Breastfeeding in the Street?! Shameless as Roses!
When you see somebody breastfeeding … what feelings come up for you?
If you’ve had a difficult breastfeeding experience yourself, all kinds of emotions may rush into your throat and choke you. People often call this ‘guilt’, but it’s more complicated! I’ve spent years helping mothers who want to feed their babies themselves to achieve their breastfeeding goals. When it all goes horribly wrong, there’s disappointment, grief, often a feeling of being betrayed. ‘They told me it would be natural! It didn’t come natural to me.’ Or ‘My baby didn’t take to it like they said he would’.
As they say in the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme, Breastfeeding Uncovered: it’s inhumane to tell people all about why breastfeeding is so good, and then deprive them of support and information when the baby is born. It’s cheap to deliver a ‘breast is best’ message. Providing enough midwives and Health Visitors and training them in how to help with breastfeeding costs a little more. A small increase in our (abysmal) UK breastfeeding rates would save the NHS £40 million per year. Why aren’t we all angry?
If you come across somebody breastfeeding when you’re not expecting it – do you feel embarrassed? Let’s look at that together.
Embarrassment is a nasty feeling! You go hot. You don’t know where to look. Shame rises up and makes your neck hot. You feel as if you shouldn’t be there – that can make you angry! Of course you have a right to be wherever you are!
It’s easy to turn those emotions round and aim them like arrows at the breastfeeding mother. We blame her! She should be ashamed! She has no right to be here!
Hang on a minute – embarrassment feels bad, but you don’t have to go to hospital for it. Not even Accident & Emergency. You may survive.
Let’s take a deep breath and peer inside ourselves. What’s this shame all about? Are we getting breasts muddled up with sex? There! I said the naughty word – b.r.e.a.s.t. In some cultures, breasts can play an enjoyable part in love-making.
But this is not what they are for. Breasts evolved over millions of years to provide food for young mammals, including humans. The fact that we delight in their sensitivity is one of those happy accidents that make life such fun.
There are more. We love to hear blackbirds singing! The sound fills us with joy so intense that we even write songs and hymns about it. (‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night…’ … ‘Blackbird has spoken….’) But what is that blackbird doing? Is he pouring out his song for the enjoyment of humans? I think not! He’s shouting information to all the other blackbirds out there:
‘This is my patch of land, all the way from this tree to way over there. You can hear how loud and tuneful my song is, right? That’s because I’m strong and fit. I’ve got this sharp beak, see? If any of you other bloke blackbirds come rootling after the worms in my land, you’ll get a taste of my claws. But laydee blackbirds, you can come and visit, I’m a great nest-builder, many are my eggs …’*
The way our hearts lift when we hear him is just one of many happy accidents in nature.
Roses are another. We have to stop and have a sniff! The graceful curves of their petals make us smile. We love their colours, and put great effort into growing roses ever more perfect. Do the roses put on this show for the benefit of people? I think not! They are sending out scent on the airwaves to lure bees:
‘I’ve got delicious nectar for you, just what you need to feed your sisters! You can make honey with it; then your whole hive can survive the winter. My nectar is the best. Come and nuzzle amongst my stamens. I want the pollen you’ve picked up on your hairy thighs from other roses, that’s all I ask in return … Pollinate me!’
Dear me, I’m blushing already. Roses make their gorgeous perfume for the bees, not for us humans. The way it enriches our lives is yet another happy accident!
What about red-hot chilli peppers? Their spicy taste makes our mouths water! We put them in our cooking to liven up student stews and haute cuisine. We name dance bands after them. Did the pepper plant decide to produce this zingy flavour for us? I think not! They are trying to stop animals chomping them and wasting their seeds:
‘I may look like a juicy green plant, but you see these red pointy things? These are my secret weapons! One bite of that, mate, and you’ll be galloping round the pasture with your tail in the air and all the other bison will laugh at you. So keep off!’
Humans being clever, we learned to chop the chillis small and add them to our bean dishes. Yum! Another happy accident that nature provides.
It’s the same for breasts. They are awesome milk-producing organs! Whale breasts make milk that’s half cream to help their babies float. Rabbit breasts make milk that can keep babies quiet for hours while the mother rabbit grazes. Human breasts make milk that grows brains and protects babies from infection: our babies need to grow their nerves and brains without interruption from illness. And yes, they give us pleasure too – but that’s not what they are for.
It’s not all about us grown-ups! Breasts are actually for babies!
So what to do when you see breastfeeding in the street, shop, café, park, restaurant, workplace, or anywhere? Just give them a smile!
If you see a parent who is not a woman chest-feeding their baby, please consider: they are nurturing their baby with milk and love. That’s what babies need. Give them a smile!
If you’re in the UK, you’ve got until 29 August 2018 to watch this great programme: Channel 4 Dispatches Breastfeeding Uncovered
Wherever you are in the world, you can read Professor Amy Brown’s blog for Cambridge Breastfeeding Alliance:
- I’m indebted to Marina Lewycka for this insight about birdsong. Read her novel Two Caravans – it’s not about breastfeeding, but it’s all about being human. Or being Dog.
If you’re breastfeeding and it’s not going well:
You may find useful information in these pages.
If you need individual help, you can find well-trained Breastfeeding Counsellors from a charity. They will listen, provide information, and help you figure out how to make it work for you.
- National Helpline: 0300 100 0212
- La Leche League in the UK or International
- Association of Breastfeeding Mothers
- Breastfeeding Network
- If you’re angry about shameless advertising of baby milk in the UK, get in touch with Baby Milk Action
- Or IBFAN – International Baby Food Action Network