Do we need the ‘right to breastfeed’?

The proposal to enshrine a woman's 'right' to nurse in public is another attempt to spread the propagandistic message: 'breast is best'.

Jane Sandeman

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When you become a mum you suddenly become part of a world that only other mums know about. Every story is shared, from the most painful childbirth to anger at not getting adequate childcare and the most intimate details about how children behave, what they eat, how much they sleep. It is the way that mothers communicate with those who can help, guide, confirm, agree or even collaborate to change things.

In all my years of being part of this secret society (my eldest daughter is now seven) I have never heard one story of a mother being told off about breastfeeding in public. This might be because it is such a dreadful thing that no one dares talk about it, or it might be – and I favour this theory – that it is not an issue for mums because it doesn’t happen.

So why does the UK government think it is such a key issue that the right to breastfeed in public is being enshrined in the new equality laws? In June, the Communities Department released a 190-page consultation paper outlining what will be in the Single Equality Bill. One of the proposals is that nursing mothers will be allowed to breastfeed their babies of under a year old wherever they like (1). Restaurants, cafés and shops that try to ban them will face court action and fines of up to £2,500.

This legislation is not about tackling a practical problem that mothers face in their daily lives. In the many supportive comments that flooded the articles on this issue, those who supported this ‘right’ actually seemed to have had no problem at all with breastfeeding in public. Commentators argued that ‘I am a breastfeeding mother of my 18-month-old daughter. I go out as I like and feed my baby wherever I am’; and ‘I breastfeed my baby in public, and have never asked permission’.

Rather, as Guardian columnist Catherine Bennett argues: ‘The impetus to protect victims of public breastfeeding disapproval seems to have come principally from the government, which wants to increase the number of nursing mothers.’ (3)

What the ‘right to breastfeed’ is about is making it loud and clear that new mothers should breastfeed. It is using legislation not to right wrongs or to change something in society that is holding women back (and goodness knows there are still enough of those things around); it is using legislation to propagandise around the ‘right’ way of mothering. A good mother, in the government’s eyes, is one who breastfeeds at least up to the time her baby is six months old: and the fact that most mothers do not do this is seen as a major problem, to be rectified by any means necessary.

In England and Wales only 21 per cent of mothers with six-month-old babies are breastfeeding – and this includes those who are also using formula. Why do mothers continue to bottle-feed, in the face of constant admonitions that ‘breast is best’? For any number of reasons: they need to go back to work, they want their partner, family and friends to help with feeding, they don’t like breastfeeding. Mothers do not see feeding their babies as a political statement. They just want to ensure that their child is fed in the way that is most comfortable for them and their baby. Nor do mothers generally see feeding their babies as a public act: it is a quiet, everyday activity that takes place between the carer and the child.

But the UK government is determined to make breastfeeding a plank of public health policy. ‘All the evidence says that “nothing is fitter than a breastfed nipper”. There are communities where breastfeeding rates remain low, adding to the health inequalities gap’, says public health minister Caroline Flint (4). This means taking the question of how you feed your baby even further out of the context of normal, everyday life and politicising it in a way that most mothers find extremely unhelpful.

Perhaps we should thank our lucky stars that the proposed legislation isn’t making it compulsory for mothers to breastfeed in public. I found a briefing by the Green Party in 2004 calling for a breastfeeding bill on the lines of that which the Scottish Parliament passed. In asking for England to have the same law, the briefing states that it should ‘not require women to breastfeed’, but that it should ‘encourage those who currently desire privacy for breastfeeding to become more comfortable with breastfeeding in public’ (5). Just as the vogue for ‘baby massage’ means that touching your newborn is seen as an activity best conducted at classes in the local community centre, is the day coming when we will be advised that breastfeeding is best done in the middle of a shopping mall, rather than the privacy of our own homes?

The ‘right’ to breastfeed in public is not about increased equality and it is not a ‘right’. There are many things that women might wish to have addressed. I think every mum I know certainly does have a desire for high-quality, well-run, flexible childcare provision. That would certainly be a step up for equality and quality of life. But this would mean resources, imagination and the desire to do something worthwhile for parents. Why go against the habit of a political lifetime when hectoring mums on their behaviour is that much easier?

Jane Sandeman is chair of the Institute of Ideas Parents Forum and a mother of two.

Previously on spiked

Emily Hill asked: Is breast milk a ‘junk food’? Dr Michael Fitzpatrick pointed out that just like breast milk, McDonald’s food is rich in fat and carbohydrates, which are vital for growing children. Rob Lyons described how the obesity panic is taking away our rights – and even our children. Jennie Bristow found that ‘informed choice’ for new mothers often means no choice at all. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

(1) ‘Right to breastfeed’ law planned, BBC News, 12 June 2007

(2) Two commentators on ThisisLondon.co.uk are in favour of the proposed new law

(3) Is breast-feeding really the worst problem that women have to deal with today?, Guardian, 14 June 2007

(4) Women may get right to breastfeed in public, The Sunday Times, 13 May 2007

(5) The right to breastfeed: Real Progress, A Green Party press office briefing, autumn 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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