Background: The embarrassment that UK mothers experience when breastfeeding in public has often been cited as a key factor in the decision of the mother to discontinue breastfeeding. There is convincing evidence that many UK residents are not comfortable with women breastfeeding in public; however, little is known about the underlying reasons for this discomfort.
Objective: This study aimed to assess views on breastfeeding in public in the United Kingdom and to understand why some UK residents object to this practice.
Methods: The comments sections of news media websites and parenting forums were systematically identified and reviewed for statements made in response to an incident widely reported in the British press: a woman was asked to cover up while breastfeeding in public at Claridge’s, a London luxury hotel. Of these, 805 comments (73 108 words) met the inclusion criteria and were thematically analysed.
Results: The majority of commenters were supportive of ‘discreet’ breastfeeding in public, but a significant portion felt that breastfeeding in public is always inappropriate. Sexualization of the breast was mainly evoked as something others may experience while viewing a breastfeeding mother, rather than to reflect the commenters’ own views. Common justifications cited against breastfeeding in public were onlookers’ embarrassment (not knowing where to look) and disgust (at bodily fluids and/or functions).
Conclusion: Campaigns portraying breastfeeding in public as normal and desirable with a focus on human milk as food rather than a bodily fluid may improve societal acceptance of breastfeeding in public.
The health benefits of breastfeeding are well established for mothers and infants alike. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and promoting breastfeeding has become a public health priority. Despite this, breastfeeding rates in the United Kingdom remain below targets, with only 23% and 1% of mothers exclusively breastfeeding at six weeks and six months, respectively. The barriers to breastfeeding are well documented and include inconvenience, returning to work, pain, and milk supply, but also limited acceptance in the community. The embarrassment that mothers experience when breastfeeding in public is a phenomenon that has been observed in many developed countries: the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. Embarrassment when breastfeeding in public has been cited by mothers as a key reason to discontinue or not initiate breastfeeding because women often feel that they have to choose between breastfeeding and going out. Therefore, more widespread breastfeeding acceptance in the community is seen as a key enabler to increase the practice of exclusive breastfeeding. In 2010, 11% of UK mothers reported being stopped or made to feel uncomfortable when breastfeeding in public, despite the 2010 Equality Act, which makes it unlawful for a business to discriminate against a breastfeeding woman.
Although carried out in different countries with a range of cultural contexts, surveys have shown that a significant proportion of people are uncomfortable with breastfeeding in public, with, for example, 82.6% of Australians agreeing that ‘bottle feeding is more acceptable in public places’. In 2003, only 48.1% of Americans agreed with the statement, ‘I am comfortable when mothers breastfeed their babies near me in a public place’; in 2008, a study conducted in Tennessee reported that 33.5% of those surveyed were uncomfortable with a mother breastfeeding in a shopping mall or restaurant. Among American undergraduate students in 2012, only 35.1% agreed that breastfeeding in public was acceptable, and relatively few Americans agreed that ‘women should have the right to breastfeed in public’ in 2005. In China, 29.1% and 35.6%, respectively, of male and female undergraduate students agreed that breastfeeding in public was acceptable. However, these surveys do not provide any insight into the nature of the discomfort with breastfeeding experienced by some members of the public. Moreover, to date, very limited information is available on how people in the United Kingdom view breastfeeding in public.
Morris C, Zaraté de la Fuente GA, Williams CET et al. Journal of Human Location, vol 32, no 3, 2016, pp 472-480
Reprinted with permission. © The Author(s) Sage Publications 2016.
You can read the rest of this article in the December 2016 issue of MIDIRS Midwifery Digest.