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Were KLM wrong to ask breastfeeding mums to cover up?

As a mother who breastfed her baby, and as someone who managed high profile customer complaints for a well-known airline (#theworldsfavouriteairline) for almost my entire career before having a baby, I have found the recent KLM breastfeeding debacle incredibly frustrating, for so many reasons.

Here’s a quick reminder of what they tweeted following a complaint from a mum who was asked to cover up while feeding her baby because another customer had complained:

‘Breastfeeding is permitted at KLM flights. However, to ensure that all our passengers of all backgrounds feel comfortable on board, we may request a mother to cover herself while breastfeeding, should other passengers be offended by this. As an international airline company, we transport passengers with a variety of backgrounds. Not all passengers feel comfortable with breastfeeding in their vicinity and sometimes these passengers complain to the cabin staff.”

I am really familiar with the delicate balance of trying to resolve an issue for a customer, support your staff and protect the brand. But KLM got it so wrong, it’s hard to know where to start unpicking it.

So, part of their statement is fine. Yes, they do transport passengers with a range of backgrounds. And yes, it can be tricky to balance all customer’s needs – when you put 300+ people in a confined space for a prolonged period of time, there are going to be occasions where not everyone is happy with each other. And yes, sometimes this will result in passengers complaining to the cabin crew.

But how the cabin crew react is going to be influenced by the culture they work in and the service ethos they are trained in, and this is where I really struggle with their response.

KLM have made it clear that their ethos is: ‘Breastfeeding is permitted at KLM flights.’ Um, sorry what? Permitted? As if they had considered not permitting it?

They seem to be so desperate not to offend anyone. But having shoulders on show is offensive is certain cultures, would someone complaining about a woman wearing an off-the-shoulder top warrant the same response? Would every woman be asked to cover their shoulders should it offend one customer? How are the staff trained to deal with complaints relating to differing views or opinions - what about race or same-sex couples?

In my experience, complaints about other passengers are incredibly common…The person they are sitting next to is too fat (yes really). The person they are sitting near smells. The children they are near are too noisy. I could go on, and on, and on. People get really irritated on planes. In any of these scenarios, the response by the cabin crew is usually to offer to move the person with the issue if there is space. If there’s not space? They might apologise but there is nothing they can do.

So, in this situation, why isn’t the approach to address the issue with the single person who made the complaint? Why would the answer be to make the mother feel like she is doing something wrong?

Being on a plane means there are seats in the way of pretty much your entire view. So, to see and be offended by someone breastfeeding, you’d have to be in pretty close proximity. Could the person who complained not have been offered an alternative seat? I have heard the argument that the mother should have been upgraded, and whilst I think it is a much more positive way of addressing it, I still feel it validates the complaint, rather than highlighting that it is the person complaining who has the issue, the mother is doing nothing wrong.

Ultimately, my view is that the mother breastfeeding is the one who needs protecting and supporting.

The crew should be trained to resolve the issue whilst protecting the women feeding her baby, keeping her baby calm, helping her baby adjust to the altitude.

The other reason I find this really frustrating is because every time something like this is in the press, it reinforces the view that breastfeeding is something to be nervous about doing in public. I remember feeling really nervous the first few times I breastfed while I was out. I was on guard and really self-conscious which made it stressful and much harder! The reality was that in the 12 months that I breastfed, I never once had even a strange look. People are generally really supportive or don’t blink an eye.

When you’re a new mum, especially when you are breastfeeding for the first time, it can feel scary and quite overwhelming going out and managing the logistics of feeding, naps, nappy changes and everything else that goes with having a baby. So, travelling - especially on a plane - can be something a lot of women find a slightly nerve-wracking.

If you are travelling this summer and wondering what how to have the best experience with a baby on a plane, I asked the mums in our Facebook group The Mother Hive what their top tips were for feeding on a plane would be – these are their top five:

1) The window seat can be more comfortable if you need to lean on the side of the plane/prop your arm up and you won’t have to worry about baby getting knocked by people/trolleys in the aisle

2) It’s worth taking a light muslin so you can swaddle baby (if they like it), give them an extra layer if it gets chilly or create a bit of a “sleeping tent” by putting it over your seat back and tucking it under to stop distractions and get them to sleep!

3) Make sure you are prepared – clothes (for you and baby!), nappies, wipes and a sleeping bag is also great

4) A sling is a must, especially in the airport, for boarding and disembarking the plane

5) Feeding during take off and landing can really help baby equalise their ears

In conclusion, it's my view that KLM made a mistake, everyone is outraged and breastfeeding your baby on a plane is nothing to worry about!

Written by Sophie Griffiths

Sophie is mum to Eliza and co-founder of the Luna Hive. She loves beautiful stationary, travel and wine!

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