New mothers in Peterborough have told us that they are not comfortable breastfeeding their baby in public. Our last survey found that 49% of new moms were uncomfortable breastfeeding in restaurants and 45% felt the same way about stores and malls. Who could blame them when we had a recent example of a mother being asked to stop breastfeeding in a Family Court waiting room? Clearly, we as a community need to do more to make breastfeeding the easiest choice for new parents to make.
Breastfeeding is protected by the Ontario Human Rights Code. Accordingly, breastfeeding mothers should not be asked to stop, to cover up or be more discreet, or to move to a private location. This right applies in public spaces (such as restaurants, malls, and parks), in employment, or when using services such as schools and housing, e.g. a college or university student needs to have her rights as a breastfeeding mother accommodated at school (bringing baby to class, breaks during long exams or placements).
Like pregnancy, discrimination against breastfeeding mothers is considered a form of sex discrimination (i.e., a man would never be asked to stop, cover up, move, etc.). However, even when mothers know their rights have been violated they may be reluctant to file a complaint.
The World Health Organization, Health Canada and numerous other health organizations around the world recommend exclusive breastfeeding for baby’s first six months, with continued breastfeeding for two years and beyond. For mothers and babies to achieve this recommendation, community supports need to be in place that enable mothers to do exactly this. Why do we need to create these supportive environments? Because breastfeeding supports the physical and emotional health of both mothers and their babies by protecting them from acute and chronic illnesses, provides food that perfectly meets the nutritional requirements for development, and is free and sustainable.
Our current reality in Peterborough is that 90% of new mothers are choosing to breastfeed at birth. That sounds wonderful. How disappointing then that many of these moms are unable to continue, given the challenges and barriers that they encounter in those first few weeks at home.
Increasing the length of time that working mothers can stay home with their babies without fear of losing their job, or being negatively affected at work (Employment Standards Act), and providing benefits to eligible employees (Employment Insurance Act) are examples of systemic supports which enable mothers to stay home longer with their babies. Return to work is often cited as a reason for discontinuing breastfeeding, so all of us as employers have a role to play in supporting and accommodating our returning parents. Employers may feel that accommodating a breastfeeding employee returning to work will be difficult or expensive. In reality, it may mean more flexibility in the work day, providing a private space, working from home, etc. Many of these options cost nothing, and are good for business as well as employee health and loyalty.
Accommodation is easy for businesses such as restaurants and malls or other public spaces such as community centres too. Posting signs (such as the “Breastfeeding Welcome Here” window clings) and logos on your website lets breastfeeding clients or customers know that they are welcome. It is important for all staff to know that breastfeeding is welcome and a protected right. Community spaces can go the extra mile and provide private spaces where mother can nurse if needed. Here at our new location at 185 King Street, we have created a comfortable private space just inside our clinic doors where mothers can come to breastfeed – and I invite those who can to do this as well. Gone are the days where babies needed to be breastfed in the washroom!
From October 1-7 we celebrated World Breastfeeding Week. Locally we hosted events and celebrations with the goal of raising awareness of the importance of breastfeeding, normalizing breastfeeding in public spaces, and bringing families with young children together. Why is this necessary? Until systemic barriers are removed, events like World Breastfeeding Week are important in creating change, beginning with awareness. Let’s all help make Peterborough baby friendly – and breastfeeding friendly too.
By Dr. Rosana Salvaterra, Medical Officer of Health, Peterborough Public Health