The Blog

It's Time To Stop Viewing Breastfeeding As A Bodily Function

The "breast is best" message is widely accepted in UK society and yet woman who assert the view that breastfeeding in public is a desirable social behaviour are accused of showing-off, being holier-than-thou and not following correct etiquette.

"Breastfeeding is natural and so is going to the toilet. Do you pee into a bucket next to you or do you get up and go to the bloody toilet?"

This is just one of 'enlightened' remarks revealed by UK researchers studying attitudes towards breastfeeding in public.

The analysis of more than 800 comments on news websites including The Telegraph, Mail Online, BBC News and The Guardian found that people who object to breastfeeding most commonly cited embarrassment of not knowing where to look and disgust at bodily functions.

And so the debate rages on. Is it okay to breastfeed in public and how much discretion should be used?

According to the study by academics at Sheffield Hallam University 45% of the public still think women should breastfeed with discretion in public and 20% feel they should not breastfeed publicly at all.

And yet the introduction of the 2010 Equality Act makes it unlawful for a business to discriminate against a breastfeeding woman.

It is no wonder then that there are such low breastfeeding rates in the UK, with just 23% of babies fed at six weeks old and a shocking 1% at six months.

Embarrassment when feeding in public has been cited by mothers as a key reason to discontinue or not initiate breastfeeding because they feel they have to choose between breastfeeding and going out, says Dr Cecile Morris, lead author of the research.

The aim of the study was to capture public opinion on breastfeeding by analysing responses to the widely reported story of a breastfeeding mother being asked to cover up whilst having tea at luxury hotel Claridge's.

The researchers found striking - but not surprising - differences between the green-ink brigade on various news websites with 50% of Guardian readers viewing breastfeeding in public as always acceptable, compared to 45% at The Telegraph and less than 20% at Mail Online.

Some of the quite frankly, bizarre comments highlighted in the research were that it was "good manners to cover up whilst nursing in public" and that breastfeeding made other people feel awkward because "they worry they will glance your way and be accused of being a pervert".

Others likened breastfeeding to other natural bodily fluids and functions saying "people don't need to be put off their food by the sight of leaking milking nipples" whilst another commented flippantly "taking a dump is completely natural so why should anyone be made to feel uncomfortable about dumping in public?"

Although only a small sample of the whole population, the study reflects an anxiety surrounding breastfeeding in the UK and the fact that many people think their feelings or comfort should be prioritised over the nutritional needs of a baby.

Dr Morris said: "Future work should focus on designing interventions and campaigns portraying breastfeeding in public as normal and desirable. These should be aimed at specific groups who appear to be the least comfortable with breastfeeding in public."

The "breast is best" message is widely accepted in UK society and yet woman who assert the view that breastfeeding in public is a desirable social behaviour are accused of showing-off, being holier-than-thou and not following correct etiquette.

Comments highlighted in the study revealed a contempt for women who breastfeed without discretion:

"I feel there is a modern trend for some women to really reveal in their breastfeeding and turn it into almost something to show off...The modern entitlement culture yet again."

These commenters must be spitting blood at the ubiquitous internet images of women breastfeeding at wedding ceremonies, in the supermarket or whilst practising gravity defying yoga poses.

But the fact that women feel the need to publish these images in a bid to normalise breastfeeding in public just serves as another reminder that it is viewed by many as a private act.

In fact it is only when we start seeing women breastfeeding ubiquitously in public rather than online that we will have reached societal acceptance.

The Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project launched in 2014 is a global attempt to reach universal acceptance of this kind.

But many of the photographs have simply become media fodder used to titillate and provoke reader reaction online.

This in turn perpetuates the view that breastfeeding in public is something abnormal, to be gawped at or repulsed by.

It does nothing to address the issue raised by Dr Morris and her team that human milk is still viewed by many as dirty and "a contaminant that should be controlled and contained" compared to bottle feeding which appears "sterile and clean."

If we are to normalise breastfeeding in public then as Dr Morris concludes in her research we need campaigns in which human milk is presented as food rather than as a bodily function.

We need to move away from the shame, embarrassment and discomfort surrounding breastfeeding and view it no differently as we would a child eating a snack.

To express your views on breastfeeding in public complete this short survey by Dr Morris and her team. They would particularly like to hear the male viewpoint.