In parks, castles and shopping centres, from Kent to Sunderland, hundreds of happy, guzzling babies took part in a simultaneous feeding session last weekend. Despite a heavy downpour in Swindon, mothers gathered outside Debenhams, while in the sunshine in Hull they did the same. Manchester, meanwhile, had its own breastfeeding festival (we'll call it "Breastival") – attracting more than 100 women and children with poetry performances, lecturers and stalls.
All the events were timed to celebrate World Breastfeeding Day, now in its 22nd year – and the photos of smiling mothers and chubby, contented children, were aimed at de-stigmatising breastfeeding, while promoting its health benefits.
While it may seem like a battle that has long been won, campaigners say women are still being shamed out of nursing their babies in public. Health workers say the national strategy around breastfeeding is no longer being pushed. According to the latest national statistics, the will is definitely there – 81% of women try breastfeeding at least once. Yet across the UK, nursing mothers are more likely to be older, more affluent and to have stayed in education beyond 18 – or come from ethnic minorities.
"Public attitude plays a part," agrees Janet Fyle of the Royal College of Midwives. She points to two recent news stories, one in March, where a woman was photographed feeding her baby while on a shopping trip and called a "tramp" on social media, and another from April, when a mother was asked to leave a Nottingham store after being asked to stop breastfeeding.
Younger women may even be embarrassed to breastfeed in their own homes, if they live with friends or parents. "In the most deprived areas, young women may not have seen anyone in their family or community breastfeeding," she says.
Such attitudes can be combated by explaining the health benefits of breastfeeding, says Fyle. "Education is a key factor. The longer they stay in long-term education, the easier it is for them to access the relevant information."
According to Fyle, the quality of care new mothers receive also plays an important role in helping women to decide to breastfeed, or to continue to do so after a first attempt. Yet, she says, midwives now say they are so overstretched that women may be missing out on the help they need. Women should have help to learn how to breastfeed while still in hospital, she says. But between midwives' dwindling time and women's short stays on the wards, it's a struggle to make it possible.
"If you start the mother off by showing and supporting her [in] how to put the baby on the breast – and show the mother what it's like when the baby feeds – you have done something critical. The mother knows she can ask for support and all the information she needs to continue, and all the little tips.
"We asked midwives, support workers and mothers – via Netmums and Mumsnet – if there was enough support," she continues. "And our members said no."
According to Fyle, a lack of clear strategy is another factor hindering progress. "We are coasting at the moment. The last government had a 10-year strategy for breastfeeding with classes in the most deprived areas, but we don't know if those classes are still there and if they are making a difference."
For women on lower incomes, there is also the added difficulty of short maternity leave, which makes breastfeeding extremely difficult. Fyle says: "If you are stacking shelves and have a month or six weeks off, it's not easy. In northern Europe, they have a higher rate of breastfeeding mothers because of longer maternity leave."