A soft flute melody floated through the IWK Health Centre Saturday morning, as 63 mothers from across the Halifax Regional Municipality nursed their babies together.
They were competing in the Quintessence Breastfeeding Challenge, an international competition to have the most mothers breastfeeding at one time.
Every year during World Breastfeeding Week, Nova Scotia’s volunteer-run Breastfeeding Community of Practice organizes the Fall Family Fun Fair and takes part in the challenge. Last year, they placed eighth.
“I think that, when you’re a new mom, you’re at home, you’re by yourself and just to come out and see other moms, other breastfeeding moms, is really important,” said Nicole Loveless, who came to the fair with her 11-month-old daughter, Bella.
As part of the event there were information kiosks set up from support groups, including the Nova Scotia Doula Association and Good Latch. Other displays promoted the benefits of nursing, including how it strengthens immune systems of mothers and babies and how breastfeeding is environmentally friendly, unlike formula feeding.
“It’s a nice chance to raise awareness that there’s supports out there when you need them and normalize breastfeeding,” say Norma Harty, who has been attending the event for four years.
“We still have a ways to go, but certainly fairs like this bring more attention … it’s getting more and more common to see people breastfeeding in public and people realizing that it’s okay. “
The World Health Organization and Health Canada recommend mothers breastfeed exclusively for a child’s first six months, but a Statistics Canada survey found that, as of 2012, only 23 per cent of mothers in the Atlantic Provinces did so. The only province with a lower rate is Quebec.
Ann Morgan, public health nurse and coordinator of the Breastfeeding Community of Practice, says that fear of being asked to leave a public space while breastfeeding contributes to the low rate.
“I hear people say ‘oh yeah, I totally support breastfeeding. But, you know, as long as a woman’s covered up,” she says. “But we have to get beyond that because, as a society, we’re missing out on huge health benefits.”
Morgan says most people in Nova Scotia don’t know that a woman’s right to breastfeed in public is protected by the province’s Human Rights Act. Businesses, for instance, cannot ask a breastfeeding mother to leave or to go somewhere more discreet.
As part of an initiative to make Halifax breastfeeding friendly, her organization runs a program called Make Breastfeeding Your Business. They approach businesses and offer a toolkit to make them a safe space for mothers to nurse.
For the first time since the program started, Morgan’s seeing businesses approach her first. This is something that wouldn’t have happened years ago.
“Breastfeeding cannot happen only in the home; women have to participate in life,” she says. “If they can’t breastfeed out and about to fit it into their lives with their children, who’s going to ever choose to breastfeed?”
Despite the lingering stigma, Loveless says she’s felt welcome nursing in public.
“I think it’s a lot friendlier than you realize. I think it may be your own insecurities and not knowing yourself what you’re doing,” she says. “When you step out of your comfort zone you realize that it is a lot more supportive.”
World Breastfeeding Week is held every year from Oct. 1 to 7.