Its national breastfeeding week this week, which means if you’re a mama you will probably be bombarded with breast is best facts and lots of arguments for and against breastfeeding.
As a nation, we have some of the lowest rates of breastfeeding worldwide with;
- 81% of women initiating breastfeeding at Birth
- 24% of women exclusively breastfeeding at 6 weeks, with 55% still doing some breastfeeding
- 1% of women exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months (WHO organisation recommendation), with 35% still doing some breastfeeding
and the powers that be are determined to try and increase the uptake of breastfeeding but how to increase breastfeeding rates that is the big question?
So for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts about Breastfeeding and how to increase breastfeeding rates..
My baby feeding history is that I was incredibly lucky to be able to breastfeed relatively easily both my boys, I breastfed Hayden, my first born until he was about 7 months old but he had always had one bottle in the evening from 4-5 weeks old. I breastfed Austin my youngest until he was 9 months old, and he didn’t have any bottles until he was 6 months old, though not for my lack of trying! You can read about my experiences of the postpartum and breastfeeding initial period here
There is no denying that breastfeeding does provide some great health benefits including
- Infant health: It protects children from a vast range of illnesses including infection, diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and obesity, as well as cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
- Maternal health: It also protects mothers from breast and ovarian cancers and heart disease.
- Relationship-building: It supports the mother-baby relationship and the mental health of both baby and mother.
- Cost-Saving: For both individual women and families but also for the NHS as a whole.
I have also written a previous post about 7 things I love about Breastfeeding.
I have known loads of mums who had between them a spectrum of breastfeeding experiences, both good and bad. Mums who have decided they don’t want to breastfeed, mums who have tried to breastfeed but have not been able to for a variety of reasons, mums who have breastfed initially and then decided to switch to bottles after several months or once baby weaning, and mums who are still breastfeeding their children into toddlerdom.
Before having children I like most women pre-children really didn’t know much about breastfeeding, and even when pregnant I really didn’t give it much thought, too caught up in worrying about having everything baby needed and the impending birth! I might be wrong but I think this is similar for lots of women.
When I had considered it, I rather naively thought about it as purely a choice, would I breastfeed or bottle feed? Like picking a sandwich. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might not be that easy or that I might need support for it to work.
Personally, I really enjoyed breastfeeding the boys, once I got over the initial 2 weeks of cluster feeding and cracked/bleeding nipples that is!
I think that it is all very well and good to try and increase breastfeeding in this country, but what really gets my goat is when it starts to feel like a crime against your baby not to breastfeed! You may think this seems a bit dramatic and perhaps it is but take this scenario that I think mums can all relate to;
You are a first-time mum, you have just given birth to a healthy beautiful baby boy after a grueling 18-hour labour, which ended in an emergency c-section due to baby getting distressed. You have spent the last 2 days after the birth on a busy postnatal ward, managing on very little sleep. You have been trying to breastfeed but have been having difficulty getting baby to latch properly, and your Milk doesn’t seem to have kicked in yet and baby seems frustrated. You have recovered physically from your operation and baby checks are all fine, and both discharged home.
The following day the community midwife comes to visit you at home, after you have had a horrendous night with baby, baby wants to feed continuously, your nipples are so cracked and painful that you feel like chucking baby across the room when they latch (though obviously you never would and you just wince in agony and carry on), you haven’t slept properly in 5 days and yep you guessed it, the postbirth hormone bomb has just dropped and you can’t stop crying and worrying about every little thing.
The midwife does all her checks on you and baby, and asks about how feeding is going, she watches you try and get baby to latch and feed, the whole time you are irrationally thinking this is so embarrassing, I am not doing it right, something is wrong with me, what kind of mum am i if I can’t even feed my baby, she judging me, will she take my baby away.
Sidebar: Yes these thoughts seem pretty far fetched and off the wall I grant you, but if you have had a baby and experienced the craziness that is milk coming in and hormone overload and not blocked it out yet then you will know that this is all very possible!
The midwife speaks softly, and tries to help you get baby into different positions to help latch, she suggests other things that might help such as nipple shields, a few of these you have tried unsuccessfully already. The midwife then leaves with a plan to see you again in a few days to see how things are going and reweigh baby.
On their next visit, things haven’t improved much at all really, and you don’t know what to do for the best. MIdwife weighs the baby and explains that baby has lost a bit more than the expected up to 10% of birth weight.
At this point your feelings of failure are overwhelming…
So what did you think of this scenario? Was any of it familiar to you?
The vast majority of mothers in this country attend antenatal midwife appointments and get bombarded with a variety of leaflets and literature all about babies including breastfeeding. We know the facts already! The facts and good points about breastfeeding are not going to change the uptake of breastfeeding- FACT!
Because the mums who know the facts/benefits and decide not to breastfeed from the get-go are not going to suddenly change their mind by listening to other mums talk about the benefits or by adding another leaflet into the Bounty packs! They have made an informed decision not to breastfeed, which is their decision. It might not be the one you would choose or the one the health professionals recommend but it is your choice, and in my mind, it’s not akin to something like vaccinations, where choosing not to vaccine puts your child (and other children) in harm’s way. Bottle feeding is not harmful in itself to babies, it just perhaps might not be as good for them as breast milk.
