New Northern Ireland law could boost breastfeeding in public
Plans are being made to launch a public consultation that could potentially introduce clearer laws surrounding the rights of mothers to breastfeed in public across Northern Ireland.
A date has yet to be confirmed by the Department of Health over when the public consultation would begin.
It is part of a wider departmental strategy to increase breastfeeding rates in Northern Ireland.
Campaigners for the change welcomed the move, saying the law in Northern Ireland isn't clear.
The current law protects breastfeeding mothers through sex discrimination laws.
This prohibits anyone from treating a woman unfavourably because she is breastfeeding.
A similar change in the legislation was introduced to Scotland in 2005 which made it an offence to stop nursing mothers from feeding their babies in places like cafes, bars, buses and shops.
It would be at least another two years for any change to legislation to be introduced.
Previous research carried out by the Public Health Agency mapped the variation in average breastfeeding rates after leaving hospital across Northern Ireland from 2008-10.
It showed the lowest breastfeeding rates from birth were found in the Whiterock (14.5%), Twinbrook (14.8%) and Ardoyne (14.9%) wards in Belfast.
The highest breastfeeding rates after being discharged from hospital were in 85.4% in the Strand area of Coleraine, 82.5% in Ballyholme, Co Down, and 81.3% in the Cultra (81.3%) wards of North Down.
The Public Health Agency currently promotes a campaign for businesses here to display signs that they are breastfeeding-friendly.
More than 300 organisations and businesses have now joined the 'Breastfeeding Welcome Here' scheme, which aims to make feeding in public easier for mums.
Feminist campaigner Kellie Turtle said the new legislation would bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.
"The law here isn't clear, women don't know what their rights are," she said.
However, a former chairman of the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses, Bill Jeffrey, said new breastfeeding laws were not needed. "Is there going to be another layer of petty bureaucracy? If so, it is without any viable economic justification."
A DHSSP spokeswoman said: "The Department of Health supports the Breastfeeding Welcome Here Scheme and has made a commitment in the Breastfeeding Strategy to consult on legislation that supports breastfeeding in public places."
A full list of breastfeeding-friendly locations can be found at www.breastfedbabies.org.
Northern Ireland currently has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the UK with only 64% beginning breastfeeding.
This compares to 83% in England, 74% in Scotland and 71% in Wales.
Mothers here who choose to breastfeed also do so for a shorter period than mothers elsewhere in the UK.
Figures show that 26% of mothers who begin breastfeeding here stop within a week. In 2010, 81% of babies across the UK were breastfed at birth.