What about a ‘right to bottle-feed’?
Meet the Norfolk-based mum who was shunned by a local mother-and-babies group because she fed her baby formula milk.
Over the past month, the UK media have run numerous stories about the alleged discrimination suffered by breastfeeding mothers. Apparently, when trying to feed their hungry babies, some mums are told that breastfeeding in public is not appropriate. Some nursing mums say they have been asked to leave cafés, restaurants and other public venues, or have been told to ‘do their nursing’ in a toilet or some other out-of-the-way place.
Now we hear of a very different incident: a mum who was made unwelcome at a ‘breastfeeding café’ – a mother-and-babies group – because she was bottle-feeding her infant.
In June, the New Labour government’s Single Equality Bill proposed that restaurants, cafés and shops that try to ban women from nursing babies under 12 months of age should face court action and fines of up to £2,500. Rather than being a practical measure to help women, this looks like an attempt by the government to send the message that ‘breast is best’ and bottle-feeding is bad. As Guardian columnist Catherine Bennett argued: ‘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.’ (1)
There may be instances when breastfeeding mums have been told to stop nursing by narrow-minded or squeamish shopkeepers and café managers. But could it be that public intolerance is really aimed at mums who bottle-feed? Certainly government exhortations on new mums to breastfeed, and the new legislation that champions breastfeeding as good and proper, can only increase pressure on mums to ditch the formula milk and go for ‘natural’ feeding methods instead.
And those who cannot breastfeed, or choose not to, will likely feel inferior, perhaps believing that they are failing as mothers. They may even be looked upon negatively by society at large.
In the rural town of Attleborough in Norfolk, a woman was recently told she was not welcome at a breastfeeding café because she was bottle-feeding her four-month-old son. ‘Breastfeeding cafés’ are drop-in centres, where coffee, tea and fruit juices are available for new and expectant mums who want to get advice and support with childcare and breastfeeding in an informal atmosphere. The scheme, which is organised by Norfolk Primary Care Trust, operates at various local clinics across the county.
The woman, who does not want to be named, has previously been advised by medical professionals to stop trying to breastfeed her baby, because her baby son had lost so much weight since birth that he had to be admitted to hospital. Many mothers, for medical reasons, cannot nurse their babies, or find that their babies do not respond well to nursing. Yet such is the pressure to breastfeed that lots of mums continue trying, which often means that their babies become dehydrated or undernourished.
The mum said she broke down in tears when the organisers of the mother-and-babies meeting suggested that she might attend a different group. Her friend, who also attended the breastfeeding café and who feeds her baby both by bottle and breast, said there was such pressure at the meetings to breastfeed that she nursed her child even though he was not due to have a feed.
The non-breastfeeding mum told Lorna Marsh, a journalist at the Eastern Daily Press who first reported on this incident, that ‘the cafés do a really good job and it is a difficult situation for them to be in, I suppose, but it would just be nice for them to welcome all mothers while giving support to those that breastfeed’.
Jane Sandeman argued recently on spiked that the new ‘right to breastfeed’ is about ‘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…. 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.’ (2)
Many commentators seem to believe it is their duty to hector mothers who do not breastfeed. When a British newspaper columnist recently hinted that bottle-feeding your child is tantamount to child abuse, a letter-writer pointed out that this was ‘a cruel message for a mother who is desperate to feed and comfort her baby and whose breasts have clearly not picked up the message about what they “should” be doing. Only the most disengaged mother could fail to absorb the message that “breast is best” – the NHS shouts it loud and clear at every opportunity.’ (3)
Enshrining any element of mothering in law is a dangerous move, and bombarding women with stern ‘advice’ about why they should breastfeed is patronising. A woman should not be enslaved by the fact that she has breasts and a baby. After all, didn’t we long ago get past the idea that women are just biological creatures, a pair of udders? Lecturing bottle-feeding mums is unhelpful and possibly even cruel – especially as many women who feel under pressure to breastfeed actually find that they cannot do it.
To breastfeed or not to breastfeed should be a mother’s choice, and no one else’s.
Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.
Jane Sandeman asked Do we need the ‘right to breastfeed’?’ Ellie Lee asked Is bottle-feeding a mark of bad motherhood? Mick Hume argued Don’t lose your bottle in the face of militant lactivism and Jennie Bristow queried Who needs Breastfeeding Awareness Week?. Or read more at: spiked issue Breastfeeding.
(1) Is breast-feeding really the worst problem that women have to deal with today?, Guardian, 14 June 2007
(2) Do we need the ‘right to breastfeed’?, Jane Sandeman, 19 June 2007
(3) Right formula for breastfeeding, Guardian, 20 June 2007