How comfortable do you feel breast feeding? I’ve been breastfeeding my son for almost 17 months now. It’s been one of the most wonderful, but often difficult experiences I’ve had. In those early hazy days I had a lot of support, but as soon as my son approached 6 months I had many people encouraging me to stop. ‘You’ve done you’re bit now’ People would tell me.
Except I didn’t want to. I’d done my research and there were plenty of brilliant reasons for me continue well beyond his first birthday. Now, 17 months in, I’m proud I’ve chosen extended breastfeeding, but I often find myself justifying my choice. To me, that’s crazy. Shouldn’t my tremendous achievement be something we celebrate?
So I wasn’t surprised at all, when I spoke to The Baby Show, and they told me 68% of new parents feel the government doesn’t provide enough support for breastfeeding mums. As a side, the UK has some of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world, despite the fact that 89% has every intention of breastfeeding their new arrival.
The difficulties for many new mums trying to breastfeed is well known. Of those asked, just one in three (37%) said they found it easy. As a result, demand for breastfeeding support is high, a massive 84% of new mums said they sought assistance.
The most common source of help was midwives, followed by an NHS lactation consultant or breastfeeding clinic, then a health visitor. The research found that it’s not the quality of care that needs improvement, rather availability.
Of those new mums surveyed, 74% described the help they received from midwives as good or excellent, 72% rated NHS lactation and breastfeeding clinics as good or excellent while 69% rated their health visitor as so.
However, over a third (36%) of parents found NHS breastfeeding counselling services not accessible enough while 57% of new parents say they worry that the government is closing down breastfeeding clinics all around the country, as a means to cut costs.
In fact, half (50%) said the government should be investing in additional NHS breastfeeding clinics, with 49% saying more should be invested in training health visitors and 44% in training midwives.
We spoke to Vanessa Christie, Lactation consultant and breastfeeding expert at The Baby Show and asked her what needs to change to move forward and help make breastfeeding the norm.
1 – Hi Vanessa, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. First up, what do you think the government could be doing to help new mums feel supported to breast feed?
Hello! I believe that there are four main things that the government could be doing to help support new mums. The first is properly funded specialist clinics. The government needs to make sure that the staff that are working in these clinics, are appropriately trained.
Often there are specialist clinics but the people running them have only done a mere two days’ training in breastfeeding. That really doesn’t make them knowledgeable enough to combat many of the challenges they’re set to face. Valuing the skills and knowledge of a certified breastfeeding counsellor or lactation consultant makes a big difference.
The second thing is Implementing baby friendly initiatives across all areas and encouraging commissioners to commit to this. At the moment the number of women who want to breastfeed is quite high. The majority of mums say they want to breastfeed their new babies (89% according to the Baby Show survey) but the problem is how quickly people stop.
So, it’s all about how we go about supporting these women once they’ve been discharged from hospital and are back at home.
Just one in three (37%) women say they found breastfeeding easy so there’s a real need for help. While health visitors are doing the best job they can in the circumstances, only 20% of trusts providing Health Visiting services actually have Baby Friendly Initiative Accreditation – which essentially means that all their HV’s have received a basic 2-day breastfeeding training course. That leaves a huge majority of trusts where training is yet to be fully implemented or even started in the first place.
The third thing is to write into law about supporting women who are returning to work – such as providing them a safe and private place to express and store their milk and allowing them to do with without any fear of discrimination. This is a huge incentive to help women get back into the workplace and to challenge the glass ceiling.
Finally, there really ought to be a media campaign to positively highlight the fact that women have the right to breastfeed wherever they want and to make people aware that those who ask them to stop, or move can be prosecuted. So many people just don’t realise this, and women are constantly asking if they’re allowed to breastfeed here and there, but they shouldn’t feel like that.
Wherever women have a legal right to be, they have a legal right to breastfeed. It’s not just mums that need to be made aware of this – it’s the whole public.
2 – What would you recommend to help encourage new mums to breastfeed?
I believe that the whole message of ‘Breast is Best’ has backfired. It makes people feel defensive and puts breastfeeding up on a pedestal. Whenever something is ‘best’ it implies that it’s something that takes extra effort and isn’t an ‘everyday thing’.
