Breastfeeding mums should have same protection in north as in Britain

A radio debate about breastfeeding in public in Northern Ireland almost caused journalist Lucy Begbie to hit the roof. We need a change in attitudes, she argues

A new baby feeds little and often – its tummy is tiny and it needs to refill around the clock Picture: Getty Images
Lucy Begbie

A FEW things get my goat but one of the ones that tops my list is making pariahs of mothers who breastfeed in public.

I'm not sure how I managed to complete my car journey without crashing as I listened to journalist Liz Kennedy and SDLP assembly member Claire Hanna on Radio Ulster’s Talkback last week, discussing proposals to legislate for breastfeeding in public in Northern Ireland.

It wasn’t the legislation that disturbed me – it offers a safeguard to mothers feeding their babies who might otherwise be hassled by members of the public. Women in Scotland, England and Wales already enjoy this protection afforded by the Equality Act 2010.

No, what shocked and depressed me were the words used by Liz Kennedy to describe mothers who dared to feed their babies in public and to stand up for their right to do so.

These women were selfish, the selfie generation, they were aggressive and militant, she chastised – breastfeeding was, after all, a private matter.

Never before have I understood so acutely the meaning of the phrase ‘I nearly hit the roof’ because that is precisely what I did as I leapt up from my driver’s seat in disbelief.

It didn’t seem to make the slightest difference when Claire Hanna patiently pointed out that babies feed regularly and that mothers need to leave the house, and it was important too that they had social contact to help avoid postnatal depression.

Yes, well done Talkback researchers – your choice of guests certainly made good radio. And bravo, presenter William Crawley, for persistently highlighting the human rights issue at stake here for both the mother and baby. But oh my, it has certainly opened a can of worms for me.

My son was born in England. Right from the beginning of my pregnancy I expected to breastfeed if I was able. My sister had breastfed her girls and it seemed the most natural thing.

My NCT group leader, midwife and health visitor encouraged breastfeeding for its huge health benefits for the baby, and for the bonding between mother and newborn. My GP’s practice employed a breastfeeding counsellor, who I was able to call on in those first few weeks when I was learning how to attach my baby during feeding.

A new baby feeds little and often – its tummy is tiny and it needs to refill around the clock. Older babies still feed regularly – my son was breastfed until he was 18 months and was always an every-two-hours feeder. It is not practical to stay at home all day every day, nor is it desireable.

Mothers with babies are vulnerable – they are often hormonal following the birth, and sleep-deprived for some time from then on in. Breastfeeding releases oxytocin – the happy hormone – which can help a mother through this challenging time. What mothers need is encouragement, support and understanding.

No I’m sorry, but it is not acceptable to imprison breastfeeding mums in their homes, or herd them into baby and toddler’s groups where they will be allowed to feed their offspring well out of sight.

Northern Ireland has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe, dictated I’m convinced, by such cultural attitudes. It is high time that all women in the UK were given an equal right to breastfeed their babies in public free from intimidation.

And just for the record – I never once met a breastfeeding mum who fancied she was posing as a page three pin up, while latching her baby on her breast and sipping her cold latte in Costa.

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