Today UNICEF released a report about breastfeeding in the UK. The Belfast Telegraph reports: “Breastfeeding boom ‘could save NHS £40m a year'” I quickly recognised the figures used in the report are UK figures. Local percentages in uptake and continuing breastfeeding past the first week are much lower.
Firstly, the picture with the breastfeeding article isn’t very realistic. It is impossibly glamourous. You don’t have to take your clothes off to feed your baby. Special clothing allows a woman to breastfeed in most public settings without causing others to choke on their coffees and cakes.
What is astonishing is that breastfeeding in public causes offence at all. Despite Malone House, a Belfast City Council run venue, advertising itself as a place where breastfeeding is welcomed, my wife was made to feel unwelcome by other patrons. She was very aware of their stares and whispered comments.
As with cycling, Northern Ireland urgently requires legislation to help change entrenched attitudes. We need legislation to protect women who have to breastfeed in a public place. Unlike elsewhere in the United Kingdom, Northern Irish women can be asked to stop feeding baby in public. In England they can only be asked to stop if they endanger themselves and their baby being where they are.
Under employment equality legislation a woman cannot be refused a space to breastfeed, or express breastmilk. The legislation outside the work place is vague.
To illustrate the attitude towards breastfeeding:
My wife reports time after time that women in 50+ age group who are most disapproving of breastfeeding in a public space.
Speaking to staff at RJMH, one nurse recounted how she had spent a long time with a mum to try and establish breastfeeding, only to be undermined by the grandmother saying, “Ah sure, the child is hungry; give it a bottle”.
Another young mum was visibly uncomfortable with other mums in the ward expressing breastmilk and breastfeeding their babies.
Nursing staff at RJMH are broadly supportive of breastfeeding and can offer valuable advice. However due to cost considerations women and newborns are discharged quickly. This means women are not confident to try, or continue breastfeeding in the face of cultural and commercial pressure to switch to formula.
With such a strong culture of not breastfeeding it comes as no surprise Northern Ireland is bottom of the class for breastfeeding. Here is a recent survey. The UK is already at the bottom end, but it is the English who raise the average.
Because breastfeeding is seen as a women’s issue our male politicians have to date failed to deliver legislation to support breastfeeding. When I have contacted MLAs and MPs about breastfeeding only Naomi Long, Alliance MP for East Belfast responded positively, pointing me in the direction of the Breastfeeding Strategy.
Disappointingly, legislation is a “long-term” aim.
Far from being a women’s issue, breastfeeding is beneficial to all babies, so breastfeeding should be treated as a public health issue. Edwin Poots, Minister for Health in Northern Ireland needs to take a lead on introducing measures to increase breastfeeding awareness and uptake.
Given Mr Poots’ inability to govern without his personal views and prejudices clouding his decision-making I doubt he will take a lead on encouraging breastfeeding. I suspect he has deep-seated anxieties about boobs. Just as in the Marie Stopes controversy he might even call the police to deal with breastfeeding mums.