Breastfeeding in public: discomfort matters


Breastfeeding is not the norm in the UK, and breastfeeding in public can be especially daunting to a new mother. The anxiety that many women face shows that. In the last Infant Feeding Survey, 45% of mothers said they felt uncomfortable feeding in front of others, and most acutely so in public spaces*. But considering that being out and about is our right, and part of women’s daily needs and practice, this makes it a big deal. If breastfeeding cannot be folded easily within women’s daily lives, then it is likely that it is a practice that will either not be taken up, or be carried out for very long by the majority of women, which is what we are seeing today.

At the start of my breastfeeding journey, I felt I was required to arm myself, at a moment where I was most disarmed, most attuned, and when my boundaries had blurred to include another being. When my first baby was born, it took me about 7 weeks to breastfeed out and about. I remember how the unsaid hurt. Stares and comments, as Holly McNish brilliantly puts it, cut like a knife. The shuffling, the discomfort of others. I felt it. Just the anticipation that it might be like this made me anxious. I remember how comments and looks and criticisms, positive or negative, veiled or not, felt like they went right in. I never had a thick skin, but it felt especially tenuous then. I have since read that women, when they have given birth, are flooded with a cocktail of hormones that attunes them especially to the non-verbal, the non-linear, that they absorb the emotional atmosphere, much as babies and children do. Some argue that this is because we need to attune to our babies needs, to their slight changes, to their ways of communicating needs, that are obviously non-verbal. Not forgetting that we just experienced opening up in a radical way: our boundaries are fluctuating, open, porous. So at this point, when we are arguably more attuned to atmospheres, to others, we found ourselves in an environment where breastfeeding makes others uncomfortable.

There is a geography to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding in public is about breastfeeding in front of others, and it includes many different spaces, not those most obviously public like park or street benches. It can be private but public spaces such as cafes, restaurants, shopping malls. It can even in your own living room when others are around. Kate Boyer is a geographer that has studied the spatial aspects of breastfeeding. She has shown how anxious breastfeeding in public can be for mothers, as they were concerned about embarrassing others. Women often felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, ashamed, and could sense that they were embarrassing others, and that was of concern. As well as those that had negative experiences, Boyer notes that just the anticipation of a negative reception made mothers anxious, and suggests that these emotional resonances of breastfeeding in public prove to be a barrier for breastfeeding duration rates. Many times, breastfeeding women who were struggling, see and take to formula feeding as a way to avoid the difficulties faced while breastfeeding in public*. This discomfort matters.

This geography is not even. The attitude towards women breastfeeding in public varies within different parts of the UK, within regions, cities, and in different pockets within the same cities too. It is interesting to note that in Scotland, where legislation that makes it illegal to ask anyone to leave a public place for breastfeeding, was passed earlier the rest of the UK, was were women were more comfortable breastfeeding in public. Overall, in the UK, it is more common to see it in the South, than in the North, in richer areas of cities than in poorer areas. A cultural shift takes time. For a law to change or to be put into place, there had to be some energy and movement behind it. Changing the law is one step, but for change to be long-lasting, practices, stories and beliefs need to change too.

I often wonder why people react so much to breastfeeding, why it ignites so much passion, one way or the other. The sexualisation of breasts is one of the issues. This is seen in comments about how it is ‘indecent’ to breastfeed in public, or how women should do so ‘discretely’. In many cases, women have to resort to arguing their legal right to breastfeed in public. At a time when women’s bodies, and especially breasts have become so sexualised, women end up having to argue that what they are doing is not obscene. This is the case in real and virtual spaces such a social media, where photographs of breastfeeding women are taken down, for instance. But there seems to me there is also something else at stake. I sometimes wonder if it is because it is an act so representative of love and nourishment that it triggers different things in people. Are these old and powerful memories, and maybe old wounds? We are all of women born, and we all have mothers: absent, loving, dead, cruel, nourishing, all types. We were all once very needy babies and children. Our experience of that is inscribed in our bodies. Seeing a woman breastfeeding seems to bring some of that up. It is sometimes useful to know that it is not about us, breastfeeding mothers, but about people’s own stories. It doesn’t hurt less but it can bring some perspective.

