No Room For Breastfeeding Mothers in India

How do we as a society view the act of breastfeeding? It is essential to provide necessary infrastructure which are private, safe and clean, for mothers to breastfeed their infants in public buildings.  

Recently, a young woman who was appearing for the West Bengal Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Female Supervisory Recruitment Examination, 2019, had to reportedly breastfeed her baby in a nearby lane because there was no nursing room inside the examination centre in Baruipur, South 24 Parganas (PTI 2019). As she was about to write the exam, her new born baby started crying of hunger. The young mother panicked, and approached the guards at the examination centre to ask where she could feed her baby. They informed her that there was no breastfeeding room within the premises.

In 2018, another young woman took to Facebook to describe her terrible experience, walking from floor to floor in a mall in south Kolkata, looking for a nursing room to breastfeed her wailing baby (Choudhury 2019). The mall authorities gave the following response via its official Facebook page:

“Funny you found this to be an issue because breastfeeding is not allowed on the floor for a number of reasons…. please make sure you do your home chores at home and not in the mall….It's not like your baby needs to be breastfed at any moment so you need arrangements to be made for you at any public area to breastfeed your child anywhere you wish to….we cannot compromise the privacy of other people in public places can we?”

This offensive reaction triggered an uproar on social media, and the mall authorities were forced to apologise to the woman.

To celebrate World Breastfeeding Week (1 August to 7 August), Momspresso, a user-generated content platform for women across India, recently conducted a survey to determine the primary challenges faced by breastfeeding Indian mothers. In a five-minute, web-link based survey, 900 mothers were surveyed, 77% of whom were in the 25-to-35-year age group while the remaining 23% were in age group of 36 to 45 years. The survey reported some disturbing findings (Assanair 2019).

Almost 90% of Indian women surveyed had fed their babies in their own car, 78% in public transport, 56% in restaurants, 49% in car parking, 47% in trial rooms, 44% in washrooms, 41% in religious places and 32% in parks. Only 6% of the mothers surveyed found breastfeeding rooms to comfortably nurse their children. The most awkward places where mothers breastfed their babies were a broom closet room in an airport, under a tree, the waiting room of the passport office, bank queues, washrooms, a bench in a mall, and a bus stop. Around 81% mothers said that they were not comfortable feeding their children in public due to the lack of proper breastfeeding places. Majority of the mothers stated that the greatest deterrents were uncomfortable stares, hygiene and a lack of privacy.

These incidents raise two critical issues. First, how do we as a society view the act of breastfeeding? Second, how essential is it to provide the necessary infrastructure—private, safe and clean nursing or lactation rooms for mothers to breastfeed their infants in public buildings, and spaces like malls, shopping centres, cinema halls, bus terminals, railway and metro stations, airports and offices. It is pertinent to take note of the social stigma as well as the infrastructural challenges associated with breastfeeding in public spaces in India in order to come up with appropriate remedies.

When a lactating mother travels with her baby in a public space and the baby cries out in hunger, there are two options readily available to her. She can either breastfeed in public or can use the public toilet. It must be noted that both the options are equally problematic. Breastfeeding in public is extremely unsafe and embarrassing because of how the society views the female breast and the act of breastfeeding itself. In a recent decision, the Kerala High Court viewed the picture of a mother breastfeeding her child depicted on the cover of a magazine as a natural activity and stated that it “is not prurient or obscene, nor even suggestive of it” (Mandhani, 2018). Sadly, what is a source of nutrition for the baby is viewed as an object of sexual desire and even indecent exposure by the society at large.

Further, society typically considers breastfeeding as a domestic chore and as such, a lactating mother should feed her baby within the confines of her home. This line of reasoning is simply absurd because what would a mother do if she is out, far away from her home and her baby gets hungry. Should she starve the baby because exposing her breast to feed the child amounts to indecent exposure, and calls for unwanted stares? The other option for her is to use the public toilet to feed her baby amidst people who are relieving themselves.

India fails to provide an appropriate legal and institutional framework for ensuring private, safe and dignified breastfeeding in public spaces in the interests of mothers and their infants as per its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979 as well as Article 15(3) of the Constitution of India, 1950.

The National Building Code of India (NBC) 2016, a comprehensive building code, is a national instrument providing guidelines for regulating construction activities across the country. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation Building Rules, 2009 (KMCBR) framed by the Government of West Bengal, like the NBC, regulates almost every aspect of construction of public buildings, spaces and infrastructure. Both pieces of legislation contain administrative regulations, development control rules and general building requirements, fire safety requirements, stipulations regarding materials, structural design and construction (including safety), building and plumbing services, approach to sustainability, and asset and facility management.

However, neither the NBC nor the KMCBR make it mandatory for public buildings to have lactation rooms. Further, both the legislations fail to even provide the technical specifications and design recommendations for such nursing rooms. Unfortunately, the law makers at national as well as state level have conveniently brushed aside the interests of mothers and their infants altogether.

It is worth noting that the NBC and the KMCBR have detailed provisions relating to requirements for accessibility in buildings, and built environment for persons with disabilities and the elderly. Rule 146 of the KMCBR expressly specifies that disabled friendly devices like ramps with railing, toilets and drinking water facilities shall have to be provided in all public utility buildings. Shockingly, the law makers did not pay attention to the concerns of breastfeeding mothers and their babies. As such, the law completely invisiblises the caring and nurturing responsibilities of women who use or visit these public spaces. As Simone de Beauvoir has poignantly put in her book The Second Sex,

“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.”

If the examination centre had a nursing room it could have enabled the new mother to care for her infant without worrying or panicking about her exam and career. Further, the second mother would not have to rush back home to feed her baby if the mall had a lactation room.

The 2019 slogan of the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA)[1] is ‘Empower Parents, Enable Breastfeeding’. The organisation believes that:

“Breastfeeding is in the mother’s domain and when fathers, partners, families, workplaces, and communities support her, breastfeeding improves … We can all support this process, as breastfeeding is a team effort. To enable breastfeeding we all need to protect, promote and support it.”

The Infant and Young Child Feeding Guidelines, 2016 (IYCFG) drafted by the Indian Academy of Pediatrics (Indian Pediatrics 2016) states:

“Nursing in Public (NIP): Mothers should feel comfortable to nurse in public. All efforts should be taken to remove hurdles impeding breastfeeding in public places, special areas/rooms shall be identified/ constructed or established in places like Bus stands, Railway stations, Airports etc.”

It may be suggested that there should be a specific legislation passed in India like the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act of 2017 (FAMA) in the United States. It mandates public places to build lactation rooms that should be open to the public; be shielded from view and free from intrusion; should include a place to sit; be accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities and most importantly; should not be in a bathroom. This is the minimum infrastructure that ought to be legally guaranteed for a mother and her baby.

In light of the WABA slogan, IYCFG 2016 and FAMA 2017, the state should enact a law that mandates the construction of private, safe, clean and comfortable lactation rooms in all public buildings and spaces rather than compel mothers to breastfeed their babies under public glare, in toilets or only at homes. After all, it is the primary responsibility of the state to create an enabling environment that empowers mothers to breastfeed optimally.


Must Read

Do water policies recognise the differential requirements and usages of water by women and the importance of adequate availability and accessibility?
Personal Laws in India present a situation where abolishing them in the interest of gender justice also inadvertently benefits the reactionary side.   
Back to Top