It's a funny thing about Japanese breastfeeding; breastfeeding rates here are high, yet you will rarely see a woman actually nursing. I remember pondering this question in pre-motherhood days and being very puzzled by it. Later on, however, I understood how things worked after I was initiated into the mysteries of the popular Japanese institution of the junyuushitsu (“breastfeeding room”).
These rooms, commonly found in stations, department stores, shopping centers and other facilities, vary considerably; some are little more than a small cubicle with a couple of chairs, while others are quite spacious rooms equipped with sofas and equipment ranging from vending machines to taps emitting water heated to 70 degrees C (accompanied by a little sign assuring users that the water in question was bottled and filtered—my brief period of nursing-room use was shortly after the TEPCO nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, following which parents were warned not to use tapwater in babies’ bottles after briefly elevated levels of radioactivity were reported). As this implies, the larger junyuushitsu are often used by bottle-feeding parents as well; breastfeeding mothers using these rooms have the option of disappearing into a curtained-off cubicle if they aren't happy about being visible to any dads who might be on the couch giving a bottle.
I made sparing use of these rooms back when Little Seal was a baby, mostly in the newborn days when I was nervous about breastfeeding her in public; even after I had gained more confidence, there were times when there was something to be said for making an all-in-one stop (feed + diaper change) without having to shell out US$6.00 on a cup of coffee. That said, I usually fed wherever I happened to be, albeit with a nursing cover.
Why breastfeeding rooms are controversial
Breastfeeding rooms have been cropping up all over the place in the Western world too, and are an increasingly common sight in shopping malls and transportation hubs. One Vermont company is even using crowdsourcing to build free-standing "lactation stations": "Mothers deserve a clean, comfortable, private place to pump and nurse – not a bathroom." While on the face of it, such rooms appear to be a supportive measure for breastfeeding, they’ve always been accompanied by controversy.
"They seem to prefer the idea of hiving off bf mothers into corners so they're invisible to the rest of the population....." "The potential problem with this is that, once these areas are set up, members of the public and/or service station staff might start trying to send all bf-ers to these areas - 'Excuse me, didn't you know there's a private area for that?' - and before you know it we'll be segregated into some dank area that smells of soiled nappies, and where the dirty crockery is never removed," grumbled commenters on one discussion regarding a government proposal to establish nursing rooms at motorway stations in the UK. The commenters are expressing a commonly-held view that breastfeeding rooms actually discourage breastfeeding by sending out unwelcome messages--that breastfeeding is inherently shameful and should be hidden away, that it can only be done in special places and that women who are out and about should be required to spend their time hunting for nursing rooms—and by giving ammunition to those who harass women for nursing in public.
I don’t think these are idle concerns at all. I have seen numerous discussions in which a woman’s right to breastfeed her baby in a café or restaurant was shot down on the grounds of “There are mothers’ rooms where you can do that kind of thing. Why can't you just feed in there?” Here's the thing, though: if I am having lunch or a coffee, I’d prefer to feed my baby where I am, thank you, rather than leave my friends and drag myself off to some separate area, as though I were committing some disgusting act, while my meal gets cold. And trying to get your errands done with a baby (who may feed as often as every 1.5-2 hours in the newborn period) is tough enough without having to plan the whole outing around the availability of nursing rooms. Or drag yourself, stroller and shopping up and down the corridors of some God-forsaken shopping center or railway station trying desperately to find the nursing room, while your hungry infant wails and everyone glares at you.
And yet… I don’t think nursing rooms can simply be written off as A Bad Thing, either. Some women are always going to be too shy to feed in locations where others can see them—especially in the newborn days when trying to latch can feel like assembling a particularly fiddly piece of flatpack furniture. Some babies go through distractible phases and try to rubberneck everything in sight, which can make feeding a nightmare. Sometimes the need for a feed strikes when you not in a café but in the middle of the supermarket or something—even the most chirpy lactivist might feel more comfy feeding on a chair rather than sitting herself on the floor next to the fruit and veg. We also have more mothers who pump exclusively nowadays; I completely support mothers' right to pump in public, but I think we need to be realistic about the fact that very few women are actually comfortable doing this. Trying to find clean and private places to pump on-the-go can be a nightmare for EPing mothers, who often resort to toilet cubicles. In short: I like the existence of breastfeeding rooms. But I don’t want mothers to be chased into them.
