World Breastfeeding Week: Parenting in the 21st Century
This week is World Breastfeeding Week. It neatly coincides with a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary - Breastfeeding Uncovered which – wonderfully – tells the story of breastfeeding in the UK in the 21st century like it is.
Women have been breastfeeding their babies successfully for as long as we’ve existed as a species, and in many parts of the world women still do. We owe our existence as a species to our ability to nurture our babies, which makes us sound rather smug, but so does every other mammal species. It’s not so clever – it’s just what we evolved to do.
In the UK, breastfeeding has become much more difficult in recent years. So much so that we now have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. In one of the world’s richest and most developed countries, why have we become so bad at doing something that mice, bears and giraffes do without a problem?
The breastfeeding narrative these days goes something like this: everyone knows that breastfeeding is best for mums and babies and we all want to try and do it, but it’s really difficult and painful, and if it doesn’t work out, formula feeding is almost as good. We’re regularly reminded by the media that mothers who manage to breastfeed successfully need to keep quiet so as not to upset mothers who didn’t manage, and mothers who formula feed need to watch out for the inevitable criticism of their decision. This has become so embedded in British parenting culture that most parents and soon-to-be parents aren’t aware that this media driven frenzy of sensitivity is very recent.
Let’s pick this narrative apart. Yes, everyone knows that breastfeeding is good for mums and babies. Feeding normal human milk to babies in the biologically normal way is – normal. It’s how we evolved. Helping mothers and babies to feed in the normal human way reduces the amount governments have to spend on dealing with the health problems which arise from not breastfeeding. This isn’t a small consideration – about £40 million a year, every year, could be saved in the UK if breastfeeding rates increased modestly. And of course, it’s not just about the money – all those babies experiencing fewer ear infections, gastroenteritis, and type 1 diabetes, and those mothers experiencing lower rates of breast cancer, will benefit in quality of life for years to come, as well as enjoying a more positive feeding experience in the early months of their babies’ lives.
Yes, almost all mothers want to try and breastfeed. But hang on – do we only want to try, or do we actually want to do it? How many women in early pregnancy learn to moderate their language so that “I’d like to breastfeed” becomes “I’d like to try and breastfeed”? If only we shouted from the rooftops that we want to breastfeed, and we want to be well supported to do so, by a health service that is properly trained, staffed and resourced to give that support. Perhaps we could spend some of that £40 million …
Yes, breastfeeding often is difficult and painful. New mothers hear that message loud and clear long before they get to the point of trying it themselves. Interestingly though, it often isn’t for mothers in other countries, who haven’t heard those messages, who perhaps don’t absorb quite as much mummy-shaming social media, who don’t see as much formula advertising gently reminding them how difficult breastfeeding is, and who, importantly, have a caring network of women in their community, teaching and empowering them to breastfeed and be proud of doing so.
Yes, formula is there to fall back on if breastfeeding doesn’t work out. In recent years breastfeeders and formula feeders have increasingly been portrayed as battling tribes, each out to prove that they are better mothers than the other. A lot of international food companies’ marketing budgets have been spent on persuading us to see things this way. But most formula feeders are ex-breastfeeders –the same new mothers, hoping to breastfeed, whose paths have diverged. Some were lucky enough to give birth on a quiet day when a well-trained midwife had the time to spend supporting them. Others gave birth in an area where the little breastfeeding support there was has been cut. All are dedicated and caring mothers, coping with the circumstances they find themselves in, doing the best they can with little or no support. Most formula feeders are mothers who tried really hard to breastfeed, suffered pain, distress and sometimes unthinking criticism, to do what they felt was right for their baby, and were badly let down by our over-worked, and under-funded NHS.
Some mothers choose to formula feed, and there are some mothers who really can’t breastfeed. Formula is what keeps their babies alive and nourished. It’s a necessary product, not a consumer choice, and it should be packaged and marketed accordingly.
We all love our babies. We all want to parent in the best way we can. We need dependable, accessible support from qualified caring staff, who can support all mothers to feed their babies as they choose to. As Kate Quilton sums up in Breastfeeding Uncovered – it’s not down to individual mums who are already doing their best, it’s the responsibility of society, policy makers, and employers to bring about change. The 2018 World Breastfeeding Week slogan is Breastfeeding: Foundation of Life. Let’s celebrate and support the huge efforts mothers in the UK make in giving their babies that foundation.