great debates

Is Breast-feeding in a Swimming Pool Okay?

Photo: Justin Paget/Corbis

Twenty-two-year-old Stephanie Wilby was waist-deep in a public swimming pool for children, breast-feeding her 4-month-old son, when she says Manchester Aquatics Centre authorities ejected her for “unhygienic” activity: “They made a real scene. They were saying me breastfeeding was indecent exposure. But I was covered more than most of the other swimmers. One staff member also said he would stop a man urinating in the pool and that is why they did not want me breastfeeding in the water.”

Now the British press is in an uproar. Sure, moms have the right to breast-feed in public. (In Great Britain as in America, breast-feeding is not considered “indecent exposure.”) But what about in public pools? A poll on the Manchester Evening News’s website shows 65 percent of readers siding with the Aquatics Centre; at The Guardian, readers are evenly divided on the hygiene of swimming-pool breast-feeding. 

Logically, hygiene shouldn’t be an issue: The feeding wasn’t occurring below water level (an action that would require her to drown her child) nor was she lactating into the pool (an action that would negate the end goal of, you know, feeding the kid). Since lactating women sometimes leak breast milk, Wilby would have been more likely to get milk into the pool when she was actually swimming than when she was half-dry and feeding. Texan mommy blogger Prairie Mama noted this paradox in 2011, when she was kicked out of a YMCA pool for breast-feeding.

The Manchester City Council has launched an investigation into whether Wilby was mistreated. Pool authorities say they prefer breast-feeding to occur “in a safe and comfortable environment for both the mother and child,” outside of the pool.  But when you search the web for information about pool safety and breast-feeding, most information is about the safety of exposing babies’ mouths to latent chlorine on their mothers’ breasts; and even then, the conclusion is generally, Chill out. It’s fine.

So what is the source of pool breast-feeding panic? In both Wilby and Prairie Mama’s cases, the problem seems to be a primal fear of fluid contamination. Anything that gets into a swimming pool gets all over everyone else, which is why eating a sandwich in a swimming pool would be weird. And yet, for some reason, we are all okay with swim-up bars in Cancun, and known pool pee-er Ryan Lochte has yet to be ejected from a free swim. These are the paradoxes of swimming pools, those giant vats of water, chlorine, and human discharge into which we jump willingly, because it is fun.

Is Breast-feeding in a Swimming Pool Okay?