When I reflect on the first few weeks of breastfeeding my son, I often wince with regret.
Thinking about how vulnerable and exposed I felt is painful. Learning any new skill is hard, especially when you're dealing with things like milk blebs, blocked milk ducts and cracked and bleeding nipples, but more so because I refused to give myself the space and time to practice in private.
In those early days, I regularly forced myself out of my comfort zone to feed in front of visiting family and even strangers in a coffee shop.
Why should I hide this natural act?
Having consumed as much positive breastfeeding literature as I could when I was pregnant, I had internalised the idea that public feeding was to be fiercely advocated for.
Now I believe there is a fine balance to strike for organisations that want to encourage and empower women to breastfeed publicly. The positivity movement that could be motivational for so many actually made me feel under pressure to fall in line.
The law in the UK, where I live, protects mothers who choose to feed in public and it is discrimination to treat a woman unfavourably because she is breastfeeding .
The same goes for Australia. According to Australian Federal Law, breastfeeding is a right, not a privilege . Under the federal Sex Discrimination Act 1984, it's illegal in Australia to discriminate against a person either directly or indirectly on the grounds of breastfeeding. This also includes those who need to express milk by hand or using a pump .
And, there are no guidelines around needing to cover up while breastfeeding your baby in public — that's a personal choice for you to make. A spokesperson for Maternity Action, a charity providing advice for pregnant women and new parents, told me that some women cover up while breastfeeding, but some don't.
"There shouldn’t be a debate whether women should be covered while breastfeeding," they said. "People who are uncomfortable with the sight of breastfeeding should just look away.”
"Their discomfort is their problem."
And we completely agree. But, the protections of the law and encouraging words from charities don’t help individual women feeding in difficult circumstances. We need more change.
What stops people from breastfeeding in public
Research by Swansea University in 2018 revealed that 40% of women who stopped breastfeeding after 6 weeks did so because they experienced discouragement, judgement and shaming when out in public .
This is something we have found here in Australia, too. We led a survey to better understand the impact of this issue and 72% of mothers said that fear of social commentary is the biggest barrier they face when it comes to breastfeeding in public.
And, it's completely understandable. The reality of feeding in front of other people is difficult.
In my first week of motherhood, my home was full of visitors passing through. As my baby started rooting and snuffling, I'd feel the flush of embarrassment and his polite hints at hunger would soon become a red-faced demand for milk.
As much as everyone tried to go about business as usual, I felt like I was on show. My out-of-control body pulsing and leaking; the baby grunting and chugging down milk noisily. My instinct was to head to my bedroom where I could take off my top, lie down, and concentrate on mastering this new skill. But I felt like I had something to prove.
Online I saw images of amazing women: out and proud, feeding publicly, eating a meal and socialising with friends. I wondered: Why should I hide this natural act?
In most public spaces in the UK, the only place you can feed with a door that locks is the toilet. Often, I had no choice but to battle through public breastfeeds.
Some days it was fine but others, I’d feel inappropriate or exposed and would sweat with mortification. It was hard to rally the courage to stare down disapproving stares while engaging in such an intimate act of love and nourishment with my child.
Sadly, this is an all too common experience. According to Kin Fertility's survey, 2 in 3 women feel uncomfortable breastfeeding or pumping in public, and 94% of respondents said they would use designated safe spaces to feed if they existed.
The message that came through our research was clear: Australian women need more BFF spaces — more BreastFeeding Friendly spaces that protect and support a mum's right to breastfeed or pump and welcome their choice to do so whenever they need to.
With this in mind, we're calling upon you to pledge your BFF business! Display a window decal to welcome breastfeeding or pumping mums into your judgement-free space. Let your community know you're a BFF space with our downloadable social media templates. Want more information? Learn all about Kin's BFF campaign here.
There's no right or wrong way
There is no right or wrong way to breastfeed but shaming women for using public bathrooms when it’s the only available safe space isn’t the answer .
Governments can doggedly promote the legal rights of women feeding their babies to try to increase statistics, but real change will come from a cultural shift towards normalising all kinds of breastfeeding mums. We need to make breastfeeding in public a more positive and accessible experience for mothers.
Britain and Australia have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world . With more diverse role models and the removal of shame and self-consciousness from the equation, more women may feel able to breastfeed their babies.
Ultimately, like every choice about a woman's body, it is down to the individual to choose what they are comfortable with. But the options have to be available.
Normalising the messy truth of breastfeeding could help give a new perspective towards images of a cradled baby latched on perfectly to a neat, mostly covered, breast. That may be the reality of breastfeeding sometimes, but not always.
I want expectant mums to understand that their body looks normal during feeding. I want them to know that their baby is no different from countless others.
You shouldn’t have to cover up — but if you want to, all power to you.
Photo credit: Getty Images