MP Sammy Wilson says he will consider an invitation from mums at Larne Parental Support Project to attend their breastfeeding group.
The invitation came after Mr Wilson claimed in an interview with Stephen Nolan on BBC Radio Ulster that breastfeeding in the chamber of the House of Commons would be “voyeuristic,” before changing the word to “exhibitionism”.
Several mums from the Larne Parental Support Project’s breastfeeding group, a joint initiative between Action for Children, the Northern Trust and Sure Start, have since written to Mr Wilson in protest at his comments.
Around 20 mums meet each week for the initiative, which includes peer support as well as talks from health professionals.
Reacting to Mr Wilson’s comments, mum Victoria McKinley-Hutchinson, who undertakes peer support at the group, said: “I am shocked and disappointed that someone of his standing could make comments like that regarding breastfeeding.
“Breastfeeding has health benefits for mothers and babies and we promote the right of all mothers to breastfeed publicly.
“After giving birth it can be more difficult for mums to socialise and they can suffer from post natal depression, so getting out is good for their wellbeing.
“Being isolated from their peers can be a very lonely time, it’s not good for mothers or babies. Comments like this bring women back to the dark ages.
“It’s disappointing that in the UK we would still hear remarks like this, especially from a political representative.”
Victoria described Mr Wilson’s comments linking breastfeeding to voyeurism as “ridiculous.”
“Generally people are very supportive of mums breastfeeding,” she continued.
“Breastfeeding mothers are definitely not exhibitionists. A lot of times a mother can be breastfeeding and no-one knows.
“A lot of MPs return to work soon after they deliver their babies so maybe breastfeeding in the House of Commons would be a good idea.
“It’s ridiculous to say that breastfeeding would encourage voyeurism. As my 14-year-old son said, that’s what breasts are for, feeding children.
“Breastfeeding rates in Northern Ireland are pretty poor so if it is done more often in public people won’t have an issue as it will be normalised.
“Sammy might be an elected representative for the area, but he is not representing us,” she said.
Fellow group member Suzi, who is mum to 10-month-old Andrew, added: “It’s difficult enough for mums to build confidence to feed their child in public without having people in power come out with things like this.
“Most mums are very discreet, they are just trying to feed their child.
“For the most part I think the stigma around breastfeeding has gone, Mr Wilson’s comments represent the views of a very small minority and he needs to be educated.
“If a woman had to leave a meeting in the House of Commons to breastfeed her child in her own office she would not be involved or able to do her job, just because she is choosing to breastfeed.”
Clare, who is mum to 10-month-old George, says that she has found people in Larne to be “very supportive” after breastfeeding at local cafes.
“Many cafes have signs to say breastfeeding is welcome,” she explained. “Being able to breastfeed in public supports other women, it becomes normal.”
The mums have now issued an invitation to Sammy Wilson to attend their breastfeeding group in order to “dispel the myths”.
Health visitor Helen Sherry, who co-ordinates the breastfeeding group, commented: “There are many benefits for mum and baby including a reduced chance of catching infections like gastroenteritis, middle ear, for the mother there is a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer.”
Mr Wilson told the Times that he would “give consideration” to the group’s invitation, and claimed that his comments had been “misrepresented by Nolan”.
“I would hardly think I’m an expert on this,” he stated.
“What I said is that I’m not against breastfeeding but I don’t think it’s appropriate in the House of Commons.
“There are plenty of other places to do it such as their own offices or private rooms, I don’t think there’s any controversy other than that some people feel they should be able to do it in the chamber.
“The House of Commons is hardly the most conducive place for feeding a child, secondly it’s televised and thirdly it’s a legislative assembly.”
Mr Wilson said breastfeeding MPs should consider “reasonable alternatives, not locked away in toilets but private offices”.
“Anyone who insists they must feed the child in the chamber is not acting for the child but more making a point,” he added.
Responding to arguments that forcing an MP to breastfeed outside of the chamber would prevent her from doing her job, Mr Wilson continued: “They are hardly going to be speaking while they are breastfeeding children.
“Many would argue that if you make the chamber into a kindergarten no-one can represent constituents, it would be more like a nursery than a debating chamber.
“Would it then be true that a teacher can’t teach unless they can breastfeed in the class room or that a pilot can’t fly unless they can breastfeed the child in the cock pit?
“Or a woman who wants to be a plumber breastfeeds her child up scaffolding?
“That is a nonsense argument,” he concluded.
The breastfeeding support group meets at Larne Parental Support Project every Friday from 10am-12pm.
Visit the Facebook page or ring 028 2827 6044 for more information.