Thursday, 15 August 2013

Breastfeeding in swimming pools - what do our reactions say about us?

There have been two reports in recent months of mothers breastfeeding at public swimming pools and being told off for it by staff: you can read them here and here. Both stories provoked a storm of comments, both on the newspaper report pages themselves and across the internet, including on Mumsnet, several breastfeeding pages I follow on Facebook and on the Jeremy Vine show. Most of those commenting on the story seem to have missed the point completely, which is that whatever your personal feelings about the appropriateness or not of breastfeeding in a public swimming pool, women's rights not to be harassed or victimised for doing so are enshrined in law. It is ironic then that the venom of the commentators is almost entirely directed at the women involved, and not the staff who approached them or the management of the respective pools, who may (investigations ongoing) have been acting illegally.

The comments about both incidents have deeply saddened me, as a breastfeeding mother, a breastfeeding supporter and as a human being. Even given what we all know about the accuracy of newspaper stories (the Cambridge story was reported with claims that the mother in question was in a jacuzzi at the time - it transpires that there is no jacuzzi at the pool, and in fact she was seated on the poolside with only her feet in a toddler pool area), nevertheless other women (and men) have been quick to weigh in with the full force of their opinions about what they would have done in the circumstances, what they think about the pool's policy, all sorts of very revealing nonsense about the 'ickiness' of breastmilk, and so on. This deeply unpleasant tendency to attack the actions of others when they act in ways that we ourselves would not does not reflect well on us as human beings - it is closed-minded, divisive and makes our society look downright hostile to some of its more vulnerable groups, including breastfeeding mothers. Regardless of how other individuals might have acted, or chosen to feed, or cover, or not, the law protects us all, whatever we decide to do. A mum who fed out of the pool, or in the changing room, or in the lobby, or under a towel, or at home before bringing the baby in, has just the same right to be respected by staff as the mum who, for whatever reason, fed in the pool itself.

The law on breastfeeding in public in England says that you cannot be 'harassed or victimised' for breastfeeding in a public place, and this specifically includes parks and leisure facilities. (There are no health and safety issues in a public swimming pool to qualify as an exception under the legislation - for a detailed examination of the 'hygiene worries' of Joe Public, see the Analytical Armadillo's excellent post here). So it is the actions of the staff that are important: in both cases, in the newspaper reports of the incidents and in the mothers' further comments online, it seems clear that the staff were rude, uneducated about breastfeeding and the law and upset mothers attending to the needs of their small children, who were paying customers of the leisure centre. The involvement of management (also uninformed about breastfeeding) compounded the problem rather than fixed it. This shows how little understanding there is of breastfeeding within organisations and is symptomatic of how, as a society, we consistently fail to take it seriously enough. Apart from anything else the mothers' treatment is appalling customer service that no one deserves. It seems to me to be part of the same kind of casual disrespect that is shown by those who are racist or sexist in public - it's ill-informed nonsense, which is why as a society we have legislation to protect people from it.

What should have happened
Day 1 of lifeguard induction: 'This is a family pool and we encourage all members of the public to access our facilities. Our policies reflect the welcoming environment we try to create: we run family sessions, women-only sessions, and baby swim classes alongside our programme of school lessons and public swimming sessions. One relevant point of law that you need to be aware of is that breastfeeding mothers have the right to feed their children in any part of our facilities and you should not ask them to move or stop breastfeeding as this is against the law. If another patron raises the issue with you, take that person aside, explain the law and our policy, and refer them to management if they are not satisfied. You can, if you wish, inform mothers that we have a dedicated infant feeding room for their convenience, but they are under no obligation to use it. This is entirely separate from our policy on no food and drink in the pool area, which is there simply to maintain our high standards of cleanliness around the pool.'

Another day: mum is breastfeeding in the pool, lifeguard notices. 'Mum feeding her baby. Oh right. Wonder if she knows about the room? I'll just nip down and tell her.'
Lifeguard: 'Excuse me, madam, [smiling] I'm sorry to interrupt - I just wanted to check that you know we have an infant feeding room next to the changing rooms, which you're welcome to use if you want to.'
Mum: 'Thanks, but I need to stay here because I'm watching my toddler over there.'
Lifeguard: [smiling again] 'No problem at all madam, enjoy your swim.' Walks off.

