Despite campaigns to raise awareness and experts, celebrities standing in support of normalizing breastfeeding, it continues to be a stigma all over the world. One actor, who is quite vocal about her experiences and struggles raising her daughter Mehr, is Neha Dhupia. She has been advocating to destigmatise breastfeeding for a while now, mainly through her parenting initiative called ‘Freedom To Feed’. And recently, she shared a strong post on her Instagram, and also on the Freedom To Feed page, calling out people who look at “breastfeeding mothers in a sexual manner”. This sparked a conversation among Indian women, with many posting pictures and posts to help desexualise breastfeeding.
In the post, she wrote, “The journey of a new mum is something only she can understand. While we all hear the happy side, it is also a huge responsibility and emotionally draining. It’s hard enough to be a mum and do all that there is to do. The last thing we need is to be questioned, mocked and worst of all trolled. I went through the same beats and I know how hard it is.”
TC46 connected with experts to answer some burning questions about breastfeeding and its sexualized and stigmatised version that’s prevalent in India and many parts of the world. Here, Lactation Consultant Arushi Agrawal and Gynaecologist & Obstetrician Dr Manjiri Mehta of Hiranandani Hospital, Mumbai explain Indian laws about breastfeeding in public, the evident need to desexualise breastfeeding and some ways to do it effectively.
1. No laws in India that penalise breastfeeding in public
Arushi says, “There are no laws in India that penalise breastfeeding in public so that means breastfeeding in public is allowed in India but there are no laws that promote breastfeeding in public places. There are no provisions in any act that says there should be separate rooms for nursing for the mothers in private places, unlike the USA which has the Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act of 2019 requires certain public health buildings to provide a shielded, hygienic space other than a bathroom for nursing.”
“In our country, there is no law or legal statute regarding breastfeeding in public. In most places it is an acceptable practice but varies from region to region, surprisingly it is more widely accepted in rural parts and low socio-economic areas”, explains Dr Mehta.
2. Female breasts serve both nutritive and sexual functions, but not to be viewed as a sexual organ when engaged in breastfeeding.
Dr Mehta shares, “Breastfeeding is a very natural process following childbirth. The immunity, strength and emotional bonding that happens through this is irreplaceable. People need to know this as a scientific fact. Breastfeeding also has a very positive impact on a baby’s overall physical and mental development. Also in the early days of life, it is a source of nutrition and immunity. Breasts are not to be viewed as a sexual organ when engaged in breastfeeding.”
Arushi states, “Female breasts serve both nutritive and sexual functions, unlike other primates they develop at puberty before lactation is necessary. Their sexual attraction is through size, shape and areolae but also, when unrestrained, their jiggling movements. Some researches have shown that nipple stimulation for some women is arousing. But, we have forgotten that the fundamental purpose of the breast is to provide nourishment to the newborn, to produce milk. When it comes to breastfeeding a child, there’s nothing sexual about that. A mother breastfeeds simply to nourish and nurture her baby. Nothing more, nothing less. English is one of the few languages that have the word “feeding” to describe this process; in German, for example, breastfeeding translates to “stillen” with the rightful implication of quenching and feeding as well as calming.”
3. A mother who is relaxed and comfortable in the given environment can feed the baby well
“The biological fact says that breasts are a mammary gland and their sole aim is to nurture an infant. A new mother has to overcome a lot of challenges, she is drained emotionally as well as mentally. She is witnessing new changes in her body, she is trying to fit into her new shoes as a mother. She has skipped a lot of nights, gone through a lot of pain, she is tired as hell. She is trying to be a good mother”, explains Arushi.
Dr Mehta informs, “Sexualisation of mother who is breastfeeding is predominantly seen in urban areas and in western countries, hence the need for law in these areas. It is very important not to sexualise breastfeeding for the purpose of comfort and mental peace of the mother. A mother who is relaxed and comfortable in the given environment can feed the baby well, as production and release of breast milk has a huge psychological factor too.”
4. It is vital to desexualise breastfeeding and promote it as a healthy concept, even for kids.
Arushi puts forth a query,” A mother is doing everything she can to make her child happy. In the middle of a feeding session, she is interrupted, insulted and shunned and the reason being someone thinks that what she is doing is inappropriate and sexual. It is really simple. The baby is trying to have his food and you want him to stop eating in public or get covered or the mother moves to some other place like her car or the bathroom to feed the hungry infant. How would you feel if you eat your food in a bathroom where people come to relieve themselves or to eat in a car packed, or to eat while having a cloth covering you. Hoardings and advertisements on the road, in the malls, even in the buses promoting sexy lingerie have been normalized and welcomed, so why do the people think that breastfeeding a baby in public is such a big deal or considered vulgar?”
“Desexualising breastfeeding is not only a legal process but involves a lot of changes in our society and our beliefs. Luckily, as mentioned earlier, we are quite lucky that our culture and tradition recognises its importance,” shares Dr Mehta.
5. Get creative with ways to help desexualize and normalize breastfeeding
Take A Cue From Our Own Culture
Arushi says, “In the rural areas as well as the slums, I have seen women breastfeeding in public very comfortably and people around them don’t even dare mock her for that. Whereas in the cities women are persuaded that breastfeeding should be done discreetly. How ironic!”
Promote Public Breastfeeding Awareness Just Like Body Positivity
“This modern culture has models on the cover of a magazine wearing a bikini and earning a lot of appreciation for how flawless she looks whereas a woman posting a breastfeeding picture of her on social media is trolled”, explains Arushi.
Bring In Role Models Like Neha Dhupia
Arushi states, “I think it’s time that we need good role models, a new set of rules protecting the dignity of breastfeeding mothers and promoting the act as natural. We need to normalise the act of breastfeeding in public for the new generation, the young girls are the future mothers and the young boys are the future gentlemen, they need new moral values and for that, we need to give breastfeeding a small segment in their education.”
Push For Government Reforms & Legal Changes
“The government needs to enact some laws that make it essential for public buildings to have separate nursing homes and need laws that penalise people who stop the mothers from doing this natural act”, says Arushi.
Dr Mehta adds, “More in this regard needs to be done in urban areas which are influenced by western culture. This can be done on multiple levels as social education, law and enforcement, providing separate feeding areas in offices and public places.”
Educate The Younger Generation
“The mothers should role model it in front of their elder kids. Moms should not be hesitant to feed in front of them. If the elder child is a girl then she can feed her doll or toy in front of the mother. Children learn best with role modelling if the mothers are comfortable with breastfeeding in front of them, they will not think that this is something that isn’t normal, this should be our first step to normalise breastfeeding”, shares Arushi.
“Also, moms should remember that the first step would be taken by them, they are comfortable in feeding in front of the public irrespective of their judgement, then the people will eventually start accepting it and it will be normalised”, concludes Arushi.