Editorial: Feeding on the premises

Breastfeeding is an intimate act but not one that needs to be closeted away to spare the sensibilities of others.

Generally, acceptance of feeding infants in public places has been gaining acceptance and rightly so. However, recent days have provided reminders that little tweaks and recalibrations are necessary.

A Wanaka woman who breastfed her baby daughter in Queenstown District Court was embarrassed by the judge's actions in asking why there was a baby in his court. The mother left, of her own accord, as a bailiff was approaching her.

This has prompted Justice Minister Judith Collins to come out in the mother's defence, saying she could not think of anywhere it would be considered offensive.

Agreed. But perhaps we should draw a distinction between being offensive and distractive.

A child being inobtrusively nursed is one thing; one who was crying distractively is perhaps another.

In this case, the 18-week-old baby started to cry and the mother instinctively set about feeding her.

There are places, and a courtroom would be one, where what is happening requires the close attention of many people and this should not be distracted.

In fact, courts are exempt from a section under the Human Rights Act that renders it generally illegal for someone to stop a woman breastfeeding in public.

So then; if there's a baby in court and its mother can keep it quiet, then OK. If the child is proving a distraction, then the mother should leave. That's the sort of thing mothers do tend to understand in any case.

An entirely unacceptable case has arisen in Wellington where a mother was kicked out of the Indian Community Hall's temple area for breastfeeding her toddler during an event.

She was sitting there quietly, away from hundreds of people in the main hall, when she was instructed to feed her baby in the toilets.

Quite apart from the hygiene issue, the rather imperious instruction came from someone who had no authority to do so. It was not the Wellington Indian Association's policy; nor was there any cultural bar on breastfeeding in a temple.

Support for breastfeeding mothers must never be unthinking - and there are flipside concerns, such as the case last July where a Hamilton mother was jailed for, among other drug related offences, breastfeeding while smoking P. This was rightly identified as mistreating a child.

Happily, breastfeeding rates have reached nearly a 20-year high in New Zealand, with Plunket reporting in July that 85 per cent of its babies up to the age of 6 weeks were getting some breastfed milk. That was a 5 per cent increase over the past 10 years.

The medical message has long been emphatic that breastfeeding is beneficial for reasons of nutrition, immunity and mother-child bonding. Nursing mothers seldom seek to draw attention to themselves if they can avoid it. If anything, they may feel vulnerable to wrongheaded reproach. But a hungry baby is a little bundle of urgent need and there aren't many places where meeting that need shouldn't be a priority.

The Southland Times