Breastfeeding in Public is more than a Radio Rant

By Gwen Atkinson

I almost feel sorry for Alex Dyke. Earlier this week he decided (alongside his Producer Alun Newman) to broach the subject of breastfeeding in public in his push-the-envelope radio phone-in show. While I disagree with what he said and how he said it wholeheartedly, I don’t think he realised that he was taking on such a large, passionate and well organised group of individuals. He will have plenty of time to reflect on this as he has been suspended from BBC Radio Solent, despite apologising on air.

I did contact Mr Dyke and he gave me the courtesy of a reply, even asking me to contact the phone in show, and was prepared to speak to me off air before to reassure me of how my on air reply would be handled. For a number of reasons I declined and out of respect I won’t publish the details of a private conversation. I also did listen to the beginning of the phone in before it became unavailable. I switched off early as it made me very angry, so again out of respect I will only comment on what I heard. My personal interpretation was that his comments were not necessarily his own but deliberately inflammatory to get a reaction. He may regret what he said now, but here is my take on it nonetheless.

A common question is where is a woman allowed to breastfeed? The answer in England is anywhere she is legally entitled to be. This covers private venues because restaurants and gyms etc provide a public service. In the rest of the UK the guidelines are similar, and the forward thinking Scots have also made it illegal to prevent a woman from nursing. The exceptions to this are as follows: A small club with less than 25 members that provides no public service can legally state no breastfeeding, male-only clubs/organisations that provide a service aimed at that gender and places where it is unsafe to feed, such as industrial areas. I think even the most passionate lactivist would agree that this is fair and reasonable.

I’ll let you into a little secret, babies can’t speak. When you become a mother you become very sensitive to your little person’s body language, and by default everybody else around you. You become conscious of the little sideways glances, stiffening of jaws and other tell tale signs of discomfort. Very few people react that way, but for those of you that get uncomfortable with me feeding in public, I don’t want to make your day awkward and you are entitled to your opinions and feelings. But here is secret number two; my baby’s hunger, fear and pain take a higher priority. Add into this the fact no-one wants to hear a baby scream for longer than is necessary, so please respect that what I am doing is actually aimed at making things better for my child and, because of your proximity to us, you as well.

Mr Dyke said he thought breastfeeding mothers should keep to a private nursery and to a certain extent I agree with him. Caring for your child is such a personal relationship I want to focus on my baby without the judgemental stares of strangers or the well intentioned but utterly frustrating comments from friends and family. At home I have a comfortable chair, a nursing pillow, a drink handy and no distractions. Unfortunately, life means I do have to leave the house. There are bills to pay, appointments to attend and sometimes a quick run out to the shops, pretending to be a human being, is what stops me from losing what little of my mind I have left. Our contributors travel across the world, attend sporting events both as spectators and participants, rock on at music festivals, or go on family outings. The thought that women stop having a life once they give birth ended a good generation ago. The suggestion that we should time our excursions to in between feeds shows a complete lack of understanding of a baby’s needs. I challenge Mr Dyke or anyone with his views to leave the house with a child, use public transport, run the errands expected of us and return home in the allotted time. Add to this that the gaps between feeds are often as little as an hour or two and are subject to change without notice (demanding little lovable so and so’s).

Nursing in Public

There are very few places out and about that provide a suitable private setting to breastfeed. Most mother and baby rooms are in toilets and I have no desire to spend twenty minutes smelling someone else’s excrement. The chairs have no armrests, and if you think that isn’t relevant, pick up a small animal weighing 15lbs and hold it to your chest for half and hour while it wriggles. Oh by the way, your stomach muscles are shot because of a recent pregnancy, so get someone to poke you to replicate the back ache most new mothers have. Whilst they’re at it, your non-nursing boob leaks, so create a few embarrassing wet patches. It takes more confidence than you would think to nurse in front of others and I would like to thank the many people, but mostly men, who encouraged me and supported me to do this. Many of you may not realise you did this, and you are now officially as cool as Keith Richards; in my eyes at least.

