The milk of human kindness: A plea to the Women’s Institute

Another day. Another headline about a woman being asked not to breastfeed her baby. This time the lady in question was asked not to attend meetings of her local branch of the Women’s Institute until her child was weaned. Apparently “this is a common policy at WI meetings, as many WI members see the meetings as an escape from family life where they can concentrate on themselves and meeting other women”. The WI have since apologised and stated that this policy does not extend to breastfeeding mothers.

There is not much of a case to be made by anyone seeking to stop women breastfeeding freely pretty much wherever they like. The argument has been well rehearsed elsewhere and I won’t rehash it here. Opinion on this is strong, and the debate has been had.

But it seems to me that where clashes about breastfeeding occur, they are often not about breastfeeding at all.

However a new mother (or father) feeds her (or his) baby, the parent and child need time together to bond. Bonding is rarely instantaneous, but is a process that happens over weeks, months… perhaps years. Certainly the first few months of the child’s life are vitally formational in this respect. Bonding happens through physical contact and verbal and non-verbal communication, and the time this is most likely to happen is when the baby is being fed, by breast or bottle. Put simply, if a parent and their young child are to bond well in those first few months, they need to spend as much time together as possible.

A new mum is also at risk of becoming dangerously isolated very quickly. Looking after a baby is physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually demanding. And it can be incredibly lonely, particularly if a partner returns to work soon after the birth. No wonder that one charity estimates that as many as 3 in 10 new mums suffer from postnatal depression. It seems clear that parents of babies, and mums especially, need support, love, company, kindness and community.

So…
Babies and parents need one another’s company.
And…
Parents of young children need community and support.

If parents and their babies are to have the best chance of flourishing, they need to be welcomed together into social circles, organisations, meetings and events. If a parent is told they are unable to enter a specific place with their baby, this is potentially damaging for both parent and child. Either the parent and child have to part company for a time, where they could otherwise spend time bonding with one another. Or the parent remains with the baby, but becomes even more isolated.

This is not about how a child is fed. In the case outlined above, the Women’s Institute acknowledges the “right and freedom of every woman to breastfeed”. But what about if a woman who bottle fed her baby was placed in the same situation? Would her baby not be allowed to attend meetings, where the breastfed baby was? Both babies, at that stage, need the physical contact and communication with mum that both breast and bottle supply. The development of both babies is important, and the wellbeing of both mums is important.

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This is not about breastfeeding. It’s probably not even about new parents and babies, exclusively. This is about how we become community. It’s about how we live in such a way as to provide hospitality to one another. It’s about pushing beyond our own comfort zones, overcoming fear of the unknown or “escape” from the uncomfortable, to advance our mutual flourishing.

We exclude those who makes us feel uncomfortable at great cost. So dear Women’s Institute, this Christmas time please think again about your “child free zone” policy, because you may find your meetings are enriched, bolstered and blessed by young mums and their babes and toddlers. Just as you enrich, bolster and bless those families in return.

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