Jane Bradley: If breast is best, then so is privacy

A '˜reward' scheme for those who feed their baby in public gets the red card from Jane Bradley

For many mothers who would like to breast-feed their baby, it may not be possible to do so, for a variety of reasons out of their control writes Jane Bradley.
For many mothers who would like to breast-feed their baby, it may not be possible to do so, for a variety of reasons out of their control writes Jane Bradley.
For many mothers who would like to breast-feed their baby, it may not be possible to do so, for a variety of reasons out of their control writes Jane Bradley.

When I was breastfeeding my daughter, I was approached by a member of the public only once.

She didn’t throw a cup of coffee over me, she didn’t try to have me chucked out of whatever cafe I was in. She didn’t make comments about it being “disgusting” or “inappropriate” to feed in public.

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On the contrary, she came over to tell me just how wonderful it was and how impressed she was that I was feeding my baby (then three months old) while I was out and about - and what a positive start I was giving her in terms of her future health.

I was mortified.

Her comments, although made with the most positive of intentions, made me feel unbelievably uncomfortable at a time when I was already struggling with all things relating to being a new mother.

I had thought I was being so discreet, positioning myself in a quiet corner, where I thought no-one would notice me. I didn’t have a problem with people seeing my daughter feed - I just wanted us to be left alone to get on with it.

Of course, I was polite and thanked her nicely for her kind words before quickly excusing myself and running as far away as possible - but when my daughter started to refuse to feed from me just a few weeks later, her words came back to haunt me. There was nothing wrong with my child’s appetite, it was just that as she became more alert, she was less interested in turning inwards to get her grub - she wanted a meal with a view.

I struggled on, initially taking her home to a darkened room every time she was hungry in a bid to stop her from being too distracted to latch on. Then, once that didn’t work, I expressed a bottle for every feed for the next two months, attaching myself to a milking machine like a dairy cow for half of my waking hours. I persevered, insistent that I would get to the Holy Grail six month marker of an exclusively breast-fed baby, as recommended by the World Health Organisation - no matter what the cost to my sanity.

But once we’d reached six months, I gave up, both of us exhausted from the struggle. My daughter didn’t want to feed from me. She wanted to sit up, where she could look around her and take her milk from a bottle. There was nothing I could do about it.

Yet every time I made up a bottle of formula, I pictured that woman’s face, telling me what a great thing I had been doing for my baby - and, by implication, what a terrible thing I was doing now.

Five years on, a new initiative pioneered by Edinburgh Birth and Baby brought these memories flooding back.

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The organisation, which brings together a group of birth and baby professionals in the capital, has created a series of cards which it sends out to willing participants to hand out to any mother they see breastfeeding in public. A sort of mini cheerleading squad for the mammary glands.

“Thank you for breastfeeding in public,” it says. “You are doing an amazing job. By breastfeeding in public, you are helping to normalise it and encourage fellow mothers to do the same. Please pass on this card to help spread this message.”

The idea was enough to bring me out in a cold sweat. If I had heard about this when I was breastfeeding, it would have made me lock my front door and stay inside 24/7, lest one of the card-wielding breast-is-best evangelists happened across me while I was enjoying a decaf flat white with my daughter. I just thank my lucky stars that I was well past the baby stage before this horror was introduced.

Online, the reception to the initiative has been mixed. Some mothers say they would love this kind of encouragement, that it would help them through a difficult time. Yet the vast majority say it would make them feel alienated.

Those mothers who would have loved to breastfeed, but were unable to for medical, or other reasons, pointed out that a breastfeeding friend being presented with one of these cards while they, the bottle-wielding heathens, were ignored while sitting next to them, would make them feel a thousand times worse.

There were others, who like me, could and did breast feed - but didn’t want attention brought to the fact they were doing so.

Scotland’s breastfeeding rates are among the worst in Europe. There is no doubt that there is a problem surrounding breastfeeding. Yet this is not the way to tackle it. At its best, breastfeeding is easier, quicker, less hassle and, many studies have shown, beneficial for both mother and baby. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it is not.

Because, for many women and their babies, it is impossible. The milk supply is not sufficient; perhaps the baby has a tongue tie and cannot feed properly; or the mother is just overwhelmed by the situation and cannot cope.

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In my experience, the barriers often come in those first few weeks, when a mother and new baby either establishes feeding - or doesn’t. It is hard, physically and emotionally. If it hadn’t been for one enthusiastic and helpful young NHS bank midwife (the one officially assigned to me was on holiday) who handed me her mobile number and returned to my house for three consecutive feeds when my daughter was a few days old, coaching me through the agony and helping me find more successful and comfortable ways to do it, there is no way I would have fed her past the first week.

For women who are not lucky enough to get that support, who draw a less fortunate hand in the lottery of state-funded help, it is often a different story.

But for many mothers who are already feeling sheepish, it is absolutely unnecessary for other people to draw attention to what they are doing, either verbally, or through the use of a patronising orange card.

We don’t hand out cards congratulating people on choosing a healthy sandwich over their table companion who is eating a bowl of chips, or to acknowledge the girl on a jog around the park while shunning her friend sitting on a nearby bench nursing a twisted ankle.

For every mother who would get a boost out of receiving one of these cards, there is another who it risks alienating entirely, who may feel too self conscious in future to feed in public again - potentially damaging the chances of her being able to feed her baby long term.