A Sore Spot

New mothers can feel self-conscious feeding their children in public. Chris Stokel-Walker discovers there’s an app for that.

Infants and toddlers are never predictable, and a cry for a bit of mother’s milk can come at inopportune times. Which is why a team of researchers at Newcastle University created Feed Finder, a Web site and iOS app designed to help parents locate feeding-friendly locations, away from sideways looks and prying eyes. They might well find the Philippines pops up on the app’s map: 35,749 new mothers there just broke the Guinness world record for simultaneous breastfeeding at multiple sites.

The popularity of the crowdsourced listing service has surprised those who created it. But perhaps they shouldn’t have been given the obsession with breasts as sexual organs in the wilds of the Internet, where between one-eighth and two-fifths of Web sites host porn. That breasts have a purpose aside from being ogled apparently alarms some humans, who can only view them in erotic terms.

Nurturing and weaning children is neither solely a human trait nor new. What is uniquely human is the embarrassment and anguish that can be caused by a woman nursing her child in public.

Look at that!

The news cycle in the UK has never been more cyclical than on the topic of breastfeeding: every few weeks, the same old story appears: a new mother has been dissuaded from breastfeeding in a public place by an over-officious shop owner or worker.

(A 21st century angle for newsies trundles on with Facebook’s split personality over displaying photos of suckling children. Currently they’re kind of okay with it, but there was a point in the recent past where they were pro-beheading and anti-feeding.)

It’s not just here in the UK or yonder in the United States, either. Danish mothers have recently protested against the decision of their country’s equality commission to give business owners the right to refuse custom to breastfeeding mothers. “De er bare bryster [They’re just breasts],” was the response of hundreds of protestors.

The fear of breasts can potentially be detrimental to children’s health. There is a wide body of evidence showing breastfeeding has health benefits for children: the World Health Organization encourages breastfeeding to prevent respiratory deaths and diarrhea. And the artificial alternative is not necessarily wholly safe: periodic scares of tainted infant milk formula make news in China, where family members who live in Western countries are often asked to bring dependable formula brands for native Chinese families wary of poisoned domestic products. But still society has a hangup about boobs. The New York Times was recently forced to defend publishing a picture of a breast cancer survivor in its paper that showed a smidgen of areola.

Louise Boyle. Southern Tenant Farmers Union Photographs, 1937 via The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives in the ILR School at Cornell University in the Catherwood Library.

The fear to feed

Each of America’s 50 states has a law either permitting breastfeeding or giving indemnity against indecency laws for nursing mothers. But federal law shields mothers only within government buildings. In the UK, equality legislation is meant to allow women to feed without fear, but between 12 percent and a third of Britons feel breastfeeding, depending on the surroundings, is frowned upon in a public place.

That partly explains why 8 in 10 UK mothers breastfeed their baby at birth when in the privacy of a hospital or their own home, but demure to such a degree that just over half of mothers still feed at six weeks — that’s the time when parents begin to venture out into the public with their kids. Mothers in Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania are more likely to feed their children than in the UK.

The Feed Finder app is an attempt to change those numbers. It was launched earlier this year in consultation with a midwife in Newcastle, and has already gained more than 2,000 users globally. “I’m still not sure how it spread to the US, never mind London,” developer Madeline Balaam admits with a smile. Users submit reviews and rate local businesses and buildings for their child-feeding friendliness. Mothers can load the app on their phone, quickly view the map of nearby locations, and find somewhere safe and accepting to feed.

“The big issue for mothers — particularly new ones — is that they don’t know where to breastfeed,” Balaam says. She talked to nursing mothers to find out what made for a good breastfeeding spot: privacy, comfort, baby facilities, and cleanliness were all listed as factors. For more experienced mothers less nervous about getting their baby to latch, added extras, such as a location’s ability to keep their other children entertained or a competitively priced coffee, come into consideration.

The less experienced the mother, the more difficult and inhibiting a young child can be. “It’s incredibly socially isolating, breastfeeding,” says Balaam. Those mothers who dare venture out for a trip often plan their trip based on their baby’s feeding needs. The risk of feeding out in the open is too high; no one wants to become the subject of the monthly horror stories that feed the press.

Balaam says it has become very politicized. Attitudes to breastfeeding are ingrained in people across generations in families and society, and are incredibly personal. “You’re often personally affronted as a mother if someone is feeding differently to you,” whether by bottle or not. And that’s discounting those for whom the sight of a bared breast — never mind a child suckling from it — is anathema, an affront to their lives.

What those people overlook are the simple facts of the situation: in the UK at least, it’s allowed. “It’s their legal right to feed,” says Balaam. “It’s a case of training people to understand that it’s okay.”

She hopes that by showing businesses that breastfeeding facilities are important to mothers — and, on a simpler level, that mums will spend when frequenting a business to feed their child — that those initially wary of the concept will come around to a sensible consensus.

When I point out that if the app is too successful it’ll end up making itself useless, there’s not a moment of hesitation before Balaam speaks up.

“Great! Couldn’t be happier.”

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer who contributes regularly to The Magazine. He has also wrttien for The Economist, Tumblr, and BuzzFeed. He still can’t quite believe he’s getting paid to do professionally what he’s spent the 23 previous years of his life doing for free: finding a topic he knows nothing about (but which holds interest), immersing himself in it, then telling everyone who’ll listen about what he’s learnt.

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