‘Brelfies’: The Fight Against Breastfeeding Discrimination

Birth Doula

*Ironically, some of these images may not be deemed safe for work*

Parenting site Netmums has named breastfeeding selfies or ‘brelfies’ as this year’s top trend for mothers. In case you missed the hashtag, a brelfie is the latest mutation of the selfie trend. They are pictures of mother’s breastfeeding, often self-taken with whatever hand is not holding the baby.  Early last week the newly-found photography craze was deemed as the ‘top parenting trend for 2015’ by Netmums and it is now practiced by one in five mothers. As an online phenomenon, the brelfie is a reaction to Facebook’s decision to remove an image of a British mother breastfeeding her baby last year. This story recently gained more attention after a guest on This Morning branded snap-happy breastfeeder’s as ‘showing off’.


Sleeping like a baby (Photo Credit: Peasap, Flickr)
Sleeping like a baby (Photo Credit: Peasap, Flickr)


The notion of breastfeeding is one that is looked upon with much distaste in Irish society today. By International standards, Ireland is one of the lowest European countries to practice breastfeeding with only more than half (56%) of mothers choosing to feed their babies themselves. This is in comparison to 83% of mothers in Britain and over 90% of mothers in Scandinavian countries. At 64%, the Northern Irish mothers rank much higher in breastfeeding statistics.


However, of the 56% of Irish mothers who breastfeed, the fall-off rates after the first number of weeks are high. This leaves the majority of babies in Ireland bereft of the life-long health-boosting benefits of the natural substance. There are a number of reasons for this fall-off rate – lack of support, initiation problems or returning to work – but for many mothers in Ireland, the most prominent reason to discontinue the practice is due to society’s distaste of breastfeeding.


Although we live in a civilized and educated society, the natural practice of breastfeeding is still something which is looked upon with much distaste in both Irish and British cultures, and many mothers have been subject to discrimination for feeding their babies in public places. On December 6th 2014, over 100 mothers arrived at Claridge’s in London to breastfeed outside it in protest after a mother was told to ‘cover up’ while nursing her baby in the Mayfair hotel. After gaining a huge amount of attention, both positive and negative, the ‘Free to Feed’ campaign was targeted publicly on Twitter by TV personality Katie Hopkins. Ahead of the campaign, Hopkins made it insensately clear that she was not in favor of breastfeeding:


Katie Hopkins (Photo Credit:  utv)
Katie Hopkins (Photo Credit: utv)


Free to Feed campaign tomorrow. Expect the mammary militia out in force. Stand firm @ClaridgesHotel. Their sort shouldn’t be free to feed’.

‘Women have the right to breastfeed. But they don’t have the right to put everyone else off having milk in their tea. Put it away girls’.


 It is perspectives such as Hopkins’s which has spurred on development of the ‘brelfie’, to backlash at the stigma of doing one of the most natural things on earth; feeding one’s child. In a recent publication by The Irish Times, Fionola Meredith expresses her frustration about the judgment that is inflicted on Irish mothers because of their choice to breastfeed:


‘Breasts of the pert and plastic variety we can handle, but for many people the lactating kind is a step too far. Which also explains why you see so few of those mothers who do choose to breastfeed doing so in public, where they’re exposed to both the spoken and unspoken hang-ups, and double standards, of a residually inhibited nation’.

'Birth Doula' by Amanda Greavette (Photo Credit: pic slist.com)
‘Birth Doula’ by Amanda Greavette (Photo Credit: pic slist.com)


Maura Flynn, mother to 15-month-old Sean feels that the taboo is one that needs to be shifted in Ireland: ‘We live in a world where every aspect of our lives is documented on social media. From our breakfasts to our pets and even our post-gym selfies…so why is breastfeeding such a no-no?’.


‘It’s a natural thing. It’s what breasts are for. They’re not there for men’s pleasure or entertainment at the end of the day, no matter how much society tries to advertise that image. They are not the subject of men’s desire, or a sexual object. Cats have them, cows have them, human-beings have them…for the simple reason to nourish and keep their children alive’.


While breasts are widely accepted on the front-covers of magazines, red carpets and cat-walks, this acceptance is diminished once there is a hungry baby attached to them. Part of this is because it is viewed as a niche pursuit – a report earlier this year found that Ireland has the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world – but there is also the mammary minefield of ‘shame’ whereby taking pride in breastfeeding is often perceived as condemning those who won’t practice it.


Although targeted by much judgment, the right to breastfeed in public is protected by law in Ireland. This means that no woman can be asked to stop nursing her child, to leave the premises, or to use specific facilities such as a bathroom, whilst carrying out the action. The Equal Status Act (2000) protects individuals from discrimination and harassment (including sexual harassment) in the use of and access to a wide range of services including shops and restaurants. Protection for mothers who are breastfeeding in public is provided under two of the nine discriminatory grounds covered by the Act.


The Gender and Family Status Grounds is a part of The Equal Status Act and this helps mothers to breastfeed comfortably in public places by protecting them from being discriminated against or harassed because they are breastfeeding.

Still a taboo (Photo Credit: npr.org)
Still a taboo (Photo Credit: npr.org)


The Intoxicating Liquor Act (2003) also protects against discrimination which occurs in a public house and this act provides access to the District Court for redress. Harassment is unwanted conduct related to any of the discriminatory grounds covered by the Equal Status Act which has the purpose of effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person, in this case a breastfeeding mother.


Mothers in Northern Ireland also have recourse to equality legislation. The department of health in the North of Ireland is now considering specific protections for breastfeeding women, making it an offense, punishable by a £2,500 fine, to prevent them from nursing in public.


Although faced with much discrimination, breastfeeding mothers are fighting back against the stigma by uploading their ‘brelfies’ for the world to see and by continuing to nurse their children in public. Many celebrities have jumped on the ‘brelfie’ bandwagon, including model Gisele Bundchen actress Olivia Wilde by posting their pictures to Instagram and Twitter. In the US as well, large groups of frustrated mothers have recently taken to descending upon shops and other facilities where many women have been rebuffed.


In her article for The Irish Times, Fionola Meredith suggests the only way to put an end to the taboo is by continuing to breastfeed in public places:


‘The only way we are going to get over our pathetic hang-ups about this most natural of activities is for nursing women to not hide away – as though implicitly acknowledging that they’re doing something grubby and shameful, and possibly even borderline indecent – but to be out and proud, everyday, answering to nothing and nobody but the immediate needs of their baby’.   







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