Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When breastfeeding arguments aren't actually about breastfeeding (Part 2: "No babies" is not anti-breastfeeding discrimination)

A few weeks ago, I talked about the way in which stories about unsafe sleeping practices and child welfare issues sometimes get distorted into "breastfeeding stories" by the media, partly perhaps to create extra controversy and attention. Sometimes, however, it's mothers themselves who create the controversy by using the banner of "breastfeeding discrimination" as a way of getting to do things that they want to do.

Harassment of breastfeeding mothers is common enough that most mothers respond with sympathy when they hear stories about being kicked out of somewhere for nursing. However, as one poster on the Chelsea Flower Show discussion put it, "Not everything involving the words 'Breastfeeding' and 'No You Can't Do That' is discriminating."


Laws against breastfeeding discrimination typically protect the mother's right to breastfeed her child anywhere where she and her child are permitted to be; a closer look at the above instances reveals that the problem was basically the presence of the child, not the way milk was being transferred. Having a baby in your lap amidst risks of dropped scissors and hair splinters is not ideal (there are reasons why hairdressers don’t wear open-toed shoes). It’s not sensible to bring a small child to the almighty crush that is the Chelsea Flower Show—hence the no-under-5s rule. Babies don’t—usually—belong at training days, classes or working conventions. Then there’s the issue of obstruction when someone plonks themselves down to feed in, say, a supermarket aisle, or takes up a changing room when there’s a queue of people waiting. Rule of thumb: if it’d be obnoxious/dangerous to bottle-feed your child in Situation X, it’s probably rude to breastfeed there as well.

Where it gets a bit complex
But of course it’s more complicated than that. You see, there is also the argument that any rules excluding babies from any particular place constitute a kind of indirect discrimination against breastfeeding mothers ("disparate impact") because separation of mother and baby is inherently more complicated—or perhaps impossible—for breastfeeding dyads than for formula feeders. From the Chelsea Flower Show thread: “The discrimination comes [in] because a mother cannot go if she cannot take her child because the child will need to be fed from her and her alone.

 A breastfeeding mother is more affected by this rule than a ff one, the father of the same child or a mother of older children. Therefore it is discriminatory.”

This emphasis on the idea that separating the breastfeeding dyad for any length of time is cruel and unusual seems to be commoner among British and Australian etc. mothers, because the wide availability of maternity leave means that few mums of young babies work outside the home. Mat leave is mostly a good thing; the downside is that bottle refusal is widespread, and a general feeling that Breastfed Babies Cannot Be Left For Any Length Of Time has perhaps grown up in these countries. On Mumsnet, for example, a surprising number of posters seem to feel that leaving a 6mo for just a couple of hours is basically impossible because "the baby is exclusively breastfed."
If a mother wants to do something that’s against the rules (like bringing a baby to a childfree event), perhaps because she lacks childcare or has strong views on attachment parenting, it can be tempting to make the situation into a "breastfeeding issue" because it's a way of getting attention and support from breastfeeding organizations and advocates via social media (by contrast, there is no equivalent of Kellymom or La Leche League for parents who are facing childcare difficulties).

But this comes at a cost. One problem is that “crying wolf” like this will inevitably encourage skepticism about real cases of breastfeeding discrimination. We’re seeing more and more cases where complaints about harassment of breastfeeders are being met with cynical comments about how "I'm sure there is more to this story than meets the eye" and "Well, in my experience, breastfeeding women only meet with negativity when they are going out of their way to cause trouble." Women really are still getting kicked out of places for breastfeeding; the last thing we need is a backlash.

I do understand, sort of, why many breastfeeding advocates tend to be at pains to stress the difficulty of separating a breastfeeding mother and baby; it’s probably partly about advocating for attachment parent-y stuff, but a lot of it is also probably to do with the arguments about breastfeeding in public.

