Breastfeeding is as natural as it can get.
Or is it not? As World observes World Breastfeeding Week, Eve Woman explores five dilemmas that women face when it comes to breastfeeding in public places
In May this year, there was uproar when a woman who was breastfeeding inside a city restaurant claimed that she had been asked by a waiter “to either stop or cover up.”
“I was shocked,” she said during a phone interview that was aired on KTN, “because I had done this a million times before.”
We all know what followed: demonstrations by human rights groups demanding for formulation of laws that would allow women to breastfeed in public spaces without discrimination.
It became a trending topic for that moment. Three months later, we are onto ‘better’ things. But like many social contestations, breastfeeding in public still splits opinions.
Fact: According to medical research, nothing compares to breast milk in quality and the benefits it offers to a baby. So, there is no skirting around it. A baby should breastfeed at every opportunity. But there are many aspects to breastfeeding in public spaces. Here are some of them.
a) Reality of a mother’s life
Life has no script as Jeri Muchura, a mother of three, notes. And even in predictable situations, a mother knows too well not to ignore the nutritional needs of her baby. “Babies cry to be fed wherever and whenever,” Jeri says. “It is a call of nature: what is a mother to do?”
The ideal situation is for both the baby and the mother to be at home. This, however, is not the reality of the modern woman.
There are days a mother has to run errands or attend to other needs. On some occasions, she may need to carry her baby along. Jeri feels that no one should ever object to a mother breastfeeding their child because the baby’s life depends on it.
She says: “Breastfeeding is giving the baby food. It cannot be viewed in any different way.” And so, for Jeri, as long as baby needs to breastfeed “I will go ahead and do it in whichever space I feel I can.”
b) Is it our culture?
Depending on who you talk to, you are likely to hear varied opinions as to what African culture ascribes to on the subject of breastfeeding.
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If that person is Nazizi, the musician, then you’ll hear something unreserved. She says: “We Africans have never had a problem with a woman breastfeeding her baby in public. It is only now you’ll hear of it because of influence from western cultures.”
Nazizi, a mother to an 8-year-old says she would breastfeed even backstage.
Other people, like James feel that African mothers are discreet and don’t breastfeed in public. “Even when they do, they cover up so well you wouldn’t know what is going on underneath,” James says.
Wanjeri Nderu, an activist (who was at the forefront during the May demonstrations) says that it is impossible for our forefathers to have insisted on women covering up during breastfeeding as they themselves covered little.
“They walked half naked. Clothes, like Christianity, came with missionaries from the West,” Wanjeri says.
c) Breastfeeding on demand vs expressing milk
For dissenting voices like James, real time breastfeeding should be the last resort. “A woman should express milk and carry it wherever she is going to avoid a scenario where she will need to breastfeed in public,” he says.
The other options, he says, are like formula milk and moving to a somewhat private space. His views wouldn’t go down well with ardent believers in breastfeeding on demand, the idea that a baby should always breastfeed when hungry as opposed to bottle feeding.
“God made breasts to carry breast milk at the right temperature, in the right proportions and to be delivered in the right way,” Jeri says.
Jeri’s view is no doubt the most ideal. Dr Renson Mukhwana, a paediatrician at Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital in Nairobi says that mothers who — for reasons of employment — may not be near their babies should express in a bottle and make it available for the baby while they are away.
“Breast milk is the best nutrition for a baby. Formula should only be used in unique situations and only when prescribed by a doctor,” he says.
Mothers like Jeri who prefer to breastfeed on demand will find themselves needing to breastfeed in public spaces.
d) Being a mother and holding an 8-to-5 job
Imagine having to report to work every day while nursing a young one at the same time. “It is physically and emotionally tasking,” says Gladys Mugambi, a mother who also wears the hat of a nutritionist.
Employed mothers have had to resort to expressing milk just so that they can adhere to the six months exclusive breastfeeding requirement.
The Breastfeeding Bill of 2017, passed in July 2017, is yet to be assented to. If it becomes law, it will require employers to set up crèches for lactating mothers.
Some firms have successfully put up crèches where employees with young ones can leave their babies under care and breastfeed them on demand.
Wanjeri believes that such initiatives will make life better for mothers.
Grace Ngare, a psychologist at St Paul’s Mukasa Dispensary says that mothers in employment struggle with emotional distance that work places upon them while the baby is still young.
“More than just nutrition, breastfeeding is a time for a mother and her baby to bond,” she says. “It is therefore not unusual for a lactating mother to feel disturbed when another baby cries near them.”
e) Breasts as a sex symbol
The proponents of ‘discreet’ breastfeeding often point to the understanding that breasts are sexual organs. But are they?
“Breasts are very sexual. When a man sees breasts, even when it is during breastfeeding, you cannot assume the fact that they ultimately conjure sexual imagery,” James opines.
To which Wanjeri objects. “It is true that breasts have sexual connotations to them. But there is a big difference between a woman whose breast is out because she is breastfeeding and another whose breasts are in full display with no baby latched.”
According to Wanjeri, a man who looks at a breastfeeding mother and thinks ‘sex’ is most likely a pervert. “They are the ones with a problem; not the breastfeeding woman,” she says.
Perpetual Kabaya, a mother of three (currently nursing an 8-month-old), says that she always tries to cover up when breastfeeding.
“But I also make use of nursing bras and dresses which allow easy access to the breast in such a way that a mother does not need to lift the whole top to go ahead with breastfeeding,” she says.
Perpetual is always aware that people get offended when a woman breastfeeds in public and her breasts are showing.
While she will cover up, she also believes that a baby should be allowed to breastfeed anytime and anywhere without judgement on its mother’s part.
“I’ve had a guest at my house frown upon me breastfeeding in their presence,” she says. “It is annoying.”
f) Is it unhygienic to breastfeed in public?
If there is a reason that would make the case against breastfeeding in public it would have to be hygiene.
While it is true that the general hygiene of public spaces is wanting it does not necessarily make the process of breastfeeding unhygienic, says paeditrician Dr Joy Mpaata.
“When a mother latches a baby onto her breast she is often careful not to touch the nipple and the areola — the part that goes into the mouth of the baby,” Dr Mpaata says.
Hygiene would be of concern if, while in public spaces — having touched dirty surfaces and shaken hands with people along the streets — a mother uses the same hands to touch the nipple and the areola thereby transferring germs to the baby unknowingly.
This could also happen under less strenuous circumstances like at home.
Generally though Dr Mpaata finds it difficult to point at a frequent occurrence with hygiene that makes breastfeeding in public unhealthy.