Breastfeeding is the most natural and essential act of nourishing your baby as it provides numerous health benefits for both you and your child. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advises the following:
- Infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life, meaning the baby should receive no other liquids or solid foods other than breast milk.
- Breastfeeding should continue after 6 months while introducing appropriate complementary foods (solids) and should ideally continue for up to two years or beyond, alongside complementary feeding.
The WHO also emphasises that breast milk provides all the essential nutrients and antibodies to the baby, while promoting healthy growth and development. It says that breast milk helps protect against certain infections, reduces the risk of obesity and chronic diseases, plus strengthens the mother-child bond.
The WHO therefore states the importance of creating a supportive environment for breastfeeding mothers and encourages the implementation of policies that protect and promote breastfeeding.
You’d think then that breastfeeding your little one when out and about would be the absolute norm. Sadly not! Breastfeeding in public spaces has been, and to a certain degree still is, marred by stigma and controversy, which has ultimately left many mothers unsure of their rights and the societal expectations surrounding this intimate and motherly act.
Let’s take a look at breastfeeding rights and bylaws in South Africa
The South African Constitution (Section 9) guarantees the right to equality and dignity, which includes the right to breastfeed in public spaces without discrimination. Furthermore, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA) prohibits discrimination against breastfeeding mothers. In a nutshell, South Africa recognises and protects the rights of breastfeeding mothers.
So why the stigma?
Despite legal protections, breastfeeding in public continues to face stigma in South Africa. This sadly stems from society’s discomfort at being exposed to women’s breasts which has led to misconceptions and the unwarranted sexualisation of a perfectly natural act.
While there are groups of lactivists (activists who protest for a free breastfeeding culture) and feminists who fight for mothers to comfortably breastfeed their babies wherever they want in public spaces, the stigma still remains. In other words, it’s going to take a lot more of us to challenge and debunk these stereotypes, while promoting education and awareness around creating a much more supportive environment for breastfeeding mothers.
Bronwyn Millar is a mother and lactivist who has been instrumental in calling out establishments for stigmatising breastfeeding mothers in their venues. She says, “Asking a mother to leave a public space is infringing on her right to partake in normal society and expecting her to be at the mercy of her baby’s feeding schedule, which if a mother is demand feeding as per the recommendations of practically every health agency in the world, means that her own freedoms will be severely curtailed.”
Restaurants and breastfeeding policies
Restaurants in South Africa have varying policies regarding breastfeeding, which are largely influenced by what society dictates and is at management discretion – not ideal if said management is opposed to public breastfeeding.
However, while there is no uniform law mandating restaurants to provide dedicated breastfeeding areas, many establishments have embraced a more inclusive approach by accommodating breastfeeding mothers. If restaurants have designated private areas or breastfeeding-friendly spaces, they must be clean and comfortable. But it’s still the mother’s prerogative and she should therefore be given the choice of where she wants to breastfeed her baby. And if that so happens to be at her table in the middle of a busy restaurant, well then, she needs to be supported in this decision.
It’s in part thanks to Millar that a well-known, family-friendly South African restaurant chain was called out for “asking women to leave or feed in the toilet”. Since then, the chain has changed its tune and now displays “Breastfeeding Welcome” signs at the restaurants alongside an encouraging and supportive breastfeeding policy which, in a nutshell, states, “It is a lawful act in South Africa for a woman to breastfeed a child in public” as well as, “Breastfeeding plays an important role in early childhood development due to its health and well-being benefits” and “We are a family-friendly restaurant, which places a great amount of emphasis on families, especially children, hence breastfeeding is welcomed at our restaurant”.
But should breastfeeding women at the very least cover their nipples?
It is absolutely the mother’s right to choose whether she wants to cover her nipples or not while breastfeeding her child. And, while some mothers may feel comfortable using a cover or nursing shawl, others may opt for more discreet methods such as using clothing or positioning themselves in a way that maintains their privacy. It is however important to respect a mother’s choice and understand that the primary concern should be the comfort and well-being of both the mother and the child.
“Some mothers find that their babies are easily distracted and so they prefer to cover so that their child can get a full feed. That is their prerogative. Some mothers feel more reserved about showing the top curve of their breast and so, prefer to cover. That too, is their prerogative. But this does not mean that because some mothers are shy, and some babies are easily distracted, that all mothers and babies should be forced to cover up too,” Millar states.
What if the mother wants to breastfeed in private but there are no decent feeding rooms?
In situations where there are no dedicated feeding rooms available, breastfeeding mothers should never be put in a position where they have to deny their babies nourishment. In fact, society should provide a supportive environment for them. So, if confronted with a lack of facilities, mothers can explore alternative options such as using a quiet corner table in a restaurant, seeking out another establishment that comfortably welcomes breastfeeding, or engaging in open communication with the management to advocate for their needs.
Breastfeeding is always best!
Breastfeeding in public is a fundamental right for mothers in South Africa, protected by the law, and breastfeeding moms should feel proud of the fact that they have chosen to provide their babies with such an excellent start to life.
“What it comes down to is that opponents of uncovered breastfeeding only have one issue. They are offended by the sight of a baby on a breast. Their only issue is one of prudery. Supporters of breastfeeding have many, many, many reasons – backed up by science and fact – why breastfeeding needs to be a normal part of their lives and their children’s lives,” Millar concludes.
At the end of the day, it’s up to us as a society to fight for the mother’s right to breastfeed wherever she wants. We should be standing up for South Africa’s mothers and empower them to breastfeed their children wherever they please.
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