Is there still a stigma around breastfeeding in public? Women’s experiences and expert tips for new mums

To mark World Breastfeeding Week, Helen Johnson talks to new mums about their experiences

Many women choose to breastfeed their baby and feel comfortable feeding whenever and wherever they need to - including in public places.

The right to breastfeed in all public places is protected in the 2010 Equality Act, with the NHS website noting that you should “not ever be made to feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public”, and that it is illegal for anyone to ask a breastfeeding woman to leave a public place.

But is there still a stigma around women who choose to breastfeed in public and do new mums feel comfortable doing so?

The right to breastfeed in all public places is protected in the 2010 Equality Act (Graphic: Mark Hall)

Positive and negative experiences for breastfeeding mums

Recent research carried out by Censuswide for breast pump company Elvie, which surveyed 1,011 mums aged 18 and over who have ever breastfed - including 144 who are currently breastfeeding - showed that 35% of those currently breastfeeding said they’d received non-verbal reassurance such as a thumbs up or smile from passers by - a 75% increase compared with women who historically breastfed.

Thirty-five per cent also said they’d received reassurance from staff in a shop, restaurant or cafe, compared with 18% of women who previously breastfed.

However, some respondents to the survey said they found that strangers stare, or that they have previously been told to cover up - while some had even had photos taken of them and received negative remarks.

Women’s health expert and founder of Elvie, Tania Boler, believes it may be necessary for public places to signpost if they welcome breastfeeding or not.

She said: “In a world where breastfeeding mums feel the need to cover up, and strangers feel it’s OK to comment and take pictures of mums breastfeeding, it’s sadly necessary to signpost where breastfeeding is welcome.”

Ms Boler also noted that as businesses reopen after the Covid lockdowns, “we need to see them creating breastfeeding-safe spaces so mums feel comfortable about breastfeeding and pumping in public.”

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‘How can something so natural be frowned upon?’

However, Great British Bake Off star Manon Lagrève, who had daughter Fleur in June, told NationalWorld of the joys of breastfeeding and how she feels about feeding in public.

She said: “As a first time mum, I was hoping to be able to breastfeed, and I am lucky I persevered and it is now such a joy.

“The thought of breastfeeding in public never really crossed my mind as an issue. How can something so natural be frowned upon?”

The baker said she often makes the comparison with her friends about breastfeeding in public and the reality show Love Island, asking them: “It is okay to see side boobs on TV, but not OK to see my side boob whilst I am feeding my child?”

Lagrève - who regularly posts images on social media of her feeding her daughter in public - noted that there are now breastfeeding tops which have zippers to the side, which allow her to feed discreetly, but that she doesn’t mind unbuttoning a dress or blouse and being more exposed if needed.

Overall, the new mum said she has found breastfeeding to be “so practical, incredibly rewarding, and also, very economical,” as she added: “It is a woman’s right.”

However, new mum Aoife Ní Chionaoith’s experience of breastfeeding in public wasn’t always a positive one.

She shared a negative experience she once had of feeding in public with Elvie’s #TheRealFeed campaign.

She explained that she was once in a coffee shop, eating lunch and breastfeeding her son, when a man said to her: “Why don’t you cover up? That shouldn’t be happening while people are trying to eat.”

She said: “I was so stressed out that I didn’t have any courage to say anything to him. He really knocked my confidence.”

Advice for new mums

For those wanting to feed in public, but feeling hesitant about doing so, there are certain things new mums can do to put their minds at ease, according midwife and antenatal educator Marley Hall.

The health expert recently teamed up with Lansinoh to provide breastfeeding tips for new mums who may wish to feed their babies in public.

Ms Hall said that having another breastfeeding mum with you can help to give you the confidence to feed your baby in public for the first time.

However, if you don’t have any breastfeeding friends living nearby, visiting a baby-friendly café where there’s more chance of being around other breastfeeding mums may help.

Planning your outfit beforehand and making sure it's comfortable and accessible “can make breastfeeding in public much more convenient, and also a lot more discreet for any mums feeling slightly nervous,” added Ms Hall.

If you do notice someone watching you feed, “try not to worry or feel uncomfortable”, says the midwife.

Instead, try to “continue to focus on feeding your baby and enjoy the moment with your little one”.

Although Ms Hall says it’s extremely unlikely that anyone will question you for breastfeeding your baby in public, this can often be a cause of worry for mums and it can therefore be worth “preparing how you’d respond if the situation were to arise”.

Having a response already planned can help new mums feel more confident as they know that they have a plan for dealing with the hypothetical scenario, explained Ms Hall.