Cape Town - When you are at a café or in a queue, and are hungry, you don’t eat your food in the toilet - so why should babies be fed in a toilet or in a private space?
This is the question Sizile Makola, a breast-feeding mother, posed after she was recently asked by a private hospital to breast-feed her baby behind a curtain when a patient complained.
Makola, a businesswoman who moved from Cape Town to Rustenburg two years ago, has started a social media campaign calling for mothers to breast-feed anywhere and anytime in a bid to normalise breast-feeding.
The 39-year-old mother of three said she was disappointed when a nurse at Medicross Rustenburg asked her not to breast-feed her 15-month-old daughter, Lethukukhanya, outside the doctor’s room.
“I was instructed to do so at the nurse’s station behind a curtain after a patient lodged a complaint. But what was even more upsetting for me was the response I got from the doctor when I raised the matter with her. She told me as a mother and doctor that she supported breast-feeding, but that I must understand that the hospital catered for all cultures. She said in the Western culture showing a breast in public is not acceptable as it is considered being naked,” Makola said.
Makola has been supported by Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo, who said babies should be fed on demand anywhere and anytime.
“That call is long overdue. Breast is the most nutritious meal that babies can have. South Africa is one of the progressive nations that still has very low rates of breast-feeding. Most children from impoverished communities get serious infections and end up dying because they are not breast-fed. We support mothers who breast-feed publicly… as long as they do so in a decent manner,” Mbombo said.
In her Twitter crusade, Makola asked mothers to tweet photos of themselves breast-feeding using the hashtag #BreastfeedAnywhereAnytime# to destigmatise public breast-feeding. She found the concept of breast-feeding in private puzzling.
Makola said it was also shocking to see the reaction of health workers given the fact that the country has adopted a policy of exclusive breast-feeding.
In 2011, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi introduced the policy, which saw the government phasing out the provision of infant formula milk to babies born to HIV-positive mothers.
Makola said while she understood that mothers had different comfort levels when it came to breast-feeding, with some preferring to cover up while others wanted to do it privately, “ mothers like myself who don’t have a problem breast-feeding publicly shouldn’t be stopped”.
“Every day we see women, including superstars in revealing underwear and dresses, and yet people don’t have problems with that, but when it comes to breast-feeding it’s considered a taboo doing so in public, why is that? If adults can eat their meal in a restaurant or anywhere publicly, why can’t babies be fed publicly… why must one go to the toilet or a private room? Why do we view breasts of mothers as sex objects and not in a nurturing way?” she asked.
Elizabeth Brierley from Milk Matters, a Cape Town-based charity milk bank, said mothers who breast-feed publicly should be supported.
“Our society frowns upon breast-feeding because people are not used to it. The more women we have who breast-feed publicly, the more comfortable people will become around these women. Science has proven over and over that if we want to reduce infant mortality we need to breast-feed. It is the right of the baby to be breast-fed and it’s the right of the mother to give her baby the most nutritious form of feeding,” she said.
Dr Annamarie Richter, medical director of Medicross Rustenburg, said the hospital fully supported breast-feeding.
“We offer mothers private areas in which they can feed their babies as not all mothers feel comfortable feeding their babies in public. However, mothers should feel welcome to feed their babies in the public areas within our facilities,” she said.
Richter said the medical centre had since contacted Mokola and apologised for her experience.
The issue of breastfeeding in public is one that tends to polarise society.
On one hand, you have those who feel breastfeeding should be done out of the public eye, while others feel society has moved on from “archaic” ideals about what is taboo.
The Cape Argus ran a snap poll to get the views of our followers on social media.
We asked: “Is it OK for women to breastfeed in public?”
In response, Kirsty Bisset (@KirstyBisset) asked: “How is this still a question?” She was also shocked to learn that a hospital had forced a woman to breastfeed her baby out of the public eye.
Liam Booysen (@beanbagboy) wrote: “Where else should a woman breastfeed?”
Junia Stainbank (@mjstainbank) said: “Babies starving for the sake of your archaic sense of morality…”
Very few people disagreed with women being allowed to breastfeed in public. Some simply responded with “no”.
Tumelo Thothela (@TumeloThothela) said “yea”, while Lisa Shanker (@ShankerLisa) wrote: “Yea. A mother has to do what a mother has to do. They could try and cover up a bit more. Been there, done that.”
Some of the Cape Argus’s Facebook community agreed that women should be prevented from breastfeeding in public, with Shafika Trompeter saying it “looks disgusting”.
While Whelan Jansen believed women should not be prevented from doing so, he added they should “just cover the breast”.
Nicole Candice Rhoode wrote: “I should be prevented from feeding my child but others smoke in public? I think not!”