A common suggestion, often well meaning, is to cover up, either with a muslin or a purpose made cover. Firstly, lots of women do this and if they prefer it, wonderful, but it was something I never considered. You may find this shocking, but some of the covers marketed at mothers are dangerous, they are made from heavy material so it gets dangerously hot for baby. Some block eye contact and this means mum can’t keep checking baby is safe. It can also interfere with the early communication lessons a baby receives by interacting with their mother at feeding time. I regularly refer to breastfeeding as a relationship, this is because the baby is a key factor in the decisions women make. One contributor talked about the baby getting stressed under the cover and refusing to feed; the flailing arms and cries of discomfort actually drew more attention to her feeding than if she hadn’t used a cover. Others object to covers, purpose-made or draped muslins, on principle. It could be argued that attempt to hide breastfeeding stops it from being normalised and every effort to nurse in public makes it easier for the next mother.

Mr Dyke also asked why we don’t use formula. I can’t help thinking the reason why the original broadcast is not available is because any suggestion that formula is almost as good as breastmilk breaches numerous laws. I’ll let the people who know more than me on that subject pass judgement. Suffice to say formula isn’t as good; not even close. Many people believe that the differences are neglible in the western world and more significant to families living where the lack of access to clean water to make formula dangerous and health in general isn’t as good. Not true. A study published in Pediatrics (Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) stated:

If 90% of US families could comply with medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, the United States would save $13 billion per year and prevent an excess 911 deaths, nearly all of which would be in infants ($10.5 billion and 741 deaths at 80% compliance).

To put this in context this is the same number of people who die each year in the USA from meningitis. Current advice on making formula from recently boiled water no less than 70 oC into a sterile bottle and disposing of it within 2 hours of making it up means it not that great when out and about either.

What about expressed breastmilk (EBM)? Surely putting that in a bottle is OK if formula isn’t? Well, some people (myself included) give EBM. It certainly means I can leave the house for non baby-related activities leaving him with a sitter. But again, this doesn’t work for everybody all the time. For example if I try to give mine EBM now, he refuses it point blank. For someone else to give him some, I have to leave the room and hide.  It also runs the risk of stopping the breastfeeding relationship altogether with the drying up of a mother’s milk or nipple confusion. The production of milk relies on the baby being attached to the nipple and the cues from the baby’s saliva and gulps guides the mother to making milk of the right combination of nutrients and antibodies to her child.  Mother’s milk changes morning, noon and night, throughout out the course of each feed to meet a child’s needs. This isn’t something out of the Stone Age, but evidence that we are highly evolved creatures.

Some of Mr Dykes more inflammatory comments were about what has been described to me elsewhere as ‘The cult of motherhood’; that only a certain type of mother breastfeeds. Maybe that is true, but this week David Beckham was criticised for his style of parenting when his four year old daughter was seen in public with a dummy. The rights and wrongs of either are irrelevant, his response to critics is:  “Why do people feel they have the right to criticize a parent about their own children without having any facts.” We don’t, I defend your right to parent how you see fit, and expect mine to have the same respect.

There were other comments about the attractiveness of mothers who chose to breastfeed; that a good looking women would be unlikely nurse a child (especially publicly). Well, the pictures published by Miranda Kerr, Giselle Bundchen and Angel Doutzen Kroes breastfeeding would contradict this. I’m not normally one for finding women attractive, but I’m assured that these women are. Certainly my American friends have commented their Victoria Secret catalogues going missing and appearing after a husband or other male relative has… ahem… perused them.

I will end my commentary with this thought: Underneath the comments from Mr Dyke and some of his callers seemed to be a theme that a woman’s primary role is to please a man. That their value is based on how they look and whether they have taken into account a man’s point of view when they make fundamental choices such as how they parent or dress. This is why a few throwaway remarks on a minor (sorry local radio fans) phone in show have relevance to women everywhere, why the story has started to trend on the internet and why Mr Dyke no doubt feels overwhelmed by the petitions, open letters and news stories. Again, the response is wider than just this blog and when looked at from that viewpoint has been given in another trending story this week:

Check out this slideshow to see what nursing in public really looks like:

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