This post has been prompted by a discussion today on Playing It By Ear.

Having commented ad nauseam on there (sorry C!) I am now feeling the urgent need to blog my thoughts at length over here…!

So why a breastfeeding bill?

It is a waste of time, money and effort, because it will make very little difference to people.

It’s true that negative public breast-feeding experiences are rare. Occasionally somebody will be told to feed their baby in the toilet, or told off for nursing on a park bench or the like and such an incident will (because it is unusual) create a stir. But in the scheme of things, it just doesn’t happen much.

However, I believe that a law would still make a difference, albeit that it would perhaps be more to people’s perceptions than anything else. By “people” here I mean both mothers / expectant mothers considering breastfeeding and people generally who might have opinions on the subject of public breastfeeding.

Mothers or expectant mothers are often fearful or nervous about breastfeeding in public, and consequently they are more likely to choose bottle feeding.

Partly that is due to their own embarrassment at the idea. No law could change that – at least, only by acting as a catalyst for a wider, longer term change in our ideas about immodesty. However, in many cases, the fear is specifically related to what other people might think or do: am I allowed to do that here? The humiliating prospect of being asked to “put your bosoms away, please, Madam” is enough to put many people off the idea completely (almost regardless of how unlikely it is to happen in practice). This law would help to shift perceptions, and would help the mother to be confident that her choice to breastfeed in public will not be open to challenge.

Meanwhile, the perceptions of members of the public may also alter as they stop questioning whether a woman should be “allowed” to feed her baby in public and start accepting that breastfeeding is, as it should be, a normal part of everyday life.

Let’s dream a while. A change in public attitudes could produce a virtuous circle: the more women are able to confidently feed in public, the more commonplace and “normal” it becomes, and thus ever more mothers feel able to take the plunge and do it themselves. OK, I know, this is idealism and optimism at its peak, and I don’t say that the proposed law would achieve all this. I only say that it could help to achieve it, as part of a many-pronged effort to promote and encourage breastfeeding.

But there are so many other, better things we can do instead… why this?

There are a zillion things we must do to help promote breastfeeding and, more to the point, redress the current situation – where bottle feeding holds sway and many women who would like to breastfeed find themselves unsupported and unable to achieve this.

For example we could:

  • Ensure that health professionals, particularly midwives and health visitors, receive specialist training in supporting and promoting breastfeeding.
  • Set up breastfeeding support groups throughout the country.
  • Ban the unethical marketing practices used by formula companies.
  • Discourage other positive images of bottle feeding (for example, bottle feeding dolls or bottle feeding on TV) – or at least, promote greater prominence for positive images of breastfeeding.
  • Review the provision of a subsidy on formula milk via the milk vouchers scheme.

Some of these measures are the subject of existing work by the government or others, or are the subject of existing campaigns by interested groups. However, none are likely to happen any time soon and in the meantime here is something that could be done, very quickly at very little financial or other cost. If it helps (and I think it would), then the fact that it will not of itself solve all our problems is in my view no reason to oppose it.

Why do we need a law anyway? There is no sense in legislating for other people to respect a woman’s choice to breastfeed. Women should just get on with it if they want to breastfeed. It is up to them to stand up for their convictions.

Infant feeding isn’t just about a woman’s own personal choice or her own convictions.

Breastfeeding is a normal, natural and optimal way to feed infants and children which is being and has for many years been subverted by continuing pressure to use formula, including the negative portrayal of breastfeeding as difficult, immodest or unpleasant, and the normalisation of formula use. Bottle feeding is an artifical and sub-optimal way to feed infants, which few women would freely choose in the absence of this pressure. It certainly has its place and is a life-saver for babies who for whatever reason cannot have breast milk. But breastfeeding is and should be normal and should not be subverted by inappropriate cultural or commercial pressures.

To the extent that society creates these inappropriate pressures on women, it is up to society to change. No woman should have to feel that she will become a social pariah if she breastfeeds, or that in order to breastfeed she will have to screw up her courage and be ready to stand up for herself in case of challenge. Ideally, that would be brought about by cultural change and education. However, in the meantime, a little piece of legislation to help women deal with societal pressure is not a lot to ask.

OK, I agree in principle that women should be legally allowed to breastfeed in public… but there are enough crimes already! Should it really be a crime for a person to try and stop someone from breastfeeding in public?

This is the argument used by Caroline Flint’s office in a recent reply to my questions about this issue. In my view, it is wholly disingenuous, coming from a Labour minister in a government that has brought in so many brand new criminal offences.

However, much as I hate to admit it, it is the most convincing of the arguments I have heard so far. I am against criminalising people unless there is a very good reason to do so. If I could think of a way to legislate for a woman’s right to breastfeed in public places without creating a statutory offence at the same time, then I would support that instead. Sadly, I can’t.

I make only the point that, as already mentioned, very few people in practice would fall foul of this law. As such, it would be primarily symbolic and would not in fact criminalise any significant number of people. In reality, the likelihood of a prosecution taking place is tiny to non-existent.

On balance, I still support the proposal, because I want breastfeeding rights enshrined in law more than I want to avoid criminalising the handful of people who might fall foul of that law.