Modern Australian

Here's how to make our cities breastfeeding-friendly

  • Written by Jenny Donovan, Urban Designer and Sessional Lecturer, La Trobe University

Seen through the eyes of new mothers, our towns and cities can often seem like uncomfortable and uninviting places to breastfeed. Although the physical characteristics of a place are not the only factors that influence how a woman feeds her child, they can be important. The physical surroundings can sway the balance of influences that may deter women from breastfeeding, bring it to a premature conclusion, or compel women to isolate themselves in their own houses so they might continue to breastfeed.

Here's how to make our cities breastfeeding-friendly The physical environment can sway the balance of influences that determine whether a woman chooses to breastfeed or not. Author provided

Our study reveals that the deterrents to breastfeeding can be diminished by “hardwiring” our towns and cities so mothers are more likely to feel confident that breastfeeding is a supported, realistic and pleasant option for them.

Read more: For breastfeeding in public, laws are not enough

This is a serious matter. Whether children are breastfed or not is a significant influence on the trajectory of their lives. It improves their rates of survival, and has been linked to increased IQ and reduced obesity in later life. It helps protect mothers from some cancers.

Breastfeeding helps broader society too. By reducing the incidence of many infant illnesses and chronic diseases, it eases the load on an overburdened healthcare system.

To achieve these benefits, UNICEF and WHO recommend exclusive breastfeeding from within an hour of birth until the baby is six months old. After that, breastfeeding should complement solid food for up to two years or beyond.

Read more: Breastfeeding has been the best public health policy throughout history

However, in Australia, although 96% of babies are breastfed at first, rates decline rapidly. Only 39% were exclusively breastfed to three months and only 15% were exclusively breastfed to five months.

If, as a society, we want to make sure the benefits of breastfeeding are spread as widely as possible, we need to look at what is bringing breastfeeding to a premature conclusion and what we can do about it.

What makes a place breastfeeding-friendly?

Breastfeeding-friendly towns and cities are communities where the imperatives of supporting women to breastfeed and participate in society can be reconciled with all the other things we look to our surroundings to provide. This has interlinked physical and emotional dimensions.

The ergonomics of physical comfort are quite well understood, but those of emotional comfort less so, although they have a significant bearing on breastfeeding. For example, if a mother feels unsafe or fears disapproval when breastfeeding in public, she is less likely to do so. However, if she feels it is important to breastfeed, this may be enough to overcome this disapproval or discomfort.

Our research found there is a “feedback loop” between building high-quality environments that support breastfeeding, and people’s attitudes. Many women find it reassuring to see other women breastfeed in a place, offering them evidence that they can too. As a participant in the consultation session in Bendigo said:

Seeing it happen more often helps.

For other women the presence of comfortable, pleasant and safe surroundings in a shared space may be the key requirement to breastfeed. A workshop participant in the Royal Women’s Hospital suggested:

All we need is somewhere nice to sit.

Thus, if we make places more physically comfortable and welcoming, these “pioneer” breastfeeding mothers may help change attitudes and embolden other women to choose to feed there.

Furthermore, we wear our surroundings like a cloak and its qualities or their absence say something about us. An investment in good design in the places where breastfeeding is particularly likely will foster the general view that breastfeeding is something the whole of society welcomes.

Here's how to make our cities breastfeeding-friendly An example of how a day-to-day place can be designed to support breastfeeding mothers. Jenny Donovan, Author provided

Read more: Want to breastfeed? These five things will make it easier

Changes on the ground, and in hearts and minds

Creating a sense that our towns and cities are breastfeeding-friendly requires cultivating change in people’s hearts and minds as much as it is about making changes on the ground.

This is a more than a matter of just improving the design of dedicated breastfeeding rooms. Although these provide a choice for women seeking privacy, such rooms keep breastfeeding a hidden activity. This leaves the balance of the public realm breastfeeding-unfriendly, requiring a mother to restrict her life to those places where these rooms can easily be found.

Equally, it is not practical to vastly increase the number of dedicated breastfeeding places. This would demand much space and resources that would otherwise be available to meet society’s other diverse needs.

Instead, breastfeeding-friendly towns and cities are places where, in addition to dedicated breastfeeding spaces, much of the infrastructure that enables people to participate in and enjoy community life (workplaces, parks, shopping centres, community buildings) can also be comfortably and discreetly used for breastfeeding. As the sequence below shows, this liberates mothers from a polarising mental map of a few scattered breastfeeding places in a vast area of breastfeeding-unfriendly ones.