Whenever someone is kicked out of somewhere-or-other for breastfeeding in public and uproar ensues, there’s always one bright spark who decides (with clunkingly heavy sarcasm) to "enlighten" us all: "Hey, newsflash! Did you know that they make these things called BREASTPUMPS nowadays?? Why don't you pump a bottle before you leave the house so you won't have to flop your boob out in public? Or leave your baby at home when you go out? Or feed before you leave the house?" Breastfeeders then point out (reasonably) that pumping is time-consuming and not possible for everyone, that not every baby accepts a bottle, that sometimes babies need a feed at an unexpected time, and that insisting that mothers arse around with pumps simply in order to leave the house is really stupid, and can put off women who might otherwise have given breastfeeding a try.

But you can also set up barriers of a different kind if you go too far in the other direction--i.e. dwelling incessantly on the notion that a breastfed baby basically cannot be left, ever (even for short periods), that introducing artificial teats will doom the breastfeeding relationship, that babies are basically perma-suctioned onto you cluster-feeding round the clock and it's impossible to have any sort of a routine--for a year or so, mind you, not just the first few weeks. I mean, I'm imagining I’m a mother-to-be who lives in an area where formula feeding is normal but is thinking about giving breastfeeding a try, and I'm reading the above description. Honestly, I think I'd be running to the supermarket to buy a crateload of Aptimil. Who on earth would want to feed a baby in a way that sounds like a How-To guide for giving yourself post-partum depression? And it's just not true, dammit. Most breastfed babies will go back and forth from bottle to breast; if they don't, you can do a cup or spoon; if they're at least four months you can spoonfeed a bit of food; and you can absolutely breastfeed on a routine if/when you want to.

I do understand that the minority of women who are unable to pump at all really do have problems leaving their babies for more than, say, three hours or so, but implying that this is the norm is disingenuous. Some women choose to breastfeed 100% on demand for months AND delay solids for a long time AND not introduce a bottle or cup, and this really will make separation tricky; they have every right to feed like this if they choose, but it’s misleading to suggest that this is the standard way to breastfeed or that breastfeeding will somehow not “work” if you don’t do things this way.

Separating mother and baby is always a little more complicated for breastfeeding, while formula feeding is more inconvenient when you are on the run. That doesn’t mean that establishments which fail to provide 70-degree water on tap and cartons of formula from vending machines are discriminating against formula feeding, nor does it mean that situations requiring a short separation of mother and baby are discriminating against breastfeeding. As one of the posters on the Chelsea Flower Show discussion puts it: “Choosing to breastfeed is a parenting choice that you made. It will have some consequences, the same as formula feeding does.”


  1. Thank you for another spot-on post. I agree with you in so many ways. There really is an issue here about crying wolf. As with so many other emotive causes, claiming discrimination in cases where it isn't really true just detracts from the real cause. You're so right that there is a difference between 'you can't breastfeed here' and 'you can't bring your infant here'. There's also, I think, a difference between 'it's illegal' and 'it's just kind of unwise'. Sure, plenty of places may have laws saying you _can_ bring and/or breastfeed your infant anywhere that you're legally allowed to be, but we don't need to let laws override our common sense.

    I know it can be really tough to resign ourselves to the fact that sometimes we just can't participate in the things we used to like doing if we're breastfeeding young babies, but we have to face the fact that we chose to have a baby and we chose to breastfeed. The limitations it puts on us can be significant in the early weeks and months, but they don't last forever, we knew what we were signing up for and, as you say, they aren't necessarily all that bad for everyone. I guess I'm talking from the point of view of someone who has never had a problem with pumping and bottle-refusal only lasted a few weeks, so maybe it's easy for me to say - but I reckon if those things had been issues then I'd have just figured tough luck, I won't go anywhere that requires me to be apart from my baby for more than a few hours for the first few months of her life. That's motherhood. There are going to be plenty more times in our lives as parents where we can't do exactly what we'd have liked to do because we have kids' needs to think about.

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