When it comes to breastfeeding in public, we are all supposed to stand up and applaud the practice. It's one of those things that all right-thinking, liberal, sensible people embrace.

When women are shamed in some way about this - for example, this week when Facebook removed a picture posted by a female user of her breastfeeding her premature baby - there is a public outcry.

If a woman is asked not to breastfeed in a restaurant or cafe, opprobrium is poured down on the offending institution until it capitulates and embraces it along with everyone else.

I used to be wholly supportive of public breastfeeding. As a doctor, I know only too well the incredible health benefits to the baby.


But then something happened to change my mind. One of my friends did it in front of me. In fact, over the past few years, more and more of my friends have had children, and so I've been confronted with breastfeeding on numerous occasions.

Suddenly, public breastfeeding has stopped being an abstract ideological debate and started to become a reality.

As a result, I've been exposed to parts of my friend's bodies I'd never wanted to see before and, what's more, it's over a pumpkin-spiced latte in Starbucks.

One minute they're talking about who should have won The X Factor, the next they've got a baby clamped to their breast in full view of everyone.

I'm going to be honest - and please don't hate me - but it makes me feel acutely uncomfortable. Of course, breastfeeding is only natural, but so are lots of things that I don't want to see or engage with while I'm eating a muffin.

What's more, it's not something that can be just tolerated: increasingly, it's one of those activities that is publicly applauded. Why do we need to celebrate other people's private biological functions? It's easy when strangers breastfeed in public - you just look away. The horror comes when it's the person you're out with, because it comes with the agonising debate about where to look.

The dilemma is either to stare at the floor, making it obvious you're uncomfortable, or to absolutely, under no circumstances, break eye contact, in case your gaze momentarily wanders. I break out into a cold sweat every time it happens and, when I eventually confided in some (childless) friends, they, too, confessed they felt the same. Yet the social narrative that surrounds public breastfeeding is that only the heartless, cruel and ignorant do anything but adore it.

It is therefore forbidden to utter even the fact that it makes you uncomfortable. The breast-is-best lobby has become a powerful, vocal force to be reckoned with. They're not the oppressed minority- that's the rest of us.


I think the debate about breastfeeding has become very strange, part of a larger phenomenon where women's lactation has become public property.

Everyone has a view on new mothers and their bodies these days. Women who choose not to breastfeed are ostracised and considered bad mothers, as though it's anyone else's business how they choose to feed their baby.

Having said all this, of course people should breastfeed in public if they want to. Just because I'm uncomfortable with it, doesn't mean people shouldn't do it. It's my problem, not theirs. There should be more facilities for women to breastfeed in privacy when they are out and about.

I, too would rather sit at a table in a cafe if the only other option was a dirty, cramped public toilet - so I can't blame breastfeeding mothers, even if I don't agree with them.

I did confide in a friend a few years ago that I found her repeated public lactation a little strange. "Oh I know," she said, laughing. "I love watching you squirm, it's so entertaining. When you're on maternity leave and up all hours with a baby, you have to take your entertainment where you can get it." Maybe, after all, the joke's on me.

Max Pemberton's latest book, The Doctor Will See You Now, is published by Hodder.