“The success or failure of breastfeeding should not be seen solely as the responsibility of the woman. Her ability to breastfeed is very much shaped by the support and the environment in which she lives. There is a broader responsibility of governments and society to support women through policies and programmes in the community.”
Dr Nigel Rollins (WHO) in The Lancet
Last January, The Lancet produced its most definitive analysis of breastfeeding to date. It confirmed the importance of breastfeeding – in both rich and poor countries – to the health of babies, mothers and to the economy. It also reported that the UK has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.
You might imagine that the shock of finding itself at the very bottom of the world table would have prompted some action from our government, but so far there has been stony silence. In the meantime, breastfeeding rates are about to fall even further. Across the whole of the UK, but especially in England, there have been deep cuts to breastfeeding support services in the last two years and these continue apace.
In June, Blackpool Council ended its highly acclaimed and well-liked breastfeeding peer support service. Kent County Council has just announced that it wants to get rid of its breastfeeding service too. They join a long and growing list.
What is breastfeeding support?
Supporting mothers to breastfeed is not the same as telling mothers that breastfeeding is good for them and their babies. Governments do have a legitimate role in promoting healthy behaviours, like exercising, eating fruit and vegetables, avoiding cigarettes and too much alcohol – and encouraging breastfeeding.
But the fact is that most mothers in the UK already want to breastfeed. The last Infant Feeding Survey found that 81% of mothers began breastfeeding – by 8 weeks, half of them had stopped altogether. Of those who did, 80% said that they stopped breastfeeding before they wanted to. With over 700,000 births annually, that means almost a quarter of a million mothers are being let down ever year.
What on earth is going on? What is it in our society that is holding so many women back from reaching their own breastfeeding goals? (By comparison, in Norway, 70% of mothers are still breastfeeding at 6 months.) Broadly speaking, the answer is that we just don’t have a supportive environment for breastfeeding mothers in UK.
This lack of support takes many forms – telling mothers to stop breastfeeding in public or simply making them feel unwelcome when they do. It’s well-meaning family members who urge mothers to “just give some formula”. It’s the seductive advertising that lures us into the belief that infant formula is basically equivalent to breastmilk. It’s those midwives, doctors and health visitors who say “breast is best” but are unable to offer help when breastfeeding difficulties arise. And it’s reducing access to the practical help and emotional support that mothers should be receiving from trained peer supporters, breastfeeding counsellors and lactation consultants.
In many parts of the country, mothers have never had access to good quality peer support and specialist breastfeeding help. But now, even those places with exemplary services are seeing them cut. Breastfeeding peer supporters, breastfeeding counsellors, lactation consultants – these are the very people who are able to help mothers achieve their goals. When breastfeeding is painful, they offer ways to make it comfortable; when mothers don’t produce enough milk, they suggest ways to increase their supply. They also offer reassurance and an empathetic ear when mothers are struggling with normal baby behaviour.
The Better Breastfeeding campaign will be lobbying local and national governments, getting them to recognise their responsibility to ensure that all mothers have access to high-quality, timely breastfeeding support in their area. We’ll be talking to politicians of all parties, encouraging them to work together to do the right thing for those millions of mothers who are currently being let down.
If we’re going to create an environment in which mothers feel supported to breastfeed, we’re also going to have to change the way we talk about the subject. Right now, we hear the same stories rehashed in different ways. “Breast versus bottle – which is best?” “Breastfeeding in public – what do you think?” “Pressure to breastfeed – were you made to feel guilty?” We need to move on from these tired old subjects that keep us stuck right here with the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.
So, as well as pushing for access to good quality breastfeeding support for all mothers, the Better Breastfeeding campaign will be sparking new conversations about breastfeeding. We’ll be encouraging the media to broaden their horizons and start talking about breastfeeding in a new and better way.
We hope you agree that the Better Breastfeeding campaign is very much needed at this time. You can support our campaign in a number of ways.