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Row over Ashford mum Sophie Howes stopped from breastfeeding in pool at Stour Centre

Sophie Howes with her eight-month-old daughter Connie
Sophie Howes with her eight-month-old daughter Connie

A woman is demanding an apology after her daughter was told to stop breastfeeding in a public swimming pool.

Sophie Howes said she was feeding her eight-month-old daughter Connie on steps leading to the learner pool at the Stour Centre in Ashford when a staff member said her actions were "offensive" and asked her to move to another area.

The 27-year-old said the pool water came up to her waist and was covering her baby's feet, but her breast and the baby’s head were not in the water.

Sophie, a midwife who lives in Landbury Walk, Ashford, said: "At the time I was embarrassed because I didn't know who else could hear what she was saying.

"I felt humiliated and she made me feel like I was doing something wrong.

"Afterwards, when I remembered her saying my breastfeeding was offensive, I was really angry.

"It is irrelevant whether I was in the water or not because that is not what the staff member said to me to begin with.

"She didn't mention health and safety issues, she just said one of her colleagues had been offended by me breastfeeding.

"This hasn't made me reluctant to breastfeed in public and if I go back to the pool I will still breastfeed there, but some women would have been put off by being treated like this.

"I've been breastfeeding Connie since she was born and I breastfed my 17-month-old son Jesse and I've never had any problems anywhere else."

The Stour Leisure Centre in Ashford
The Stour Leisure Centre in Ashford

Sophie's mother Virginia Howes, 54, of Romney Point, Repton Park, has accused Ashford Leisure Trust, which manages the centre for Ashford Council, of discriminating against her daughter for breastfeeding in public on Saturday.

She wants an apology and an assurance other mothers will not be subjected to the same treatment.

Mrs Howes, an independent midwife who runs the Kent Midwifery Practice in Ashford, said: "It is discrimination to ask a woman to move on account of the fact she is breastfeeding.

"It's 2013 for goodness sake. You see more body walking around the streets. My daughter is very discreet..." - Virginia Howes

"The word offensive was used several times both at the Stour Centre and when my daughter spoke to a member of staff on the phone afterwards.

"Sophie phoned me as soon as this happened. She was very upset.

"As a mother and grandmother I want to protect my daughter and granddaughter but I would be just as outraged if this had happened to any woman.

"It's 2013 for goodness sake. You see more body walking around the streets. My daughter is very discreet.

"I want a public apology and assurance that the Stour Centre has a policy in place to protect breastfeeding mothers not discriminate against them. I also want their staff to be properly trained in the relevant law."

Library image
Library image

Mother and daughter said it was a myth babies should not go swimming straight after eating, adding there is no time limit on when they could be sick.

They believe if a child is sick in the pool, the chlorine would quickly kill any germs.

Sophie added: "It should be down to individual mothers to decide whether they wish to risk their babies swallowing or inhaling swimming pool water during feeding, which is just as likely to happen when they are swimming anyway."

Emma Wood, chief executive of Ashford Leisure Trust
Emma Wood, chief executive of Ashford Leisure Trust

Emma Wood, chief executive of Ashford Leisure Trust, said: "Ashford Leisure Trust fully supports breastfeeding at all its sites and understands the legal rights of mothers to do this.

"On this occasion it was believed there was a legitimate health and safety risk – ie, feeding actually taking place while both the mother and baby were in the water, and a suitable alternative area just a couple of metres away was suggested.

"We do of course apologise for any upset caused. The staff were concerned for the health and welfare of the baby. It may be that this concern was misplaced due to a misunderstanding of the situation but it was not intended to discriminate against the mother.

"It is clear that additional training is required and this is being arranged with Public Health for all staff to ensure there is an enhanced awareness and understanding of breastfeeding.

"We will also be working with experts and professionals to ensure that a suitable policy is produced."

Cllr Michael Claughton, deputy leader of Ashford Council and chairman of the Ashford Health and Wellbeing Board, said: "This is a highly regrettable incident which indicates a need for additional staff training which is now being organised.

"I do not want to see a repeat of what has happened and in no way should this deter the promotion of breastfeeding in Ashford. Breastfeeding is a personal choice and every woman has the right to decide whether or not to breastfeed."

Cllr Michael Claughton, deputy leader of Ashford Council
Cllr Michael Claughton, deputy leader of Ashford Council

He added: "An offer of support from Kent Public Health has been given to help guide the Stour Centre and explore additional ways in which breastfeeding can be encouraged.

"I am aware that a policy is to be developed by the Stour Centre on the subject and this will address breastfeeding when in close proximity to the water ensuring that as few barriers as possible are in the way of nursing mums."

Stour Centre manager Kim Walters
Stour Centre manager Kim Walters

In an email sent to Mrs Howes, centre manager Kim Walters said CCTV footage shows Sophie was breastfeeding her child in the learner pool with the baby's head level with the water.

Ms Walters said breastfeeding in the pool was not permitted because of the risk of babies breathing water into their lungs or contracting water related illness due to the chlorine not killing germs instantly.

Ms Walters said visitors of all ages are recommended not to swim for at least 30 minutes after eating due to the increased risk of vomiting, which would lead to pool water contamination and a risk to all bathers.

She added: "At the centre we have regular users who breastfeed in the cafe, so breastfeeding is widely accepted. This is the first time breastfeeding has taken place in the pool environment and I stress that the only reason the mother was asked to move was purely down to the feed taking place in the water.

"We have apologised to the mother involved if some unfortunate words were used in conversation and will ensure all staff are fully aware and trained accordingly."

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