Why is breastfeeding STILL such a taboo?
By Miranda Levy
Last updated at 12:44 PM on 09th July 2009
The letters arrived in their hundreds. 'I was breastfeeding my daughter on the bus - she was covered in a blanket,' wrote Hayley Johnson from Luton.
'The conductor got on and told me I'd either have to stop, get off the bus, or move to the back.'
Helen Orr, of Northern Ireland, told me: 'I've sat on toilet seats in cubicles and taken 20 items of clothing to "try on" into changing rooms, just so I can feed, because there's nowhere else.'
Natural bond: Two thirds of mothers maintain that feeding their baby in public had been a stressful experience
Then there was Elle Hanson, recalling the time she discreetly tried to feed her son in a 'family-friendly' pub until 'a woman told me I shouldn't do that in front of other people's husbands because it's obscene'.
Anyone who thought breastfeeding in public is no longer a contentious and provocative issue should think again.
Those are just some of the personal experiences that poured into me at Mother & Baby magazine when we lauched a nationwide breastfeeding survey.
We were seeking an answer to the question: Is Britain breastfeeding friendly? And the answer was a resounding, regretful 'no'.
Of the 1,200 women who took part in our online poll, 60 per cent felt that the UK frowned on breastfeeding mothers. Two thirds maintained that feeding their baby in public had been a stressful experience, and more than half of these had been asked to move out of a restaurant, cafe or coffee shop when they were feeding.
These figures might go a long way to explain the official statistics on how many women actually breastfeed in Britain.
According to the 2005 UK Infant Feeding Survey, just 78 per cent of new mothers ever attempt breastfeeding, compared with 99 per cent in Norway, 91 per cent in Italy and 84 per cent in Spain.
'A staggering 65per cent said they simply 'felt too self-conscious about people staring'
By six months, only 22 per cent of UK mothers are still doing it. Of course for some people, a woman with a newborn at her breast is seen as the quintessential image of new motherhood, the natural way to bond.
Moreover, thanks to high-profile government campaigns, we are more aware than ever of the health benefits for both baby and mother. These include protection against childhood infections, obesity and allergies, as well as lowering the risk of cancer and diabetes for the baby. And for the mother, there is protection against breast and ovarian cancers, osteoporosis, heart disease and stroke. And yet for many other people, it remains something that is unpleasant or even physically repugnant that should be hidden away.
The feeling from our survey is that most women actually want to breastfeed. Everyone we asked (whether breast or bottle feeding) said they understood the health benefits. But the saddest thing was the reason so many women said they didn't even intend to try. A staggering 65per cent said they simply 'felt too self-conscious about people staring'.
So why is Britain still stuck in the dark ages in our attitudes to this basic part of motherhood? Rosie Dodds, senior public policy officer of the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), who supported our research, says: 'The results of this survey are unsurprising. There are many reasons why we're lagging behind much of Europe.
'First, the Mediterranean countries and Scandinavia have much more of a family culture. Parents and children are seen out together far more at restaurants in the evening; in the UK, there's still a residual "children should be seen and not heard" approach.
'Then there's the prudish British attitude that breasts are for sex, not for babies, coupled with the fact that many women just aren't as confident in their bodies as women are in other areas of Europe.
'And finally, breastfeeding is a generational thing - if you've never seen your mum, parents or aunts breastfeed, it's hard to start doing so yourself. Many young women have never seen another woman breastfeed.'
Many women are still finding themselves on the wrong end of hostility if they breastfeed in public
A generational thing, perhaps, but it's also a class thing. According to a 2004 study by University College, London, women in routine jobs are four times less likely to breastfeed than universityeducated women - those with professional jobs and those aged over 30 when they gave birth.
This new survey also revealed a regional split. Breastfeeding mothers in London found themselves less likely to be challenged by other people in the same restaurant, for example, whereas the North-West (65 per cent) and West Midlands (63 per cent) were considered the most stressful areas to be a breastfeeding mother in terms of being abused or made to feel unwelcome.
Wherever they live, and whatever their chosen careers, many women are still finding themselves on the wrong end of hostility if they breastfeed in public.
Annabelle Turner, 31, is a sales manager for a national catering chain and mother to Jemima, who's ten months. 'It was always my intention to breastfeed,' she says.
'My mum breastfed me, and my NHS antenatal class convinced me of the overwhelming health benefits. Luckily, my daughter took to breastfeeding straight away.
'Until the British public decides to embrace breastfeeding, it's down to mothers to stand our ground'
'When she was a month old, my husband and I decided to take Jemima out for lunch for the first time, to a local pizza restaurant in South London.
'I started to feed her, very discreetly. Suddenly, I got the feeling everyone was staring at me, as if I were doing something inappropriate. One couple were even whispering behind their hands.
'I started to feel incredibly stressed, and Jemima could sense my tension and slowed down her feed. My husband encouraged me to continue, but I felt like bursting into tears.'
And in the end, Annabelle and her husband gobbled up what was left of their meal and went home.
'Since then, I've changed the way I organise my day,' she says. 'I avoid going out a feeding times, and only go to specific "baby friendly" cafes.
'The public's attitude has affected my friends, too - several of them now feed their baby with formula milk during the day, and only breastfeed at home at night, precisely because they hate that kind of reaction.' Many groups - including the NCT - are working hard to make public breastfeeding more acceptable.
'We know most mums start out breastfeeding their babies, but one of the reasons they stop is that they feel uncomfortable doing it when they are in public,' says Anne Fox, head of campaigns at the NCT.
'I agree that the biggest change in attitude has to come from the public. In our survey, two-thirds of our readers wanted 'more positive images of breastfeeding women'.
For this reason, for the August issue of Mother & Baby, we've taken the groundbreaking step of putting an image of a breastfeeding model and baby on the cover - the first time a UK magazine has used such an image.
Until the British public decides to embrace breastfeeding, it's down to mothers to stand our ground.
Mothers such as Tamsin Hazelwood, who contacted us this week to share her memories of breastfeeding her firstborn in a pub toilet cubicle.
'Outside, women were swearing and laughing, and there I was, baby in my arms, crying because I was alone and feeling stupid that I was in a loo trying to feed my child,' she wrote.
'My fiancé and I are planning for another baby in a few months and I've promised myself I will breastfeed wherever I want to. I'm just going to get on with it, and simply smile back at anyone who stares until they stop looking at me.