Plus by just spewing and regurgitating all the benefits all the time, I think people start to feel preached at which never helps. People generally don’t like being TOLD what to do, or is that just me?
However, this argument in itself is also a bit simplistic, isn’t it?
Because all the benefits of breast vs bottle feeding are looked at in one dimension, e.g. rates of breast cancer in babies who were breast vs bottle fed. It fails to take into account potential other possible confounding factors such as maternal welfare, is a breastfed baby who mother is struggling so much with feeding and expectations who subsequently develop postnatal depression and struggles to bond with the baby really better off than a bottle fed baby whose mother tried but struggled with breastfeeding, and so switched to bottle feeding but both baby and mum doing well?
The reason for the low rates of breastfeeding clearly isn’t because people don’t want to from the get-go as evidenced by the fact that breastfeeding initiation is 81% at Birth! It’s it what occurs after birth where the rates drop off and reasons for this is what needs to be addressed.
I think my example scenario above highlights some of the issues and obstacles for mums to be able to continue with breastfeeding. I so vividly remember a few years ago, a friend of mine who has struggled with breastfeeding her daughter referring to the midwives and health visitors as the BREASTGASPO!
She was made to feel like she had failed her child, something no mum ever wants to or should be made to feel, EVER!
No parent should have to feel the pain of any implication that they have not done the best for their child, but the UK context has become so fraught that conversations about breastfeeding are shut down.
We need to change the conversation around breastfeeding; it is time to stop laying the blame for the UK’s low breastfeeding rates in the laps of individual women and instead acknowledge that this is a public health imperative for which government, policy makers, communities and families all share responsibility
How to increase Breastfeeding rates then?
In my opinion, and it is just my opinion so feel free to disagree with me. If they want to increase uptake of breastfeeding in the UK, there needs to be
More antenatal information about it-
Not written information, we get enough of that already!
but during the NHS and other antenatal classes more open and honest conversation about breastfeeding, especially about the negatives.
No one at all mentioned cluster feeding and cracked nipples as more than a passing comment to me pre or post birth, and it was one hell of a shock! The agony of those first few weeks almost made me give up several times, but I feel like if I had known more of what to expect going into it and most importantly that its fucking awful at times during the first few weeks but IT WILL GET BETTER! I always think that honesty is the best policy because let’s face it your gonna find out soon enough anyway!
Other things no one had told me were e.g. Milk can be delayed after c-section-
So with Austin I was expecting my milk to come in day 3 as standard, but it didn’t, though the hormonal rollercoaster was right on time. I was left with a very hungry baby and no real milk, which was very distressing for us both, it did eventually arrive on day 5.
A friend of mine used to go to a breastfeeding support group which I know she found really helpful. Unfortunately, I think these services are still pretty few and far between.
Also more support in those initial stages in the hospital. You and baby have never done this before, it’s completely new to both of you, both learning a new skill effectively. And like any new skills, it takes practice and time to master it. This is something I hadn’t really thought about before Hayden was born, I just expected him to latch on and away we would go!
Because you’ve done it before does not mean you don’t need help!
This is a big one for me, after having Austin I received no support or help with breastfeeding, it was similar all the way through the pregnancy and generally postnatally, to be honest, the attitude that I’ve done it all before so I should be fine and don’t need any help. But this really wasn’t true, he was a completely different baby.
No judgment and more accepting of breastfeeding-
I know that probably lots of people feel that there is no problems with breastfeeding in public these days- gone are the days of rushing off and hiding in the toilet to feed your baby. Yes, things have definitely improved in terms of acceptance compared to say 30 years ago, but not enough.
I and lots of women I know have stories of getting disapproving looks or stares when breastfeeding in public even today.
Not only that but as a knock on from this and the fact that we haven’t been brought up seeing babies breastfeeding everywhere in public not the cover of muslins mean that sadly lots of women just don’t feel comfortable to do it.
Not feeling comfortable to breastfeed in public makes life pretty difficult. I remember with my first-born Hayden initially feeling very self-conscious about breastfeeding, especially when he was struggling to latch when super hungry, and I was frantically trying to keep myself covered with this muslin and get him to latch at the same time, and I remember feeling everyone was looking and hearing him screaming. Needless to say at times it felt like a very stressful experience.
Luckily with Austin, I had lost pretty much all self-consciousness about breastfeeding, and for the most part, didn’t bother with a cover or muslin that was just getting in my way. I was too tired to care probably, and just took the opinion that if people were sad enough and wanted to stare at my boobs, then crack on sad muppets!
It’s the mums who really want to breastfeed who need us, not the ones that don’t want to. And even if they don’t manage to breastfeed with this baby, if they have a positive, non-judgemental and supportive experience they are much more likely to try again with any future babies.
If you want to find out more about reasons why our breastfeeding rates are some of the lowest and how to increase breastfeeding then Channel 4 has released a very interesting Dispatches programme- Breastfeeding uncovered, as part of world breastfeeding week.
What do you think? Did you breastfeed your babies? What was your experience like? What do you think could help?