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#ThinkingAllowed: What we need is common sense in breastfeeding debate

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When a baby is hungry it means he/she needs to eat. It’s as simple as that. This is how we should be looking at the issue of breastfeeding in public. A mum looking after her child. A mum feeding her baby. Nothing more, nothing less.

New laws are being introduced in Gibraltar to make it illegal for businesses and establishments not to allow breastfeeding. Whilst they are to be generally welcomed I cannot help feel it’s also a little bit sad. Should we need it in a community which prides itself on being tolerant, friendly and open? Apparently we do.

In the UK it’s already law and the Equality Act 2010 says it’s discrimination to treat a woman unfavourably because she is breastfeeding. It applies to anyone providing services, facilities and premises to the public, public bodies, further and higher education bodies and associations.

I would like to argue we don’t need laws, that what we need is common sense. But it appears we need both, with an added dose of education.

The issue is that regardless of whether it’s legal or not, whether you agree or not, a woman should never be shamed for breastfeeding in public. It’s a sad reality but it happens.

Whilst a restaurant owner may allow it, a passerby or someone else eating there may express a different view.

Recently a picture of the Kyrgyz president's youngest daughter feeding her baby, dressed in her underwear, has sparked a debate in the UK about breastfeeding and sexualisation.

During this debate I heard a story of a mother breastfeeding her child on the bus in London. She was told her actions were “disgusting” and to “put her breast away”.

The problem is this is not an isolated view. The bus passengers were divided.

So … what is so wrong with breastfeeding in public?

I would argue nothing is. But, I know others will disagree.

There will be some people who personally oppose public breastfeeding but keep their views to themselves. Some individuals or businesses, however, will confront mothers and it is right to have laws to prevent that.

Staff at establishments need to be informed so together we can generate a culture of awareness.

I remember a few years back during a GBC Open Day at the Piazza that someone was breastfeeding her child. We had set up a webcam for the radio show and were streaming which meant this was being broadcast to the whole of Gibraltar.

For a moment we paused and considered whether it was right to tell her or not. As I understood it (even before any laws) she was perfectly entitled to stay – but we still made her aware just in case she didn't want to be seen by others. She could then herself decide to move or stay where she was, if she wanted.

This should be about choices. If a mum wants to breastfeed in public so be it. If she prefers doing so in private that also needs to be respected. Part of this drive should also be to provide more places that offer privacy for women who want it.

In many cases it is culture which has hyper-sexualised the female body. If a woman feels comfortable breastfeeding in public we shouldn’t feel uncomfortable.

The Gibraltar Breastfeeding Association has done some great work in bringing the issue to light.

Like Minister Samanatha Sacramento said: “Breastfeeding is of course absolutely natural, the health benefits are widely known and accepted. Even though the benefits of breastfeeding are generally accepted, negative attitudes to breastfeeding in public can pose a barrier making women feel uncomfortable and unsafe to do so. As part of its initiative to encourage more women to breastfeed on demand, I feel that it is important to create an accepting environment in public.”

I would say it’s probably also true that a lot of breastfeeding in public goes by relatively unnoticed. It’s just that a negative instance is highlighted vociferously.

We should all be sensible about it. It takes time to change attitudes. Sometimes genuine mistakes happen. A good example took place at the V&A Museum recently where a staff member “politely” asked a breastfeeding mum to cover up. The woman said she was “perplexed” and “stunned into silence” – perhaps more so because the museum has statues of naked women.

The museum was quick to highlight its open breastfeeding policy and apologise - the woman accepted the apology and said it showed that “attitudes are on the most part positive”.

It could have been made into a huge issue – thankfully it wasn’t. Let’s move on in the right direction for all with understanding.

Staff should be properly briefed by management everywhere but sometimes personal opinions, or even a lack of awareness, make it difficult for the rules to be observed 100%.

It’s 2017 and I think very few would be shocked by a nanosecond flash of a nipple (if there is one). But that’s not what breastfeeding is about. In most cases mums seem to do so rather discreetly but ultimately the practice is the natural means by which a baby receives nourishment.

Respect here should be mutual. Let’s accept not everyone will agree but that they are perfectly entitled to look elsewhere. After all no breastfeeding mum wants to be stared at anyway, do they?

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