Wednesday 19 December 2018

Don't like mothers breastfeeding in public? Then don't look

After a top hotel asked a nursing mother to cover up, Liz Kearney asks why we're still so squeamish

Public breastfeeding (Stock)
Public breastfeeding (Stock)
Lou Burns was asked to cover up with an oversized napkin in a five-star hotel (Photo:Twitter/andysrelation)
Mum-of-three Louise Burns was asked to cover up while breastfeeding.
Liz Kearney

Liz Kearney

Be honest with yourself: what do you really think when you see a mother breastfeeding in a public place?

Do you pay no attention and carry on minding your own business?

Or are you silently hoping that she'll stop, or at least cover herself up so you can't see what's going on?

If it's the latter, well, try putting yourself in the shoes of 35-year-old Louise Burns for a minute.

Mum-of-three Louise, pictured below, was enjoying an early Christmas treat of afternoon tea at the exclusive London hotel Claridge's this week with her mother, sister and baby daughter.

When she started to breastfeed her little girl, a waiter quickly approached her and asked Louise to cover herself and the baby with a napkin.

Unsurprisingly, Louise said she was "shocked and humiliated" by the request and took to Twitter to complain. Posting a photo of her baby covered by the giant napkin, she tweeted: "Asked to cover up with this ridiculous shroud while breastfeeding so not to cause offence at Claridge's."

Louise's tweet re-ignited the debate about whether it's acceptable to feed your baby in public - and particularly in the surroundings of a 'posh' hotel.

In the past, we've had the mother who was told to cover up on a Delta flight because she was upsetting fellow passengers, the women who were told to remove breastfeeding photos from social-media websites, and the mum who was asked to leave a public swimming pool for 'health and safety' reasons.

Claridge's has since defended its handling of the situation, saying that while they asked nursing mothers to be "discreet", they "embraced" breastfeeding. But as many mums have pointed out, "embracing" breastfeeding is a not choice that Claridge's is free to make. In the UK, as it is here in Ireland, the right to breastfeed in a public place is protected by law.

Interestingly, I contacted several top Irish hotels when writing this article to ask them about their own breastfeeding policies. But not one of them was available or willing to comment.

Should we be surprised? As a nation we are exceptionally coy about our bodies, which might go some way towards accounting for our historically low breastfeeding levels.

And yet, no matter how often we hear the message that breast is best, or how many doctors queue up to tell us how breastfeeding reduces obesity, improves gut health or lessens the risk of asthma and eczema, we remain squeamish about the topic.

Tellingly, a study done by Friends of Breastfeeding earlier this year found that of mothers who were still breastfeeding four months in, almost half had never done so in public.

Given our breastfeeding rates are so low in the first place - less than half of new mothers even attempt it and at six months the numbers still breastfeeding have dropped to 10pc - it's little wonder you seldom see breastfeeding mums out and about.

Given the choice, I would rather not sit in a cafe with my top pulled up. But as a breastfeeding mum, I was faced with two options: either I could get over myself and get on with feeding my son, or I could stay stuck inside in my own home for months on end. Like every other new parent, I wanted to carry on living a normal life.

And so I ended up feeding my baby, as discreetly as possible, in all kinds of random places: at the train station, in cafes, in a pub, in friends' houses.

I was never made to feel uncomfortable, and would have been utterly gobsmacked if anyone had said anything negative. And I would have been totally mortified to be treated in the same manner as Louise Burns.

What I wanted most was for no one would notice, and we could carry on with our day in peace.

"I think people don't like seeing other people breastfeed because that we don't like to be reminded that we are actually really only animals," says one mother I know. "We want to feel that we are more civilised than that."

You might say that afternoon tea at a posh hotel is the very definition of civilised.

But I would say if you really want to be civilised, just don't look.

Irish Independent

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