In my example the general public, observing (if they even notice) sees the interaction as an endorsement of breastfeeding rather than an attack on it. Smiling mum, unconcerned lifeguard - subliminal message: BREASTFEEDING IS NORMAL. No news story.

Full disclosure: I have breastfed in the changing rooms, on the poolside, and actually in the water at public swimming pools. At the time I didn't give it a second thought - I was just responding to the needs of my baby. Never had a comment from anyone, either member of public or member of staff.


  1. It's a pity that such reasoned arguments don't seem to make it into the public press. Our prized freedom of speech means that ill-informed and vitriolic comments from the public are inevitable, but the actual reportage should be beyond rebuke.

    1. Thanks for your comment Alison! I know, so frustrating that the reports are so poor.

  2. I actually got emotional reading this. Really sad that a baby can't be breastfed in peace and how ignorant people are on how sterile breast milk is and that it would actually kill germs in the water not add to them. The government need an advertising campaign educating the public on the law especially and in light of the obesity crisis, it can't come too soon. Really well written as usual :)

    1. I agree, Kate - it's really upset me too how much anger and outrage can be directed at mums and their children, and how much of it is founded on a total lack of understanding. Like the idea of an ad campaign but fear it will never happen due to cash constraints.

  3. I totally agree with the previous comments. Just one thing to add, in response to Kate's comments. Breastmilk usually isn't sterile at all. Has lots of bacteria in it. Not that it matters a jot in this instance, just keeping the facts correct!

    Carolyn Westcott

  4. I'm not so keen on your alternative scenario. It's actually happened to me - at a university open day a cleaner just 'let me know' in a neutral manner that there were nursing rooms about 500m away, mid-feed; at a church playgroup an church lady 'just let me know' that there was a changing room that I could feed my baby in - and then made me feel uncomfortable for not 'choosing' to move there from my quiet corner.

    Both times I felt judged (even though the uni exchange was delivered with no judgement) and uncomfortable after the exchanges. Why? Because no-one comes up to you and 'just lets you know anything' (well they don't here in Australia).

    So by them pointing out these facilities there is an underlying assumption/message that the only reason you are feeding in a public area is that you weren't aware that there was a private space available nearby. The follow on from that is that it is unacceptable to feed in public unless it is a last-resort, if there has been a space allocated for you in private then you should be using it.

    I had an interesting conversation the other week with a lovely lady who had just immigrated from England to Australia. She was thanking me (which I find bizarre but that's a whole other topic) for breastfeeding in public (I was sitting on a bench at the front of a shop) and said she would be doing it soon enough again (she was 8mths with her second child).

    She commented how strange she found it that there were so many Parents Rooms everywhere and it had given her the impression that breastfeeding in public wasn't welcome. As someone who has grown up in this area I've always just accepted that every shopping centre has at least 1-6 Parents Rooms and never saw it as compulsory to use them (more convenient than anything else).

    I find it very interesting to hear the initial impressions of an 'outsider'. Everyone is half naked here most of the year (we are in the sub-tropics) so whipping a boob out occasionally doesn't really raise an eyebrow. That said, breastfeeding in public is becoming 'an issue' because the media is doing their best to make it an issue. Mothers locally talk about worrying about being abused for doing it, quoting experiences of women in the US...a completely different culture on the other side of the planet to us.

    1. Hi Anna, thanks for giving me your perspective and interesting to hear about breastfeeding in public in Australia. I take your point about my alternative scenario; it would have to be delivered with no judgement at all and even then, as you say, it might be hard to avoid any underlying feeling that feeding should be hidden... hmm. That's given me food for thought! I was trying to suggest a scenario where breastfeeding in the pool was almost endorsed by the lifeguard (to educate other members of the public!) but I can see the limitations of it. Others have said they hate feeding rooms and they can often be less than brilliant. Maybe the best response from the lifeguard is no response at all, or to approach and say that she's doing a great job and then leave her to it! And I hear what you are saying about the US culture creeping up on us - it happens here too. We share a common language but have very different views of breastfeeding!