Has the Primark case damaged the breastfeeding movement?

Woman breastfeeding outside cafe Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption A Public Health England poll suggested that 57% of people feel restaurants are an acceptable venue for breastfeeding

When a mother admitted lying about being asked to stop breastfeeding in Primark the case was seized upon as an example of the "mammary militia" overreacting. Have one mother's lies damaged the movement to support women breastfeeding in public?

Caroline Starmer's account of being asked to stop breastfeeding was certainly shocking, and it created national headlines.

She claimed to have been discreetly nursing one of her twin daughters when a security guard asked her to leave the Primark store in Leicester.

The guard allegedly removed the baby from her breast - "causing a lot of pain" because the girl's teeth had been "clamped down" - then walked away with the child.

The story turned out to be a lie, and Starmer was prosecuted for intending to pervert the course of justice and given a suspended sentence.

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Media captionIn an interview with the Leicester Mercury, Caroline Starmer falsely claimed a security guard had "removed my daughter from my breast, obviously causing a lot of pain"

However, many other mothers have had similar genuine experiences while nursing their children in public, including Wioletta Komar.

She was forced to feed her baby outside in the rain after being asked to leave a sports shop in Nottingham - and her treatment led to national "feed-in" protests at branches of the store.

She was "shocked" when she heard about Starmer's lies.

"It upset me because by her doing it some people will think, in the next real case, 'oh she's doing it for money'," said Mrs Komar.

"Other mums will be afraid of being accused that it's not true, that it never happened, definitely."

Image copyright Family photo
Image caption Wioletta Komar was so upset at being asked to leave the sports store she was unable to breastfeed her son Daniel (right) ever again

Mrs Komar's son Daniel was three months old when she was asked to leave the sports store, and it upset her so much she was unable to breastfeed him ever again.

A campaign group called Free to Feed organised the "feed-in" protests in support of her.

Starmer used the same group to publicise her false claims about Primark - posting her story on the group's Facebook page.

She was also interviewed by the Leicester Mercury and the story was then reported in the national press.

Breastfeeding and the law

Image copyright Thinkstock

•The Equality Act 2010 has specifically clarified that it is unlawful for a business to discriminate against a woman because she is breastfeeding a child

•Businesses have a responsibility to ensure that a woman breastfeeding while receiving a service they provide is not treated unfairly, including by other customers

Equality Act 2010: What Do I Need To Know?

When the tale turned out to be untrue, there was a backlash.

One Leicester Mercury reader commented: "Amazing how the "Mammary Militia" created outcry and a witch hunt before the facts were presented."

Another posted under the story: "This is an issue where there is an hysterical, militant campaign that there's no use trying to reason with. It's getting to the point where campaigners will soon be demanding the right to commandeer any premises for any woman who pronounces 'this baby is hungry!'."

Breastfeeding in public


of people support public breastfeeding


of breastfeeding mothers feel embarrassed or uncomfortable doing so in public

  • 21% of breastfeeding mothers feel people do not want them to breastfeed in public

  • 57% of people feel restaurants are an acceptable venue for breastfeeding

  • 51% of people feel breastfeeding on public transport is acceptable

The women who run Free to Feed decided to close the page because of the backlash - but later changed their minds.

"We have received a number of personal threats and attacks over the past few days," they wrote in a post on 15 July.

"We are just two mothers, trying our best to make a difference, and we definitely aren't going to hang around to be abused and criticised for trying to do the right thing."

Image caption Caroline Starmer used the Free to Feed Facebook group to publicise her false claims about Primark

The group was founded by Emily Slough, who was called a "tramp" on Facebook when she was photographed feeding her baby in public.

She did not want to speak to the BBC about the Caroline Starmer case, but her group continues to campaign against discrimination towards breastfeeding mothers.

Dez Richardson, who has worked in security for 15 years, was among those who publically criticised Free to Feed over the Caroline Starmer story.

"It's always going to be dangerous to leap on an agenda that provokes such strong feeling when there just isn't the evidence to do so," he said.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Emily Slough was photographed breastfeeding her daughter then described as a "tramp" when the image was posted on Facebook

Mr Richardson said false allegations had been made about him in the past - and the real victim in this case could have been a security guard who did nothing wrong.

"In the line of my work I have seen time and again babies and children being used, if not as an excuse, then as an encouragement to give the person doing wrong an easier time for 'the children's sake'," he said.

Mr Richardson's wife bottle-fed her three children for medical reasons, but he does support breastfeeding and believes the Starmer case is unfortunate.

"It's a crying shame because no matter how slight, it may affect another person who has genuinely suffered discrimination and may now not receive the immediate support that they would quite rightly deserve," he said.

Image copyright Fern Desbrow
Image caption Fern Desbrow thinks things have "blown over" and the Caroline Starmer case has not had a lasting effect

Fern Desbrow, a breastfeeding peer supporter for Charnwood BRAS in Leicestershire, personally believes attitudes towards public breastfeeding are changing for the better, partly because of campaigns like Free to Feed.

"I think with the Caroline Starmer case it's been unfortunate because it's shed quite a bad light on it," she said.

"Unfortunately people seem to have seized on it and they say it's 'typical breastfeeding Nazis' or 'the Breastapo'."

But she thinks things have "blown over" and the case has not had a lasting effect.

"So many people said not to close Free to Feed because they have done such a good thing," she said.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption A Public Health England poll suggested that 51% of people feel breastfeeding on public transport is acceptable

Wioletta Komar's son turned two years old last month and she regrets not being able to breastfeed him.

The sports store that discriminated against Mrs Komar gave her compensation after Free to Feed helped her to get legal advice.

She would encourage other women to speak out about breastfeeding discrimination - and not be deterred because of Starmer's lies.

"I'm very happy that I got my case seen by many people and that some mums have supported me with the protests," she said.

"I was very happy because in my eyes it supported other unsure mums, and mums who didn't know that the law is protecting them."

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