• Older women have outraged breastfeeding advocates for telling women to breastfeed more discreetly. (Flickr)Source: Flickr
You might expect that older women would support mums breastfeeding whenever and however they can, but it turns out many want them to keep mums' exposed breasts away from the public eye.
Kimberly Gillan

8 Mar 2016 - 10:35 AM  UPDATED 8 Mar 2016 - 10:58 AM

Despite the fact the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a child's life, some sections of the Australian community still feel uncomfortable about women doing it in public – particularly if they're not covered up.

It's not just men, like Sunrise host David "Kochie" Koch, who are urging women to be "discreet" and "classy" when feeding their babies. Just recently, dozens of Bendigo mums staged a mass breastfeed in protest of Luci White being told by shoppers and a shopping centre manager to leave a food court to feed in parenting rooms.

But perhaps the most surprising group to express outrage at women breastfeeding in public is over-60s women. An anonymous writer has posted an online rant titled "What p*sses me off: breastfeeding", where she details her outrage at getting a glimpse of a mother's breasts while she was feeding in the common area of a shopping centre. "I don’t get why mothers feel the need to feed so openly, where is the pride?" she writes on startsatsixty.com.au. "We all know breast is best for baby but … there is no need to shove it down everybody’s throats."

What is it that you find offensive about a human being providing human milk to a human baby when it is hungry.

Many of the 700 comments about the article were in support of women showing more "decorum" when breastfeeding in public, which Vanessa Campbell, spokesperson for the Australian Breastfeeding Association, says is disappointing.

"It is important to support mums as mothering can, at times, be a difficult job," she tells SBS Life. "A passer-by doesn't know the sort of day a mother has had – is her baby under the weather? Did she get much sleep? Instead of judging her for doing what is normal, maybe they should congratulate her for being an attentive mother who is responding to the needs of her baby."

While many women report receiving nothing but positive support for breastfeeding, those who have encountered judgement say it sticks in their minds. Jody Danson, Mummachat blogger, had numerous encounters with older women who wanted her to cover up while feeding her son. "Breastfeeding can be quite difficult when you are learning," she tells SBS Life. "You need to whack [your breasts] out and whack the baby on because when they are screaming, they just want to be fed and won't wait for you to hide yourself."

In Australia, 96 per cent of mothers initiate breastfeeding, but by three months, only 39 per cent of babies are exclusively breastfed; by five months, that number drops to only 15 per cent.

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While the reasons for stopping breastfeeding include pain and discomfort, fear the baby is not getting enough milk and plans to return to work, Dr Elaine Burns, Western Sydney University midwifery lecturer, says feeling uncomfortable feeding in public can also play a part. "Society is telling them [mums] this is a very important thing to do, then once they start they find that society isn’t supportive of them doing it when they’re in public areas," she tells SBS Life.

Dr Burns says only about half of the babies born in the 60s and 70s were bottlefed, which could explain why some older women have developed an intolerance of public breastfeeding. "In those times, you wouldn’t even sit in a room with other women and feed, which has contributed to the problem that we now have," she says. "If you don't tend to see other women breastfeeding, it contributes to this notion that breastfeeding can only happen in private, when in actual fact breastfeeding should happen whenever and wherever a baby needs to be fed."

Whether covered or not covered, the woman should be able to see her baby and the baby allowed to breathe.

It's not just in Australia that women report feeling judged for breastfeeding in public. In December, Ashley Kaidel posted a photo of herself on Facebook breastfeeding in an American cafe with an accompanying post about how she's sick of fending off dirty looks from strangers, while a survey found 41 per cent of mums in France and 47 per cent of mums in China think public breastfeeding is "embarrassing".

Perhaps Australia needs to take a leaf out of Brazil's book where more than half of Brazilian mothers breastfeed exclusively for six months thanks to a government push to encourage breastfeeding in private and in public.

Meanwhile Dr Burns says Middle Eastern women have reported feeling more supported to breastfeed publicly in their home country. "Women from a Middle East background have told me it was the norm to feed wherever you were, but in Australia they wouldn’t feed in public because they don’t want to attract the attention of disapproving passers-by."

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According to a Lancet study, not breastfeeding is associated with lower intelligence and economic losses of about $302 billion annually or 0·49 per cent of world gross national income, so breastfeeding mums could try informing naysayers about the public good, otherwise Dr Burns suggests asking them, “What is it that you find offensive about a human being providing human milk to a human baby when it is hungry?”

Because at the end of the day, "Breastfeeding is something so obviously appropriate to do," says Dr Burns. "Whether covered or not covered, the woman should be able to see her baby and the baby allowed to breathe."


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Image by Rob (Flickr).