Changing the messages feeding mothers get from their surroundings

Here's how to make our cities breastfeeding-friendly A breastfeeding-unfriendly environment where only at home do mothers feel comfortable. Jenny Donovan, Author provided Here's how to make our cities breastfeeding-friendly A better, but still largely unfriendly environment. Jenny Donovan, Author provided Here's how to make our cities breastfeeding-friendly A consistently breastfeeding-friendly environment. Jenny Donovan, Author provided

The design guidelines we prepared identify the qualities of spaces that we found are likely to invite women to breastfeed. These qualities can be interpreted as:

  • dignified, safe and physically comfortable
  • accessible
  • compatible with their other needs and responsibilities
  • offering a high level of amenity.

The guidelines identify how these qualities can be expressed in a range of places, as well as how the characteristics that deter breastfeeding can be excluded.

Authors: Jenny Donovan, Urban Designer and Sessional Lecturer, La Trobe University

Read more


VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on the government's drought policy

Michelle Grattan says the announcement of extra money for drought-stricken farmers "won't be enough" to alleviate pressure on the government on the issue of drought. ShutterstockUniversity of Canberra Deputy Vice-Chancellor...

Our ability to manufacture minerals could transform the gem market, medical industries and even help suck carbon from the air

Pictured is a slag pile at Broken Hill in New South Wales. Slag is a man-made waste product created during smelting. Anita Parbhakar-Fox, Author providedLast month, scientists uncovered a mineral...

Lambie stays mute on medevac vote after Senate inquiry splits on party lines

Jacqui Lambie has yet to announce whether she will support the bill to have medevac repealed.AAP/Mick TsikasThe Senate inquiry into repealing medevac has predictably split along party lines, with the...

Sydney's 9,189 'sister politicians' who petitioned Queen Victoria

One spring morning in 1850, over 8,000 Sydneysiders marched through town to protest the resumption of transportation – the act of sending British criminals to Australia. It was the largest...

A pioneering climate scientist skilled in the art of life

Penny Whetton, right, addressing a March for Science rally. Her death last month shocked and saddened colleagues.Supplied by familyLast month we lost Dr Penny Whetton - one of the world’s...

​The Coalition government is (again) trying to put the squeeze on the ABC

The Coalition government has reintroduced a bill seeking to mandate the ABC devote more resources to covering regional Australia – a measure that has been defeated before by parliament.Danny Casey/AAPOne...

Is your horse normal? Now there’s an app for that

Vet: are you happy? Horse: neigh.evilgurl/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SASince ancient times, horse behaviour, and the bond between horses and humans, has been a source of intrigue and fascination. The horse-lore that...

Vital signs. Our compulsory super system is broken. We ought to axe it, or completely reform it

We're taking money from people, letting it fall through the cracks, and spending no less than we were on pensions.ShutterstockThe just-announced inquiry into Australia’s retirement income system ought to be...

Might consciousness and free will be the aces up our sleeves when it comes to competing with robots?

Our advantage lies in incommensurables, and it'll grow in importance.Franck V. on UnsplashThe rise of artificial intelligence has led to widespread concern about the role of humans in the workplaces...

What is perimenopause and how does it affect women's health in midlife?

Perimenopause lasts months for some women, and years for others. from www.shutterstock.comAll women know to expect the time in life when their periods finish and they reach menopause. Many might...

a road trip reveals local museums stuck in a rut

Berry, and other tourist towns, are out of step with modern museum curation which is trying to include Aboriginal communities and their stories. ShutterstockAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are...

Curious Kids: how are stars made?

Stars come into existence because of a powerful force of nature called gravity.ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy SchmidtIf you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

5 Italian Designers That Every Australian Should Have in Their Closet9 Effective Ways to Support your Mitochondria and Boost EnergyImportance of Skincare and Skin ChecksHow to Save Money on Heating in AustraliaBest Out of Waste in New South WalesGlamorous Gifts - 5 Luxe Giving Options When Only the Best Will DoFood for collagenIs Rhinoplasty Right for You?Winter fun in ColoradoSlots SecretsEssential Personal Hygiene Tips for TravelingTop 3 Affordable Activities To Do In Los AngelesTop 4 Reasons Why a Gas Fireplace Is an Ideal SolutionAdvantages of Using an Insulin PumpMaths – when it’s time to break free of your misbeliefs