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Feeding the debate on how we nourish our children

As X Factor star Rebecca Ferguson becomes the latest mother to open up about breastfeeding her daughter in public, Kate Whiting looks at how our attitudes to the issue have altered

Published 01/09/2015

Big change: attitudes to breastfeeding are relaxing
Big change: attitudes to breastfeeding are relaxing

Every week, it seems, there's a new headline about breastfeeding. Most recently it's been the turn of X Factor runner-up Rebecca Ferguson to wade into the ongoing breastfeeding in public debate, saying she refuses to feel ashamed for breastfeeding her baby daughter Arabella in public.

She says: "I think it's quite hard as a breastfeeding mum because I feel like there's a lot of shame involved which is so odd, because it's so natural.

"It's just weird, but I'm not bothered.

"I cover myself with a scarf, but I think if someone's got a problem with it, that's their mind."

Back in 1999, the slogan "Breast is best" opened a can of worms - and made it a divisive issue.

The government had launched a campaign to encourage more mums to breastfeed. It was backed by the health messages that breast milk would protect babies against disease and lower the risk of cancer in mothers.

But as well as promoting breastfeeding, the slogan also unleashed feelings of pressure and guilt among women who chose not to, or couldn't breastfeed. In doing so it arguably started a public backlash at the "shameless" women who began breastfeeding more openly, exposing their assets for all to see.

Just earlier this month, BBC DJ Alex Dyke was suspended for his comments about breastfeeding in public, saying: "Breastfeeding is unnatural.

"It's the kind of thing that should be done in a quiet, private nursery."

MUM KNOWS BEST

The situation in the UK 16 years ago was that only two-thirds of mums chose to breastfeed after birth, compared to nearly 100% in Scandinavian countries.

As a result, Tessa Jowell, as public health minister, launched a £1m campaign to promote breast over bottle, with the words: "A mother's breast milk is the ultimate designer food for babies."

Rosemary Dodds, senior policy adviser at parenting charity NCT, which runs a free helpline, one-to-one support, drop-in groups and baby cafes, said of the controversial campaign message: "The benefits of breastfeeding are now widely known, and constantly repeating the 'breast is best' message isn't helpful.

"The Equality Act, which became law in October 2010, states that mums cannot be discriminated against, asked to leave a venue or treated unfavourably because they are breastfeeding.

"The UK Infant Feeding survey 2010 revealed that 11% of women who had breastfed in public places had been made to feel uncomfortable or asked to stop."

WHERE WE ARE NOW

Initial breastfeeding rates are on the increase, in 2010, 81% of mothers started breastfeeding their children in the UK, up five per cent from 2005.

But many mums aren't continuing to breastfeed: at three months, just 17% of mums are exclusively breastfeeding and at six months that drops to one per cent.

Netmums' Anna O'Leary saiys: "Although breastfeeding is greatly encouraged by midwives and medical professionals, in reality we still have a long way to go before a lot of mums feel comfortable without worrying about comments and stares.

"While it's helpful we now have an equality act that makes it illegal to try to stop mothers breastfeeding their babies in public places, it would be great to see public places being even more supportive and advertising this fact."

Belfast Telegraph

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