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Leona O'Neill: Glad to see we're taking steps towards normalising breastfeeding

Social initiatives promoting breastfeeding and teaching children about it can only help normalise something that is totally natural – and might discourage people from being rude and hurtful to mums at a time when they need support rather than intolerance, writes Leona O'Neill

"I was totally exhausted, overwhelmed by motherhood, emotional and just wanted a cup of damn coffee"

ON SATURDAY, mums from across Northern Ireland took part in Breastival at Belfast's Mac. Mums came together to share the ups and downs of breastfeeding and help promote the fact that breastfeeding is a completely normal and natural part of family life.

The north has one of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world with only seven per centre of babies here being breastfed beyond the age of six months, despite the fact that world health organisations state that it is the best and most nutritious food for our babies.

Every week we hear stories in the news of mothers across the UK being asked to leave premises because they were breastfeeding. Social media is awash with people expressing their negative opinions on breastfeeding mothers feeding their children in public. Delve deeper into the profiles of these complainers and you'll often find that they have no problem with breasts, just the ones currently being used to nurture tiny humans.

We've just emerged from Breastfeeding Week 2017 and it was a delight to see events like Breastival make massive moves to ensure breastfeeding becomes our normal. It was also fantastic to see 36 buildings, including Belfast City Hall, sign up to the 'Breastfeeding Welcome Here' initiative, helping mums feel more comfortable feeding their babies in public.

Last week the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health advised that schoolchildren are taught about the importance of breastfeeding in school. They argue that breastfeeding in public is often stigmatised in modern society and the best way to tackle this issue for future generations is to cover it in class and therefore normalise the process. Even better, they say, is to expose very young children to mothers and other female members of the family breastfeeding their babies so it becomes normal and natural for them.

Breastfeeding is, of course, the best for baby, but it is also extremely tough going for many mothers. No-one tells you it can sometimes be painful if baby doesn't latch on properly. No-one tells you that you will worry about not producing enough milk or if the baby is putting on enough weight. Many mums are shattered, sore and sleep deprived. There is no need to add another challenge to overcome by stigmatising them for breastfeeding.

I breastfed three of my children. I fed them in cafes, I fed them in parks, I fed them on the beach, I fed them at family gatherings, I fed them anywhere I had to because I found that my little tiny humans had yet to perfect the art of being reasonable and would scream until their hunger was satisfied.

I remember feeding my son in a cafe in Belfast city centre. I had a light cloth covering myself so there was no flesh on show. A man sitting by himself continually stared at me. He shook his head and mumbled. As he was leaving he came over to tell me that I was disgusting.

In a normal situation – as in one where I was not a brand new mother suffering from severe sleep deprivation and incapable of functioning as a proper human –I would have told him he was describing a perfect reflection of himself. But I had given birth less than a fortnight before, I was totally exhausted, overwhelmed by motherhood, emotional and just wanted a cup of damn coffee.

As I looked around the cafe my eyes met with an older lady. I thought she might offer some sympathy, but she looked away. I felt like crying, so I packed up the baby and my stuff and walked out, relocating to the windowless baby changing room of Debenhams to feed my child as the aroma of dirty nappies wafted from the bin.

I think that teaching people from a very early age that breastfeeding is perfectly normal and natural thing to do is the best move. It will save other mothers sobbing in toilets while feeding their babies. It will stop other mothers thinking breastfeeding is too much, that there are too many challenges, and giving up or not starting at all.

If you own a business, sign up to the Breastfeeding Welcome Here scheme and welcome nursing mothers. If you're a member of the public support our breastfeeding Mums, make them feel that what they are doing in nurturing the next generation is the best thing ever and that they are amazing. Motherhood is a hard job – let's all work to help make it a little easier.

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