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What Happens When You Try To Breastfeed In Posh London Establishments?

Unleashing a nipple in public can trigger a wide range of reactions. From Harrods to the Apple Store, how cool are the capital's swanky establishments with breastfeeding on their premises?

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When mother of three Lou Burns was ordered by Claridge's staff to conceal her breastfeeding, it ignited a national debate.

Nigel Farage said breastfeeding women should sit in a corner. Jeremy Clarkson likened the act to urination. Meanwhile, mothers staged a protest outside Claridge's defending their right to breastfeed in public.

But beyond the polarised rhetoric, how do people really respond when you whip out a nipple in public?

Equipped with a baby doll purchased from Mothercare, my friend Estefania Hageman and I went all over town from the British Museum to the Savoy, via the Apple Store in Covent Garden, to see how businesses and the public view breastfeeding in 2014.

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No one seemed that bothered.

We went to the security desk to ask what the policy was. They said they didn't have one: mothers were free to behave as they pleased. We went back to look at a few exhibits. We received a few glances and stares as the day went on. There was an awkward vibe, but no one seemed shocked or overly troubled.

2. In the back of a black cab.

William Pine for BuzzFeed

Estefania breastfed the “baby” without asking for the driver’s permission or offering any explanation. He said he didn't mind, but as a general rule would prefer if we did it outside, adding that if passengers choose the backwards-facing seats they can generally breastfeed without the driver even noticing anyway.

Later that day we spoke to the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association and asked for its official position. A representative pointed out that the organisation is filled with independent contractors, making it hard for the association as a whole to comment.

Their statement: “Because they are individual self-employed drivers, they each have their own opinion. We have about 25,000 drivers. Each case would be that individual’s view.”

Verdict: Individual cab drivers are allowed their own opinions on breastfeeding. There's no rule within the organisation saying they have to allow it.

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3. Apple Store

William Pine for BuzzFeed

The customers seemed to be more bothered than the staff. Most shoppers started staring and subtly pointing, though no one made any direct comments. Playing the role of agent provocateur, I approached a shop assistant to complain just to see how they would respond.

Moments later a manager approached Estefania to ask if she was OK. She had heard that a customer had complained – and wanted to offer emotional support. She reassured Estefania that she was doing a “beautiful thing for [her] child.”

It turned out the manager was a member of the Breastfeeding Network, a volunteer organisation that advises mothers on how to safely and happily breastfeed their babies.

Rather than act on the complaint and telling Estefania to clear off, she stood up for her, telling the customer – i.e. me – that if breastfeeding made him felt uncomfortable, he could leave.

4. The Savoy Hotel

William Pine for BuzzFeed

Estefania started breastfeeding in the lobby. We asked an elderly couple sat nearby if they minded. They said they weren't offended, as long as the act was done "with manners", going on to say: “In comparison to how behaviour has changed from our time, this doesn’t bother us at all.”

Not everyone was quite so relaxed, however. Casting a glance at Estefana's exposed breast, one man started talking about how dress codes in hotels had changed. When pressed on it, he said he could see why "some people" found breastfeeding in public offensive.

But no one was offended enough to complain. So again, acting as agent provocateur, I did it myself. And that's when things got interesting.

A press officer was dispatched, who compared Estefania to an antisocial, drunken guest.

William Pine for BuzzFeed

Presumably sensing a connection with the Claridge’s affair and keen to avert a PR disaster, the Savoy’s director of communications, Claire Blackshaw, came down to explain the hotel’s position on breastfeeding. Or at least that’s what I thought she was about to do.

Instead, weirdly, she said nothing definitive, insisting “there is no policy” and that the most important thing is “to keep everyone happy and comfortable, and treat each case individually. When someone is drunk, people get uncomfortable for example, and we’ll deal with it. Same if anyone is made to feel uncomfortable by any other occurrence.”

Hang on, did she just equate breastfeeding with being drunk and disorderly? I emailed her the next day for clarification.

“We manage the business in line with the UK government’s equality act, as we operate as a British business," she replied. "We judge each situation based on the needs of the individual guest and aim to resolve any concerns between guests, ensuring every party is left feeling comfortable and looked after to the best of our abilities.”

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Verdict: The Savoy will tolerate breastfeeding, but apparently regards it with some distaste.

5. Harrods

William Pine for BuzzFeed

As soon as we entered and started breastfeeding, a security guard stopped us, telling us that if we needed to breastfeed or change the baby, we must do so in a discreet area such as the women’s toilets. So went to the toilets on the floor we were on, Ladies' Contemporary, and found no designated breastfeeding area. Meanwhile, Estefania received suspicious looks from shoppers and staff.

We reached out to Harrods, asking them if this was in line with their official policy.

This was a spokesperson's response: "Harrods does not seek to prevent women breastfeeding their babies nor ask them to cover themselves while doing so. The issue raised by BuzzFeed we believe was an isolated incident and we are investigating this internally."

It's true that the staff member didn't ask Estefania not to breastfeed. But by asking her to do it in the toilets, he wasn't exactly making her feel relaxed about doing it either. And if this claim on a Mumsnet thread is to be believed, she is not the first person to be told to breastfeed discreetly, in a designated area, by Harrods staff.

Verdict: Harrods is officially cool with breastfeeding, though that was not our experience.

So what does the law say on the matter?

William Pine for BuzzFeed

According the Equality Act 2010, "it is unlawful for a business to discriminate against a woman because she is breastfeeding a child."

Establishments certainly can't ask a breastfeeding woman to leave, unless she is doing something anti-social in addition, for example being noisy and abusive. But the legislation goes further, calling upon businesses to treat mothers "fairly" in a more general sense. It stipulates:

"You have an obligation to ensure that a woman who is breastfeeding while receiving a service you provide is not treated unfairly. The Equality Act 2010 aims to give women complete confidence to breastfeed while going about their day-to-day business."

The "complete confidence" bit is key. Mothers should feel that it is not just tolerated, but welcomed. In failing to give BuzzFeed News an unequivocal policy stating, "Yes, mothers are welcome to breastfeed at all times on our premises", the Savoy, Harrods, and the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, while staying within the letter of the Equality Act, were not operating according to its spirit.

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