Beyond the uncomfortable emotions that breastfeeding in public can provoke, there is practical element that makes breastfeeding in public challenging. There is not much provision for breastfeeding in public spaces. In one sense, we can breastfeed anywhere: walking, talking sitting, doing. But I would also argue that there could be more thought and spaces that suit and fit us, the bodies of breastfeeding mothers and babies. And I don’t mean public toilets, or private ones for that matter. Spaces and places where we are welcome, where there has been thought and effort to make it a welcoming space. Bernice Hausman, a professor who has written thought provoking pieces on feminism and breastfeeding, argues that this lack of provision shows how breastfeeding is excluded from public life and how maternal practices are shaped by spaces (Hausman 2014: 279)*. Breastfeeding practice is shaped by the spaces we are in, as much as we shape these spaces.

More welcoming common and public spaces are needed, not only for mothers but for other users too. Public spaces express many of the values and needs and prevalent uses of the spaces. If we are in spaces of consumption and circulation, like urban city centres, the shapes of these spaces favour circulation, movement, ability to access products and services. But breastfeeding requires, sometimes, to be able to sit down, take our time. To have something to entertain another child perhaps. To feel safe. To be able to accommodate our bodies and the things we carry. In this context, it includes buggies and changing bags, and for it not to be to cold and wet, or too hot and exposed. To have shelter. Sometimes women prefer more privacy, sometimes having company is good and being part of the action. It depends. I am ambivalent about building separate breastfeeding spaces. It seems to give the message that we need a separate space, away from others, to breastfeed. On the other hand, it is sometimes nice to have a separate space. Though the spaces I encountered seem to lack imagination, they resemble a hospital, sanitised space: staring at a blank wall, the lighting is bad, no windows. A kind of toilet without the toilet. But I don’t think there is one way of creating a space for breastfeeding mothers that would suit every woman, every time and every situation. In the same way that adding more accessible toilets and spaces to wheelchair users helps open public spaces for diverse users, taking the above elements into account in varying localities around town would help breastfeeding mothers: different types of sheltered spaces to sit, without the need to rush or consume, a nice view preferably. Changing public spaces would alter our breastfeeding practice.

At the same time, breastfeeding practice shapes public spaces. It makes something visible that wasn’t and makes it more likely for other mothers to do it too. I think it asks a lot of women, who are many times feeling overwhelmed already and in a more vulnerable place, to act strong and change the culture. But it matters that we do it. There are many ways in which women have been trying to change and challenge perceptions. Breastfeeding in public is one of them. Each mother counts. Mothers create their own maps and new ways of using spaces, and can unwittingly give courage to other mothers. Seeing other women breastfeeding is encouraging. Other ways are through breastfeeding sits ins (check out and join us at our own breastfeeding sit in at ONCA!), protests, lactivism, sharing images through social media, which help in making things more visible, in asking for change, in imprinting new ways to use spaces. The more we see it, the more it starts to normalise breastfeeding.

In a sense what is needed is to envision a new kind of equality. If women and children and babies, especially those breastfeeding ones, are not welcome in public spaces, then we are excluded from public life. Hausman argues that ‘proclaiming an equality with men that mandates the ability to act as men in the social sphere (that is, to be autonomous individuals without physiologically dependent others) is to impoverish our expectation of what sexual equality should be’ (Hausman, 2004: 28)*. The lack of provision, the uncomfortable feelings around breastfeeding women, are not only issues mothers have to overcome, but are political, they are about equality. A new equality would have to challenge the myth of independence, and its underlying belief that we are strong and powerful if we don’t need anyone and do everything by and for ourselves. And that public spaces are just for independent able bodied individuals. The thing is, we all need each other, we are all interdependent. Not accepting this has damaged not only our human to human relations but also our relationship to our planet and fellow non humans. Breastfeeding mothers represent this interdependence in a stark and clear way. Making space for women and children, as well as other diverse needs, in public spaces, not only would make breastfeeding duration rates higher, but it would also be a step towards a more equitable society.

I am curious: What do you think would make spaces more welcoming for breastfeeding? What would these look like? 


Lucila x


* McAndrew, F., Thompson, J., Fellows, L., Large, A., Speed, M. and Renfrew, M.J. (2012), Infant Feeding Survey 2010, The Health and Social Care Information Centre.

* Boyer, K. (2016) ‘The emotional resonances of breastfeeding in public: The role of strangers in breastfeeding practice’, Emotion, Space and Society: 1-8.

* Hausman, B, (2004) ‘The Feminist Politics of Breastfeeding’, Australian Feminist Studies 19 (45): 273-285.

* Image from: LEILANI ROGERS #breastfeedingart#breastfeeding#motherhood#normalizebreastfeeeding

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