IT ALL started when I mentioned breastfeeding in a food review recently. A few slices of the editorial blade (all perfectly justified, I’m sure) and a pro-breastfeeding statement didn’t sound as friendly. I took it up with my otherwise wonderful and munificent and hopefully soon to give me a raise boss. Mystified, the poor fellow responded “I just cut it a bit because it was too long. I didn’t think you needed to mention you were adamantly pro-breastfeeding because who doesn’t like breastfeeding?”
I believe Manchester is actually an extremely baby-friendly city and we should be proud of being so
Oh poor, sweet, innocent editor.
For a practice that is literally as old as the human race, and, whether directly or indirectly, has led to the existence of every person on this planet, it’s amazing that breastfeeding even raises an eyebrow, never mind a comment. But ask Sam Faiers who dared (dared!) to feed her baby on This Morning recently if all the feedback she received was friendly and supportive. Editor, it was not.
The fact is, even in this day and age, people are strongly divided on the issue of breastfeeding in public. Actually, when I say this day and age, the idea that it should only be done in private is a relatively recent phenomenon. There is plenty of Renaissance art to testify to that, and even the prim and proper Victorians were whipping their boobs out at a moment’s notice.
I myself am a little mystified by the whole thing. Is it the threat of seeing a woman’s breasts that so horrifies people? Because if the general tone of advertising and magazines is anything to go by, people seem to be quite keen to get a glimpse of boob flesh. Not that they are that likely to get a chance. Back in the days of Loaded and Nuts there was such a concept as the ‘hand-bra’, meaning a model could go topless as long as she had her hands over her breasts. Well, breastfeeding creates a baby-bra, where the baby’s head actually covers the boob and you can't really see what’s going on, unless you get really close and have a good old stare.
Breastfeeding is actually a human right, so it is protected by law, but the argument that will clinch it for a lot of people is this – do you prefer the risk to your eyeballs posed by seeing a woman feed her child, or the risk to your ear drums of hearing a baby wail its head off because it’s hungry? Even on a purely selfish level it seems the answer is obvious.
Having said all this, I breastfed my son for fourteen months and never once did anyone ask me to cover up, go in the loos or even give me a funny look. I’ve breastfed in pubs, cafes, fancy restaurants, museums, car-parks, universities, parks and planes and I’ve never had any aggro, though I have to admit being chronically sleep-deprived does mean I might not have noticed disapproving stares, but nevertheless, from admittedly very poor memory, I was never made to feel bad.
This is not to undermine those people who have had theses issues. Those first few months of motherhood are a terribly vulnerable time and one dirty look or what the other person believes to be a polite request to cover up, could shatter a new mum’s confidence instantly.
This poem by Holly McNish sums up the way a lot of mums feel about it:
The UK has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, and although the NHS promotes breastfeeding as the best choice for feeding babies, the social pressures on new mums seem to counteract this.
So why should anyone care about my experience? Well, when someone is given a hard time about breastfeeding, the internet is instantly alight - in fact I think whole servers are powered solely by the indignation of a thousand mums’ groups. But I think it is important to give a bit of balance by talking about the times it goes right. As in so many things in life, negative experiences get heard more easily than positive ones and this needs to be corrected. For one thing, this might have the effect of making breastfeeding in public seem horribly intimidating to new mums, when the likelihood is that they will actually have a good experience.
The other reason is that it also means that lots of places and people who are all groovy and down with breastfeeding are not getting the credit they are due. As restaurants and cafes are a very strong interest of mine, I want to defend their honour. I believe Manchester is actually an extremely baby-friendly city and we should be proud of being so.
When I started looking more closely into it, I discovered there are actually profound differences across Greater Manchester. Both Trafford and Salford run variations on UNICEF’s Breastfeeding Welcome scheme, where businesses are given awards for their breastfeeding-friendly policy, including a badge to display so mums know they will be welcome. I didn’t know these schemes existed, and for my oblivious self it really wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but I can see that for a nervous new mum, knowing that the owner of a café wouldn’t bat an eyelid if she settled in for a feed and a cuppa would make a big difference.
And though correlation is not causation, it is interesting to note that Trafford, whose Breastfeeding Welcome scheme has been in place for a while now, has better rates of retention when it comes to the continuation of breastfeeding than Manchester, which does not have a similar scheme in place.
I asked Kimberley Bond, founder of Be Open on Breastfeeding Salford (BOOBS), which is the fabulous, if not very Google-friendly, name of a support group designed to empower mums to be open about their experiences of breastfeeding, to talk me through the establishment of the relatively recent Salford scheme:
“The take up of the BOOBS Approved scheme has been great - we've had everyone from Salford airport through to the brand new play centre in Trafford (just across the border) sign up.
"We do only have a few volunteers going out and searching for venues to sign up so progress is quite slow, and our aim is to have a list of 100 venues in the next twelve months. The venues are all listed on Facebook and on our BOOBS Approved map.
"We would love for more restaurants to sign up to the scheme, the only requirements being that you have changing facilities, and of course welcome breastfeeding mums. This doesn't mean you have to do anything special, just be aware of what they might need - like some water, or their food or drink bringing to the table (just like any new mum), and educate staff in welcoming mums and how to deal with anything negative (which is very rare).”
One worry I did have was that mums might think that they have to look for such a sticker before they can breastfeed somewhere. One poor mother asked the mumsnet multitude where she was “allowed” to breastfeed in the Trafford Centre. Just so everyone is clear, you are allowed to feed anywhere, anytime. You can feed atop the singing Christmas tree if you so desire (the Trafford Centre might have a bit of problem with you trying to scale it first of course. Bloomin’ elf n’ safety). Some places have nursing rooms (John Lewis and Boots are notable examples) but they are purely so mums can be more comfortable, not because nursing mothers have to be hidden away.
Kimberly said: “The ‘BOOBS Approved’ scheme is simply a confidence boost for many mums to know that their favourite shops or cafes are there to support them on this new and exciting journey. We've already got reports of the sticker making a difference - a woman with a six-week-old went into Hug in a Mug in Walkden simply because she saw the sticker in the window, whereas before she probably would have rushed home.
"The more places that sign up to the scheme the more it gets seen as "normal' and women will feed anywhere. Women need to be educated from the moments they are making the decision to breastfeed that it is their right to feed their baby anywhere. Obviously, if it's somewhere comfortable then even better.”
But do the cafes themselves find it easy to implement? I asked Matt at Poppies 11, probably one of the most family-friendly cafes in the whole of the Greater Manchester area, about the Trafford Breastfeeding Welcome Scheme. He told me:
“It was actually really easy to get the Trafford Breastfeeding Scheme seal of approval. This was because Poppies 11 was made with parents of babies and young children in mind. The people that run the Scheme visited the cafe and could see how comfortable mums were breastfeeding in Poppies 11. They then sat with me and went through the list of things you need to have and soon after issued us with the award, they also helped with our breastfeeding policy.
“This is also a private space that can be used to breastfeed if a feeding mum wants privacy rather than resorting to what some mums do and sit in a public toilet. This is something we really don't want at poppies. We want mums to feel comfortable to feed in any area.”
The fact is that local trusts spend money on getting mothers to continue breastfeeding, and for good reason. Babies that are breastfed are less likely to grow up to have asthma or diabetes, which are two costly diseases for the NHS, plus they are less likely to be in hospital with acute infections, and even more soberingly, breastfeeding impacts on infant mortality rates.
We can all help with that good work simply by being kind to breastfeeding mothers. It doesn’t sound that hard does it? I think Manchester is a great place to be a breastfeeding mum, let’s keep it that way.