After giving birth to her second son Scott, Lucy Sealey had made the decision that she wanted to breastfeed him for as long as possible.
"I’m a big believer that breastfeeding gives babies the very best start in life, giving them all the nutrients they need and helping their immunity," says Lucy, 34, a complex care nurse and married mother of three from the South West.
"I’d fed my first son Aidan for 10 months and so, three years later when I had Scott, I wanted to do the same for him.
"At the time, I was in my third year of nursing training and returned to the course five months after the birth. I placed Scott in a nursery opposite the university, hoping that I could get over there to feed him or at least express milk whenever I needed and I never thought there would be a problem."
Lucy had every right to do this. The Equality Act 2010 says that it is discrimination to treat a woman unfavourably because she is breastfeeding. It applies to anyone providing services, benefits, facilities and premises to the public and most organisations that deal directly with the public. Employers or services must not harass or victimise a woman because she is breastfeeding. But Lucy was in for a shock.
"When I got back to my course I mentioned to my practice educator – a woman who didn’t have any children of her own – that I needed to take breastfeed my son and she looked horrified," says Lucy.
"She told me that I’d have to do it in my breaks but I knew I’d need to do it more often than that and besides, it’s a legal requirement. But she wouldn’t listen. She said I wasn’t an employee, but a student, and so I’d have to take it up with my union."
Furious, Lucy did consult her union over the matter who confirmed that she was well within her rights to breastfeed her baby son.
"I knew I had to fight for this as I wasn’t doing it only for myself but for my baby – I knew it was his right to be breastfed," she says. "But from that moment, this woman made life very difficult for me.
"She had no empathy and her attitude was that if you had children, you had to make different choices. At one point, while we were discussing the matter in her office she told me that I ‘should have kept my legs closed’! I was speechless. I was a married mother of two trying to finish a nursing degree.
"I complained to the university about her comment but as it was her word against mine – and she said it in a private office – I couldn’t prove anything. But my confidence plummeted, I ended up failing the placement and dropped out of the course three months later.
"I returned later and am now in a very rewarding career that I love. But had she not made life so difficult, I could have qualified so much sooner."
Sadly, Lucy is not an isolated case and this week the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) called for extending legal rights to workplace breastfeeding support, saying that guidance is being ignored by many organisations. In turn, this is affecting breastfeeding rates in the UK – which is still among the lowest in the world at only 17% after three months."
"Women face many barriers to breastfeeding, including stigma and exclusion from public places," says Claire Livingston from the RCM.
"It is vitally important that employers recognise their responsibilities in relation to staff wellbeing and equality in the workplace. A good start would be supporting women to continue breastfeeding their babies for as long as they choose."
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For mothers like Lucy – who went on to have a third baby, Teddy, before returning to nursing, this is welcome news.
"Although many people support breastfeeding there are still some who are stuck in the dark ages and have very strange views," she says. "Even in public, people think they have a right to tell you what to do. I was once in a café breastfeeding my youngest and someone came up to me and said: ‘You need to put that away, your baby is old enough for a bottle now’. I told them to take their ill-educated comments elsewhere.
"All three of my sons have strong immune systems and are hardly ever sick. I even continued breastfeeding my youngest son until he was three because I believe in the benefits so much. I’m delighted the RCM has spoken about this issue and how it affects new mothers.
"Employers should not be creating any barriers for women and think everything should be done to encourage more women to breastfeed – I believe it really is the best option for your baby."