Breastfeeding in public – tolerate or facilitate?

I saw this morning, Justin Forsyth, Chief Executive of of Save the Children interviewed on BBC Breakfast about their latest report highlighting the benefits of breastfeeding in the first hour after birth and the global decline in breastfeeding rates.  He was talking primarily in the context of developing countries but comments he made about cultural and societal influences impacting on breastfeeding rates, have parallel application here in the UK.   I was already in the process of writing this blog post, which is part one of two.  The second instalment will look at breastfeeding in the work context, but today I’m focusing on a woman’s right to breastfeed in a public place.

It is unlawful for anyone providing services or premises to the public to discriminate against, harass or victimise a woman because she is breastfeeding.  So says the Equality Act 2010.  In short, a woman who wishes to breastfeed in public is entitled to do so, no matter how old her baby is.  The choice for retailers and other service providers is this: tolerate or facilitate?

Picture this…

A flustered looking woman with a crying baby is standing in the queue at a coffee shop. She is willing the queue to dissipate so that she can order her drink, sit down and breastfeed her baby.  The baby gets louder, the woman gets more flustered.  A member of staff leans over the counter and invites her to go and sit down and someone will come over and take an order from her in a couple of minutes.  She sits down and begins to feed.  The crying stops.  She orders a cup of coffee and a sandwich.  When these arrive, together with a glass of water the staff member anticipates that the mother will also welcome (which she does), the staff member takes the time to tell her where the baby change facilities are.  The mother relaxes, finishes her lunch, and leaves with a positive experience to share with others (which she will).

The legal obligation on the establishment is merely to serve her the coffee and sandwich she has requested and allow her to remain on the premises (free from discrimination or harassment) whilst she feeds her baby.  It is under no obligation to provide baby changing facilities. Tolerate.

But in my example, the staff make an extra effort (perhaps due to training they have received) to assist the mother and make her feel welcome and the business has taken the additional step of providing baby change.  Facilitate.

As well as complying with the law, there is a clear business advantage to going above and beyond the minimum legal obligation where breastfeeding is concerned.  The scenario above is repeated many, many times every day across England and Wales.  Coffee shops and department store restaurants in particular can do fantastic business by making their premises welcoming and appealing to breastfeeding mothers.  Trust me when I say that news of such venues travels like wildfire.

In Northamptonshire where I live, there is a “Breastfeeding Welcome” scheme operated by the Northamptonshire Breastfeeding Alliance.  Cafes and other establishments can put a special sticker in their window to signify that they welcome breastfeeding mothers.

There are several cinema chains which put on dedicated parent and baby screenings of selected movies.  This is also a shrewd business move!

As I have previously opined in relation to flexible working, approaching the law with a pure compliance mindset may mean passing up important business opportunities.

Isn’t business tough enough without overlooking swathes of potential customers?

If you want more information on how to facilitate breastfeeding in your public place, you could start by talking to Northamptonshire Breastfeeding Alliance, Maternity Action or the National Childbirth Trust.

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3 Responses to Breastfeeding in public – tolerate or facilitate?

  1. hrgem says:

    This is something I have no personal experience on. However, on reading this blog, my first thought was, whilst I applaud the approach you describe of businesses welcoming breast feeding mothers, it does feel to me like there is something wrong with our society that this is considered necessary. Given that it is considered acceptable for women’s breasts to be displayed in daily newspapers, how sad it is that women need to tell other women about breastfeeding friendly venues. After all, this is one of the most natural things in the world. I’m not wishing to detract from the worthy initiatives that you mention in the post Karen, I just can’t help thinking it would be nice if they were not necessary. Perhaps I am being naive.
    I have seen many employers take the compliance only approach, and that with the attitude it is an inconvenience. This is just another factor that can impact on women returning to the workplace.

  2. Valerie says:

    I am still breastfeeding my third child (17 months old) and I breastfed our older two children until they were 14 and 16 months old, so I have quite a bit of experience nuring in private and public.
    I would prefer a balance of Tolerate and Facilitate. If I didn’t know the cashier/clerk, I wouldn’t WANT them coming to the table and taking my order while I was nursing, as I like my privacy/modesty, but I *would* like there to be an acceptance of the natural and beautiful thing it is! It would be nice not to get looked at in that uncomfortable way. Why don’t mothers and babies get looked at while bottle feeding? We don’t stare at someone eating a salad or a bowl of pasta; why is baby’s meal any different?
    I nurse in the car usually, if I am out with my son and it’s time for him to nurse. I am the most comfortable there. I WILL nurse elsewhere, but I try to plan to do it in the car before or after an outting because then I can be totally at ease. Did you know a woman’s “letdown” can be hindered or slowed if she is stressed, therefore making the nursing session a lot harder? When a woman is relaxed, her letdown and experience are natural. ❤
    I DO love the breastfeeding sign you say some businesses have! 🙂

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