January 18th, 2016

Non-profit social campaign Breast-Feeding Friends changing social stigma

A guest blog post by Alison Kuah bff

Breast-Feeding Friends (BFF) is a non-profit social campaign initiated by four students from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) who wish to promote an inclusive breastfeeding-friendly culture in Singapore, especially in public places.

“[Oviyum] chanced upon an article about breastfeeding which really struck a chord with us and made us realise how little we knew about it. This prompted us to research deeper on how it’s received in Singapore,” said Alyssa Teo, one of the team members.

BFF is not the first of its kind and is reminiscent of the “Breastfeeding Welcome Scheme” in the United Kingdom, and the #SayYesToBreastfeeding campaign by UNICEF Hong Kong. It works towards preventing the exclusion of breastfeeding mothers from social spaces in Singapore.

The campaign aims to advocate for mothers who choose to breastfeed in public, and takes concrete steps towards creating a supportive and conducive environment for breastfeeding mothers in Singapore.

Their initiative stems from research and focus group interviews with breastfeeding mothers that revealed that breastfeeding in Singapore is very much stigmatised. Mothers cited being asked to leave restaurants and family lounges, or members of the public’s refusal to leave breastfeeding rooms, as evidence of their exclusion from social spaces.

“Some mothers have even had restaurant managers tell them breastfeeding in public is illegal, which is not true,” Teo said. “I think a lot of backlash comes from the misconception that breastfeeding mums are too lazy to pump their breast milk, and that laziness results in an inconvenience to the public. People don’t realise that babies need to be fed five to eight times a day and that some mothers have difficulty pumping milk.”

Jolene Tan, a mother herself and AWARE’s Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, found these perceptions deeply troubling. “Why should pumping be taken as a default or a norm?” she asked. “It is one arrangement which works for some, but it shouldn’t be a standard against which all are judged. Mothers should not be obliged to incur the expense of pumping, whether in time, effort or money – especially when they are already dealing with the considerable challenges of care for a newborn. That is a far cry from being lazy.”

Countries such as the UK, Australia, the Philippines and Taiwan have laws protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public, and the Singapore Police Force has stated that: “It is not an offence to breastfeed in public if the woman is decently clad and she does not expose her breast more than is necessary to breastfeed her child.”

Yet besides overt discriminatory actions against breastfeeding mothers that exclude them from public spaces, much of the public’s perception about breastfeeding is less than supportive.

“A couple of months ago the story about a breastfeeding mother asked to leave a cab was picked up and circulated widely on Facebook,” Teo said. “The backlash and misogynistic comments about breastfeeding mothers showed the need for more education and awareness.”

With ongoing education via social media, BFF is taking great strides towards changing the perception and stigma around breastfeeding in public and early efforts have already produced results. Over 40 establishments have pledged their commitment to make their premises more breastfeeding friendly and this number is steadily increasing. Cafes and restaurants such as Standing Sushi Bar, Fika and Bar Bar Black Sheep have agreed to show their support for breastfeeding mothers in a variety of ways, from the simple gesture of offering breastfeeding mothers a glass of water and a seat with back support, to building a private nursing room.

“Seeing establishments actively adopt the culture and lifestyle that we want to promote is one of the most rewarding parts,” Teo said. “Most recently, we heard from a breastfeeding mother that the staff at Tolido’s Expresso Nook had already proactively begun to present themselves as a BFF, even though our portal had not even been officially launched at that time. That was rewarding beyond words.”

Additionally, BFF Finder, a website for breastfeeding mothers, has just been launched for mothers to easily locate places where they can nurse on the go.

Besides being featured on the BFF Finder, establishments that have pledged to welcome and protect breastfeeding mothers at their premises are provided with a toolkit with suggestions on how to be breastfeeding friendly.

Suggestions include:

  • Briefing staff (who are often the ones telling mothers to stop breastfeeding or cover up) about the establishment’s welcoming stance
  • Provide discreet or private feeding areas for breastfeeding mothers
  • Customise menu to include lactation-friendly items
  • Include baby friendly features

Future actions for BFF include further developing the BFF community to create an inclusive public environment for breastfeeding mothers through a public pledge programme, as well as a roundtable discussion co-organised by AWARE on public breastfeeding in the coming months.

However, changing public perception will require much more involvement from those who already pay lip service to the creation of an inclusive social environment for breastfeeding mothers. A reason for negative public sentiment towards breastfeeding mothers is the lack of visibility of breastfeeding in Singapore, such that when breastfeeding is visible, the image is jarring for members of the public. Personally, I feel that these negative perceptions exist not only because breasts are portrayed as a sexualised image, but also because of the seeming overlap between bare breasts and public indecency.

While initiatives like World Breastfeeding Week are an important reminder to advocate for less stigma and more acceptance, it places the sole burden on breastfeeding mothers. I feel that more people who believe that breastfeeding mothers have a right to feed their children any way they see fit wherever they see fit, could do much more to call out those who attack, degrade and shame the right of mothers to breastfeed.

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