What about bottle feeders?
At first glance, providing special spaces for people to bottle feed (like the British department store John Lewis does) sounds a bit odd. But formula feeders may also find themselves sometimes dealing with distractible babies or having to give a bottle in an environment where there is nowhere to sit down. Whatever the reason, formula feeders surely also deserve the option of a quiet space where they don’t have to purchase a cup of tea. Unfortunately, this raises some tricky issues. Formula feeding, unlike breastfeeding, can be done by both men and women. Nobody wants to discriminate against fathers (God knows, the lack of changing tables in most mens' toilets is annoying enough); and yet the fact remains that many breastfeeding mothers use breastfeeding rooms precisely because they don't feel comfortable nursing when there are men around.
A modest proposal
Suggestion: Dump the idea of “breastfeeding rooms” and instead shift towards the concept of “feeding rooms" or "parent and baby rooms" where all parents are welcome, along the lines of the larger junyuushitsu I see in Japan and the generalized "baby rooms" which are sometimes found in the United States and Britain. And—this is important—the sign on the door should contain a message along the following lines:
Parent and Baby Room
Parents are welcome to breastfeed/bottle feed babies anywhere in our facilities; this room provides a quiet space for those who prefer privacy.
What feeding rooms need to have:
- Chairs where both breastfeeders and bottle feeders can sit in comfort and feed their babies
- Small curtained-off booth/area with a chair, exclusively for breastfeeding/expressing mothers who prefer privacy
- Table (where bottles can be mixed and prepped)
- Handwashing facilities
- Electrical outlet (for electric breastpumps)
- Not essential, but “nice to have”
- Tap dispensing hot water heated to 70 degrees C
- Vending machine with drinks, snacks and baby supplies—baby wipes, ready-to-feed (RTF) formula cartons, disposable diapers and hand sanitizer
- Magazines, pleasant décor and a bit of general nice ambience
I really feel that establishing rooms along these lines--rather than "breastfeeding rooms"-- could solve several problems simultaneously. They would, obviously, provide a quiet space for breastfeeding, pumping and formula feeding parents. By shifting the emphasis towards “supporting all parents/providing a relaxing space” rather than “hiding breastfeeding,” they could resolve the awkward questions that are raised about breastfeeding and women’s right to do it in public. And a clear, visible statement affirming women’s right to nurse anywhere in the shopping mall/station/airport etc. would help ensure that the existence of feeding rooms does not become a tool for harassing nursing mothers; anyone who walks past the door and sees the sign will get a bit of education on mothers’ nursing rights, rather than simply registering the existence of the room and interpreting this to mean that mothers are “not supposed” to breastfeed anywhere else. Finally, the provision of a curtained-off space within the room would mean that shy mothers and exclusive pumpers get the privacy they need.
A couple more things: Whoever is in charge of designing baby rooms… please, please consider separating the baby changing facilities from the feeding areas. If they really have to be in the same room, for God’s sake make sure the bin is regularly emptied and the room is a decent size and well ventilated. No parent should have to feed their child in a stinking room next to a (usually overflowing) nappy bin, or express milk in an environment with feces hanging around (contrary to popular belief, baby poo contains similar bacterial concentrations levels to adult feces and can carry pathogens that spread disease). As I discussed previously, there is good evidence that breastmilk expressed in cleaner conditions stays safer for longer. Oh, and while you’re at it, please install chairs without arms; I don’t know what idiot decided that it’s easier to feed a baby in an armchair, but they clearly haven’t based this decision on experience. And could the sign on the door include a picture of a bottle and the International Breastfeeding Symbol, or something neutral, like a picture of a baby?
I’m aware that all this may sound a little demanding. Still, installing a vending machine with bottled drinks and baby supplies might help cover some of the cost. Also, in the brave new world of online shopping that we now live in, brick-and-mortar retail is having to undergo a certain amount of reorganization; less focus on boring and functional provisioning, more emphasis on the fun and leisure aspects of shopping. Making sure that shopping is not a ghastly experience for parents is one obvious thing that malls and department stores can do to encourage parents to shop in their stores; shoppers these days expect nicer treatment as a reward for turning up. Supporting parents of all feeding styles and genders would be a win-win for everyone concerned.