The number of breastfed babies is decreasing worldwide. General acceptance of public breastfeeding might be playing a big role in the decision of mothers not to breastfeed. The sexualisation of breasts and associated feelings of shame and judgement are leading to an unpreventable circle of events. This article provides insight on different cultural views of breastfeeding babies in public.
Being a new mom for a few months made one thing very clear: breastfeeding in public is stressful. You never know when your baby will ask for food and it is impossible to plan where you will be in that moment. I ended up breastfeeding on a completely soaked park bench, in the staircase of an embassy and while having a gynaecologic check-up. Besides the stress of taking your crying baby out of his stroller and giving him food as fast as you can there is one factor that causes the biggest amount of stress: the people around you.
People in the western world do not like women who are breastfeeding, even though it should be the most natural thing in the world. No one should be stressed or ashamed about feeding their baby in a natural way. Nevertheless, people do not like it. They look at you and drop comments, thereby making you feel even more uncomfortable than you already are. This might be one of the reasons why numbers of bottle-fed babies are increasing steadily worldwide. Of course, it is easier to be out and about when you do not always have to think if it is possible or socially accepted to feed your baby. According to a study published in 2007, 80% of women are too embarrassed to breastfeed in public and 69% of women worry that they would be judged for it (1).
Thus, while I was breastfeeding my baby in public experiencing the feeling of judgement and embarrassment first hand, I was wondering how breastfeeding women are treated in other cultures. There are several countries, such as India, Kenya or Papua New Guinea in which breastfeeding is not widely practiced due to beliefs that breast milk can be dirty, affecting the infant negatively, or that women are required to be celibate during breastfeeding. In the Middle East, compared to the western world, breastfeeding is practiced more, but public breastfeeding basically does not exist as women are, in general, covering themselves due to religious beliefs. There are some inspiring groups and women that encourage it though, suggesting special covers for breastfeeding (L3).
While still looking for cultures in which public breastfeeding is socially accepted, I came across an interesting blog article by a Canadian woman about her breastfeeding experience in Mongolia, where it seems as if no one is uncomfortable about women breastfeeding in public. People even encourage and practice it until the primary school age of their children.
The acceptance of breastfeeding seems to depend largely on the country and cannot be categorized by geographic areas. Nevertheless, high-income countries generally have much lower breastfeeding rates according to a UNICEF report. But what is the difference between a culture that accepts public breastfeeding and one that does not? People in the western world have the tendency to associate breasts with sexual stimuli and not with their natural purpose of feeding babies. Is it then this sexualisation of the female breast that is leading our society to discourage breastfeeding in public?
Probably a big issue is a circle of events that has been initiated: certainly, women feel uncomfortable and, consequently, breastfeed less in public, making it more and more odd to do so. Women deciding not to breastfeed in public might indeed play a big role in the way people think of breasts. According to a study, only 26 % of adults in the UK have seen a woman breastfeeding in their life (2). This number already says it all. If you do not see breasts used for their natural purpose but only as a sexual stimulus in advertising and media, how could you ever consider breastfeeding in public to be normal?
How could this circle be prevented? It seems as though governments could help with this matter, as seen in a few examples. Scandinavian countries started a pro-breastfeeding initiative in the 1970s by banning formula milk advertising and giving women breaks off work for breastfeeding. Breastfeeding rates increased dramatically and are still among the highest worldwide (3, 4). According to UNICEF, the governments of India and Vietnam also managed to increase breastfeeding rates by similar measures. This implies that when breastfeeding rates went up, so did social acceptance. In the UK, any discrimination of breastfeeding women was banned in 2010 by law. Nevertheless, the UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates worldwide according to a report in 2018.
It is rather unlikely that the vicious cycle precluding breastfeeding in public can be resolved soon, even though governmental actions could bring progress, as seen in the Scandinavian example. Women also have a chance to play their part by deciding to breastfeed more often in public, which could change people’s views on the matter. The public acceptance should consequently increase the more this is seen as a normal occurrence. The act of breastfeeding should be seen as natural and sexualisation of breasts should not influence men and women in their way of looking at breastfeeding women in public. Similarly, this should not influence women in their decision whether to breastfeed their new-born child.
- Johnston-Robledo, I. et al., “Indecent Exposure: Self-objectification and Young Women’s Attitudes Toward Breastfeeding”, Sex Roles, 2007.
- Giles, M. et al., “Measuring young people’s attitudes to breastfeeding using the Theory of Planned Behaviour”, J Public Health (Oxf), 2007.
- Sayers, R., “Breast is best: just maybe in private?”, Br J Gen Pract, 2014
- Protheroe L. et al., “The effectiveness of public health interventions to promote the initiation of breastfeeding”, Health Development Agency, 2003