If something is ‘best’ then something else gets into our consciousness as ‘the norm’. It is much more common to see babies being bottle-fed than breastfed across the media, and out in ‘real-life’ in the UK. Toy dolls come with a plastic bottle for a start!
Therefore, anything that promotes breastfeeding as just a normal part of parenting, such as it being more visible in TV shows, films and in magazines, is really helpful.
There’s a lot of celebrity mums like Giovanna Fletcher and Ferne McCann who are really supportive of breastfeeding and visual on Instagram which is fantastic – this gives women’s confidence a boost.
Women are constantly told to doubt our bodies – we’re either too fat or too thin and then when a new baby arrives, it’s in our culture not to trust our body but really we should.
I would also suggest that breastfeeding is talked about in nurseries and schools as part of the PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education) curriculum. Over three quarters (77%) of new parents in The Baby Show survey agreed that education is needed from a much younger age.
Finally, I think antenatal classes have a huge responsibility to be more realistic about the struggles that new mums may face.
They can often put a big emphasis on the benefits of breastfeeding when actually what women need most, is an clear picture of the challenges that might come up. For instance, knowing about cluster feeds and normal sleep patterns is so reassuring for new parents who can otherwise worry that breastfeeding is going wrong.
3 – What do you find the most frustrating advice/ thing / opinion as a lactation consultant?
My main thing is that when a baby is starting to breastfeed in the early days, and the milk may be a bit slow to come, or the baby is slow to gain weight, the mum is told that their baby needs topping up with formula after a breastfeed, without doing a proper assessment on what’s happening and how to encourage a baby to breastfeed more effectively first (if at all!).
As soon as this happens, mums can often find themselves on a slippery slope where their milk supply decreases further. Obviously, the first priority is always that a baby is fed adequately but with the right help, this can often be achieved without needing to unnecessarily turn to formula, if that’s not what a mum truly wants.
4 – What’s the most common thing that stops women breastfeeding and how would you help them overcome it?
I could write a whole book on this! But briefly, there are three main things:
1 – It’s too painful. Breastfeeding is very often a bit tender at first, but it should never be a grit your teeth, toe curling kind of pain that lots of mums’ experience. The most common reason for that pain is that your baby isn’t positioned in an optimal way and so they’re pinching on the nipple because they haven’t got an effective latch. The most common way to resolve that is to support mum to find a better, more suitable position for her and her baby, which is very individual as everyone is a different shape and size.
2. The baby is having difficulty latching. There are so many reasons why a baby might struggle to latch in the early days and weeks and many different ways of helping. However, in any situation, I always start with helping the mum to relax first, which for obvious reasons can be hard for her to do. The thing is, babies are so intuitive and if the mum is having a stressful time, the baby can sense this and will respond accordingly. By working on relaxation, building confidence and lots of warm, snuggly, laid-back skin-to-skin cuddles, this can really help to get her little one geared up for feeding and will also help to get the milk flowing too.
3. A mum doesn’t feel she has enough milk. It’s only around 2-3% of mums who are physiologically unable to produce milk for their baby but the number of mums who believe they can’t is far, far higher.
This comes down to many things, such as a lack of information and societal mis-understandings of normal baby behaviour. For instance, It’s quite normal for a young baby to feed and then an hour or two later have another feed, but some mums worry that this means they are not sleeping well because they haven’t got enough milk – even if the baby’s weight gain is OK.
Reassuring mums on normal baby behaviour and the process by which milk is made is key to my work. If a baby isn’t latching well, then the signals going up to a mum’s brain to make more milk are weaker, and that can have a reduced milk supply. However, having somebody advising the mother on positioning her baby differently can help her to overcome this.
5 – How far are we from breastfeeding being the social norm? Do you think it’s accepted now or do most uk women still struggle with the stigma?
As mentioned, the majority of women start to breastfeed but by eight weeks in half have already stopped! By 12 months, only 0.5% of babies are breastfed in the UK.
80% of mums said they stopped breastfeeding before they planned to. We are still a long way from breastfeeding becoming the social norm. However, I do really feel that the ‘stigma’ is talked up in the media much more than the reality of what is happening on the ground.
There are absolutely too many instances of women given a frosty reception to say the least, but in general lots of people are out there breastfeeding in public every day but that of course doesn’t make the news!
Vanessa will be speaking all this weekend at The Baby Show, more information can be found here: https://thebabyshow.co.uk/excel