Many people will see another article about breastfeeding and roll their eyes. Why do we keep talking about it? Haven’t there been enough articles on this? Haven’t people got better things to do with their time? Others will feel stronger emotions when they see another headline; frustration, anger, guilt, regret … because they really wanted to breastfeed but were unable to do so.
So why do we keep writing articles about breastfeeding when many feel this way? Precisely because of the emotions above. Over 90% of women in the UK want to breastfeed but less than half are doing so by the time their baby is six weeks old. Although a very small percentage of women are unable to breastfeed for medical reasons, far higher numbers are having their chances of breastfeeding unnecessarily damaged. And importantly this is not their fault. They’re being prevented from breastfeeding by factors outside their control.
This isn’t about women who don’t want to breastfeed, or feel that their baby was fine on formula milk, but rather the 80% of women who wanted to breastfeed but had to stop before they were ready to do so and now feel miserable about it. This isn’t right from a biological perspective and certainly isn’t fair from a moral one and is precisely the reason we refuse to stop talking about it.
Breastfeeding is sold to pregnant women as straightforward, easy and rewarding but many do not find that description matches their experience. But the reason for this difficulty should rarely be to do with breastfeeding itself, but instead because society in the UK is not set up to support women to breastfeed. When I say ‘society’, I don’t simply mean public attitudes but the multitude of insidious and pervasive practices and beliefs that make a determination to breastfeed seem impossible.
photo credit: Lyndsay Jenkins
Lack of funding
Some will find it difficult or painful in the early days and be unable to find help to get it right and fix this. This is not the individual mothers’ fault but the fault of the government, who do not adequately fund the NHS and have cut vital funding to breastfeeding support groups, where local mothers gave up their time to help other mothers.
Others will navigate these initial hurdles but find that modern life just doesn’t seem compatible with breastfeeding. We do not look after our new mothers in this country. We put pressure on them to get their ‘old lives’ back, lose the baby weight and generally act like superwoman. Other cultures look after their new mothers helping them to recover from the birth and get breastfeeding established. Frazzled and sleep deprived without support we turn to formula as it seems like the easier option.
Those that get past this point risk having criticism thrown at them for feeding their baby in public. Seemingly every week there is another media story about a woman being thrown out of a coffee shop for breastfeeding, despite it being her legal right and despite the media being perfectly happy to use images of breasts to advertise products. Worry that this is going to happen to them stops women from wanting to breastfeed in public, which makes things difficult when babies need to feed frequently.
Finally, even though public health might have a stance that babies should be breastfed, there is a far wider industry trying to promote formula milk and unnecessary, anxiety inducing, needless products promising to help a mother to breastfeed. Formula is needed for babies who cannot be breastfed, so why does it need a multi billion pound advertising budget trying to persuade parents their product is needed? Those billions of pounds are simply passed on in costs to new parents.
Breastfeeding should not be this complicated. It should not be something that we need to write articles about or even promote in the first place. In regions such as Scandinavia, women seem to find breastfeeding far easier – three quarters are still doing so at six months, compared to just a quarter here. In short, this is because their health services, including breastfeeding support, are well funded, new families are invested in and breastfeeding in public is just normal. Compare this to the UK, and its lack of investment in breastfeeding and new families in general and negative public attitudes, then it isn’t difficult to see why our rates are so low.
But again, what’s this got to do with repeatedly talking about breastfeeding? Because we need to keep talking about how women are getting let down and how we change this. It matters whether our future babies are breastfed or not. Not being breastfed means that babies don’t get the immune properties found in breast milk which puts them at increased risk of getting infections – something that costs our already struggling NHS to put right again.
Some will argue that continuing to talk about breastfeeding is unfair to those who feel so traumatised by their own negative experiences. I agree, it really is unfair that so many women are left with such deep emotions that they can’t bear to hear breastfeeding talked about. But to try and change things for mothers of the future, and to stop a whole new generation having these regrets, we need to keep talking about it now. We also really need to think about who those negative emotions should be directed towards. It shouldn’t be those talking about how to make things better and it certainly shouldn’t be the mother herself. We need to package up and direct all those negative emotions to those who have created an environment where breastfeeding is more difficult, starting at the door of the government.
Finally, for those who think we have heard enough of breastfeeding and should really just stop talking about it … consider this to be our ultimate goal. If we created an environment and society that was supportive of breastfeeding, then far fewer women would have difficulties, no one would be thrown out of a coffee shop and we wouldn’t need to persuade people to breastfeed. It would just be normal. We wouldn’t have to write articles about it. And you wouldn’t have to think or hear about it any more.
Dr Amy Brown discusses how we can invest in a better future for breastfeeding in her book Breastfeeding Uncovered: Who really decides how we feed our babies? published by Pinter & Martin