Should MPs be allowed to breastfeed in the House of Commons?

With a growing number of female MPs calling for parliament to be more parent-friendly, Sarah Freeman asks should women be allowed to breastfeed at work?

Breastfeeding has become a political issue amid calls for it to be allowed in the House of Commons.

There are plenty of things you shouldn’t do at your desk if you want to keep your job. Not all that long ago breastfeeding would have been pretty high up that list.

Things have changed. So much so that a group of female MPs are now calling for breastfeeding to be allowed in the House of Commons. The charge is being led by Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, who would also like to see permits to allow pre-school children through the voting lobbies and a review of working hours to make them more parent friendly.

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Phillips has admitted the proposals might be seen as ‘ridiculously controversial’, but insists change is vital if parliament is to attract more women.

“When I had the first of my six children it was the early 1970s,” says Anna Burbidge, spokeswoman for the breastfeeding support group La Leche League. “I worked for a big bank and I remember going to them to ask what the procedure was for coming back to work afterwards. They said they didn’t know because it had never happened. Back then, when women gave birth they almost automatically became stay-at-home mums.

“I didn’t mind. While I had an idyllic notion of leaving my baby in the staff room, popping out every four hours to breastfeed, as soon as I had given birth I immediately realised that not only was that wholly impractical, but it also wasn’t what I wanted. Today, the situation has completely turned on its head. Now women often feel lazy if they don’t go back to work as soon as they can. Given that’s the case, employers have a responsibility to ensure that they are flexible to their needs.

“Breastfeeding mums who return to work will have to take breaks to express milk, so I don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to take breaks to feed their own child. Of course that won’t be practical for everyone, but where the child is in a workplace crèche or being looked after nearby, it should absolutely be possible.”

When Anna was starting her family just 28 per cent of mums attempted to breastfeed. Now its around 81 per cent, but the figure drops off a cliff within the first few weeks. Some of that is down to lack of support in the early days, but the reasons are not just physical. According to research by Start4Life, Public Health England’s parenting advice service, more than a third of breastfeeding mothers shy away from doing so in public, with one in five suspecting that it makeas most people feel uncomfortable.

Harrogate mum Jem Henderson hit the headlines this week after claiming she had been told to cover up while feeding her three-month old baby in the town’s Blues Bar. A quick read of the text conversation between the 30 year old and the bar owner Sharon Colgan suggested the case wasn’t quite as clear cut as Henderson’s Facebook posts had claimed, but it nevertheless highlighted just how contentious the issue remains.

“Women shouldn’t have to defend why they want to breastfeed and anyone who feels uncomfortable has the right to walk away,” says Burbidge, who also adds that encouraging breastfeeding in the workplace might actually be financially beneficial to firms.

“It might surprise some people to hear that it could actually be in a company’s interest to encourage breastfeeding. Figures show that not only are breastfed babies less prone to illness, but mums who breastfeed have up to a third less days off then those who don’t.

“Of course there are some roles where combining breastfeeding and day to day work is not practical and not every employer is in a position to offer crèche facilities, but they do have to consider flexible working and often compromises can be found.

“Mums who breastfeed shouldn’t feel that they have to seek out the darkest corner to do what is entirely natural.”