up your kids and leg it.”

Writer Anna O’Neil said she dreads having to feed her baby outside of her own home because of how it makes other people – but especially men – so uncomfortable. And in turn, makes her feel uncomfortable.

“Men and women both suddenly stop making eye contact, but I’ve noticed it most often among men,” she wrote in a piece for online news site Aleteia.

She suggests the problem isn’t her – or them – but rather that public breastfeeding hasn’t become normal enough in society to develop much etiquette around the practice. It’s something Ruth Maguire, founder of online breastfeeding magazine boobingit.com, believes too.

The negative thinking towards breastfeeding in public is because breastfeeding is still not normalised in the UK,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“This is largely down to a lack of education around breastfeeding and the normalisation of formula feeding. People are unaccustomed to seeing breastfeeding as they go about their normal lives and so the act of breastfeeding in public has become taboo.”

As a result, there is a pressure for mums to be discreet when feeding (using covers, for example), to go somewhere private to feed, or to give their baby a bottle of milk instead. It adds extra challenges to what should be a positive and relatively fuss-free experience for mum and baby.

The impact on mums and babies is not to be ignored

Public support of breastfeeding is, unsurprisingly, linked to uptake of breastfeeding among mums. So it’s important to have conversations about attitudes towards it – and how we can shift the narrative moving forward.

When mums are shamed for breastfeeding in public, studies have found they end up feeling nervous, anxious, embarrassed, exposed, intimidated and confused.

They may end up stopping breastfeeding earlier than they otherwise would, says Dr Jamie, or they attempt to express their milk and use a bottle in public, “which is cumbersome and eventually leads to them stopping breastfeeding”.

Some women will choose to continue breastfeeding “but venture out in public less, which is particularly worrying for women who are already isolated or marginalised,” she adds.

The impact of such shaming can be long-lasting too. Two decades ago, Fiona Johnson had been breastfeeding her then three-month-old on a garden bench at a London club when she was told by a staff member that she couldn’t breastfeed there.

“The only option where they allowed breastfeeding was in the ladies toilet,” she recalls. “To my mortification there was one suitable chair, right in the doorway. It was lunchtime and women were coming and going every 30 seconds and almost tripping over me on entering the loos. Each time the door opened I was on ‘full display’ into the hallway.”

She is still angry about it to this day. “There was not a single person outside, who was I offending?” she adds.

“To this day I still feel angry that I didn’t stand up for myself more. It’s one of the most natural acts in the world and I was made to feel grubby by having to sit in a doorway to the toilets.”
NoSystem images via Getty Images

Women who are asked to leave somewhere because they are breastfeeding are absolutely within their rights to challenge that request – but let’s face it, when you’ve got a baby in tow, it’s often easier to just move on.

There are also inequalities in who feels more or less able to undertake public breastfeeding and cope with discomfort. Research shows that mums who are relatively ‘privileged’ find it easier to navigate this complex and sensitive landscape than other groups, adds Dr Jamie.

It can feel a lot like groundhog day when mums are being routinely challenged or made to feel unwelcome for feeding their babies in public. So what’s the answer?

Everyone can help make a change for breastfeeding mums

To get everyone on the same page to be comfortable or accepting of public breastfeeding would require a whole scale re-evaluation of the position of women, their bodies and their breasts in society which means looking at education, porn culture, policy, media and much more, says Dr Jamie.

Sadly this isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

Instead, and in the meantime, we need to “empower women to feel confident in breastfeeding in public even against a backdrop of discomfort rooted in misogyny,” she suggests.

“This starts with organisations, employers and businesses knowing the law and abiding by it, so that women don’t have to worry about being asked to leave or go to the loo when they breastfeed.

“For individual women, knowing their rights and being unafraid to stand up for them – loudly – is important, but not something all women are able to do,” she adds.

Women who’ve experienced breastfeeding discrimination can contact the Government Equalities Office and a solicitor can advise if a claim can be brought forward.

In instances where women are made to feel uncomfortable for breastfeeding in public, peer support has been shown to be effective in giving them confidence to stand up for their rights and hold their ground.

“It’s also about all of us as citizens” says Dr Jamie. “We can all support breastfeeding mums by – for example, and only if it’s appropriate – intervening if we see a woman being asked to leave or cover up while breastfeeding.”