Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Breastfeeding law change one in eye for prudes

I was a militant breastfeeder. Not in the sense that I bore arms in defence of my right to give suck, but I was certain – still am – that breastfeeding was the best thing for my babies and I was determined that no prissy social prejudices were going to get in my way.

If this infant wanted fed, then why should he, or later, she, have to wait just because some hung-up people were horrified at the idea of this most natural of bodily processes?

So I breastfed everywhere: in the park, in bars and restaurants, in bookshops, in church, on the front lawn of Queen's University, Belfast. In spite of my air of gleeful defiance – or perhaps more likely because of it – nobody ever asked me to stop (believe me, you don't want to confront a hardline breastfeeder, actively engaged in the important task of nurturing her young. These chicks have bazookas and they're not afraid to use them).

I did get a few odd looks from time to time, especially as my children got older – I fed them both until they were two – but no comments, no unwanted advice, no interventions.

I was lucky. Of the tiny handful of women in Northern Ireland who do decide to breastfeed their children (we have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the UK, which is itself bumping along the lower divisions of the European league tables), many find themselves on the receiving end of negative public reaction, from sneers and suspicious glares right up to being asked to leave a shop or a cafe, because they're offending the other customers, or – which is almost worse – being directed towards the toilet as a suitable place to feed.

Now there are plans for new legislation to protect breastfeeding mothers, making it an offence punishable by a £2,500 fine to stop them nursing their children in public places.

This would supersede the current, vague sex discrimination laws, which are all that local women currently have to rely on, and bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK, which is much tougher on the repressive antics of the anti-lactation brigade.

This is one in the eye for every purse-lipped prude that ever tut-tutted about a lady getting out her mammaries in public. There are still plenty of them about, often in the older generations.

I couldn't help chortling as I lay in bed the other morning listening to the radio. Bill Jeffrey, former chair of the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses, was struggling to justify why he felt offended by the practice and why the proposed new law was, according to him, just "another layer of petty bureaucracy ... without any viable economic justification".

Getting himself into more and more of a lather about it, he claimed that breastfeeding itself was "a minority occupation", which made it sound like some kind of deviant hobby, like anarchism, or trainspotting, or getting your buttocks pierced.

He then dug himself in even further by claiming that women who couldn't manage to fit in breastfeeding their infants around the shopping (and any other housewifely duties, one presumes) were suffering from a "time-management problem".

I don't know if Bill was more frustrated at the babies' thoughtless disregard for orderly work patterns, or at the failure by scatty, heedless, milk-addled mothers to bring their infants up according to a strict business schedule, with allocated breaks at the appropriate times. Either way, he gave me a good laugh, even as I was shaking my head in disbelief.

It's not so funny, of course, when you get some old curmudgeon (of either sex) giving you the stink eye while breastfeeding. And that's just one of the factors that put women living here off nursing their own children.

We also have to contend with the vast, inherited guilt and shame about our bodies, which comes from centuries of religious repression, and now this new era of hypersexuality which demands that breasts must be nothing more than pert and plastic play-things for the entertainment of men. All this contributes to the culture of squeamishness, suspicion and revulsion that has grown up around breastfeeding.

As a society, we need to get over our hang-ups about lactating breasts. There's nothing so terrible, or shocking, going on here. Just a mother giving her baby the very best food she can: warm, clean, protective, perfectly nutritionally balanced, and free.

And I'll let you into a secret (cover your ears, Bill.) It feels delicious, too.

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