Breastfeeding in public – put to the test!

Mum Siobhan O’Reilly decided to test how people would react to her breastfeeding on the bus, in the doctor's and, gulp, at a themepark

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Wherever I am, I’m always ‘loud  and proud’ to breastfeed, to the extent that a social occasion is a letdown if I haven’t got my boobs out at least twice. But if anyone was mean to me about breastfeeding, I’d probably crumple into a hormonal heap. My challenge is to take my breasts and my baby – Jamie, 3 months – out and about, steel myself for rude remarks and see how the world feels about breastfeeding in public places.

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In April 2009, the Equality Bill was introduced into Parliament. The Equality Bill has a clause that makes it very clear that it’s against the law to force breastfeeding mums out of places like cafes, shops and public transport. It’s anticipated the bill will come into force from autumn 2010. It’s been unlawful to discriminate against a mum breastfeeding in public since the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, but without the Equality Bill, someone could still tell you not to do so in their shop, café or wherever.

Breastfeeding at the doctor’s

My baby’s check-up is an ideal chance to try out waiting room breastfeeding. Things start badly, as my 5-year-old hisses, “Please don’t show everyone your boobies!” This from a child who asked if he could photograph them to show a classmate.

I ignore him and discreetly latch Jamie on. The man next to me gets up and walks away. Then an elderly lady walks up, and I’m convinced she’s going to be rude. She smiles, and says, “Now that’s contentment!”

Breastfeeding on the bus

Well, I now know how to get a seat to myself on the bus! As I feed Jamie, three separate people go to sit next to me but choose not to when they see what I’m doing. I found this really embarrassing, and it’s not an experience I’d care to repeat, but at least I have somewhere to put all my shopping bags.

Breastfeeding at toddler group – part 1

Amazingly, this is where I have my worst experience. While I’m feeding, a child toddles up to look at Jamie. I smile and say hello, but his mum drags him off. I then see her whispering to her friends and giving me dirty looks.

Breastfeeding at toddler group – part 2

Despite my first toddler group experience, I try a local NCT ‘Bumps and Babies’ group. This is very different – lots of people are feeding their babies, and posters everywhere tell me breast is best. It’s great, but it makes me wonder if I’d actually be worried about bottlefeeding my baby in a place like this!

Breastfeeding at university

I have a teenage sister, so I ask her if I can hang out in her university canteen and breastfeed there. She’s horrified, but when I offer her £10 she gives in, as long as I sit at a separate table and pretend not to know her.

I have an amusing half hour watching teenage boys pretend they can’t see me, while going red and staring into the distance. A group of girls, however, say “Ahhhhh! What a cute baby!” It seems there’s a gender divide among teenagers when it comes to breasts at lunchtime.

Breastfeeding at the theme park

Jamie has a cold and can’t breathe through his nose, which makes it hard to feed him, so I spend the day trying to feed him all over the place – on benches, in the canteen, and, at one point, in a sandpit. I’m not happy, so when someone with ‘Ranger’ on his t-shirt tells me, “Sorry, but you can’t do that here”, I amaze myself by snapping, “Actually, I think you’ll find I am doing it here.” He slopes off and mutters to his colleagues, but I’m left alone, and pleased that I refused to be cowed, I cheer up and enjoy my day.

How did it the public breastfeeding go?

What this week brings home to me is that a lot of people are still uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public, and that it’s not the norm to see women doing it in the UK. It’s a shame we need a law to protect our right to do it, but if that’s what it takes to help women feel braver and happier about doing something natural and beneficial for their babies, then it must be a good thing.

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Top tips for public breastfeeding

  • Do pinpoint breastfeeding-friendly venues. Mothercare has excellent feeding rooms, as does Ikea and many department stores. NCT groups are always pro-breastfeeding.
  • Don’t wear a dress. You’ll have to lift from the hem in order to feed and everyone will see your knickers. Try trousers or skirts with tops.
  • Do invest in nursing bras with drop cups to make feeding more discreet.
  • Don’t let yourself be bullied. Polite and calm is best, Try saying, “I’m comfortable here, thank you, and I’ll soon be finished.”
  • Do invest in equipment – breast pads help avoid wet patches, and a muslin square can help you cover up.
  • Do plan ahead. Your baby may be happy to have a small feed before you go out even if he’s not ravenous, which may mean you don’t have to feed when you’re out.

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