It’s World Breastfeeding Week 2016.
This has either escaped your attention entirely or if like me during the last few days your social media algorithms will have shown you article after article relating to the biological function of female breasts. During this week of the year I brace myself to be subjected to an onslaught of articles lamenting either breastfeeding itself or those of us who support and advocate it. I never fail to be disappointed.
Having breastfed for nearly 10 years straight and over 8 of those dedicated many hours of my time, mostly unpaid, working with women in my local community to support them to achieve their breastfeeding goals as a trained breastfeeding peer supporter and in recent years as a birth and post-natal doula, I can wax lyrical with the best as to the many benefits successful breastfeeding confers. To be fair you’d have to have been living under a rock to be ignorant about why breastfeeding your baby gives them the best chance of reaching their full health potential.
So, riddle me this Batman, why on earth are so few babies breastfed? Less than 2% are breastfed at 6 months, (the UK has the world’s worst rates) and why when we dedicate 7 days out of the year to celebrate this seemingly rare but unparalleled method of infant feeding, are we told to lower our voice lest we upset the not insignificant majority of mothers (almost all) who use infant formula to feed their babies?
The answer is both complex and simple.
We’ve been cleverly manipulated over the years to pit ourselves against one another. Infant formula milk sales in the UK were in excess of £420m last year. Infant formula is said to have one of the biggest mark-ups of all supermarket products and the big corporates certainly don’t scrimp when it comes to marketing. Expensive, clever, divisive and often illegal marketing. These guys invented the so called “mummy-wars” in order to push sales up. Divide and conquer.
Those clever advertisers, with their blue-sky thinking and expense accounts, know how powerful women are when we come together, so they go to great lengths to stop that happening. They really don’t want us to succeed. Our success means their failure.
I’m lucky enough to see the power of women coming together to support each other and lift each other up. It’s pretty much what my job is. I counsel, I support, I empower, I listen. What I don’t do is judge. Oh THAT word! Ok, so I do judge, I judge all sorts of things for myself. I, like most mums am my harshest critic, but thankfully I too have support. I’m surrounded by loving, understanding people who hold me up and tell me I’m good enough, so when that voice of doubt whispers in my ear I can tell it to shush. But for many women it’s not so easy. When we have a sisterhood, we can be open and honest about our failings and celebrate those who manage to pull off the things we at times, feel incapable of. If I had a pound for each time the look of relief crossed a new mum’s face when she finds out she’s not first or only mother to struggle or feel unsure or useless or inadequate, well, I could probably fund a breastfeeding support service to replace one of the many that have been cut in recent years. Then more of the women who want to breastfeed, which we know is the majority, will be adequately supported to breastfeed for as long as they planned to, which is longer than most achieve.
Whether you have breastfed or not, whether you wanted to and didn’t manage it or just didn’t want to do it at all, whether you breastfed for 7 days or 7 years, this week isn’t about what you did or didn’t do. In fact it’s not about you. It’s about the next mother, and the one after her that needs to hear the truth not the lies, myths and misnomers that too many women who “fail” hear. Its about celebrating breastfeeding. Acknowledging it’s importance and it’s power and making it more accessible and a true choice for women, rather than the superfluous “superior” method of feeding a baby that those who want your money want to make it out to be.
We know that the more visible breastfeeding is in our communities the more likely other women will breastfeed. We are social mammals after all. It’s biologically normal and what our infant bodies are designed to expect.
Whenever I read an article about breastfeeding the comments section is always awash with statements about how breastfeeding isn’t for everyone and how difficult it is and you are guaranteed to find someone saying how guilty the article makes them feel and how “there is nothing wrong with formula”.
It’s an emotive topic. I know. I really know because I’m in the thick of it listening to the stories from women who stopped breastfeeding after weeks of sore, cracked nipples or about a baby who didn’t gain weight or repeated bouts of mastitis or thrush or a baby who was never satisfied. What support did they have? Often well meaning friends and family, even healthcare professionals, who offer passive support along the lines of it not being “the be all and end all” because “formula isn’t failure” are really sabotaging us. The answer to all breastfeeding issues is invariably “just use formula”. I hear these women with their sadness and their feelings of failure and I explain they did not fail. They were failed. They were failed by an over-stretched maternity service who cannot afford to give additional training to support breastfeeding or enough midwives to spend the time needed to teach women to breastfeed. To teach them with kindness and patience rather than a hurried “grab baby, grab boob and shove them together” approach so they can discharge with the box “initiated breastfeeding” ticked. They were failed by a society that tells women they must do the “best” by breastfeeding, but then gives her a ridiculous list or arbitrary limits to how this should be done, when, where and for how long: Be discreet (what ever the hell that means!), don’t do it in restaurants (where other people eat!) or swimming pools (where most people are nearly naked) or planes or trains or parks…. Don’t, for pity sake, do it for more than 6 months or a year or 2, 3, 4, 5 years or when they have teeth or can talk or walk or….whatevs. If you really have to do it (and you do because if you opt out of this minefield you’re a terrible mother) then do it nicely so it looks like you aren’t doing it. Got it?
Then there’s the relatives. Your mum, your mother-in-law, sister, cousin, aunt, your gran and pretty much everyone you know, they have an opinion and advice. Oh Lord, THE ADVICE! It’s loaded with their own stuff and it’s often with the unsaid intention of “don’t make me feel GUILTY”. So the myths are perpetuated and they become facts. The sabotage happens, not with malice, but with a well meaning intention to make the inevitable less painful. Because it is painful. The sense of loss can be profound. So the cognitive dissonance can be strong. We are silenced and told it’s not important. Fed is best they say. Just use a bottle they say. And we do. Nearly everyone does.
So this world breastfeeding week. When you see the articles about how wonderful breastfeeding can be and it really can be SO wonderful, please think about why we have this week. When I support women, who have previously failed to breastfeed, to successfully breastfeed subsequent babies, they GET IT. It’s bitter-sweet as they come to understand what they lost, though but for that reason and many more we must continue to talk about breastfeeding positively. To correct falsehoods and myths and to truly support it. We don’t need to “balance it” with support for bottle feeding. Everyone supports bottle feeding. It’s given as the solution to all breastfeeding problems. It’s welcome everywhere we take our children. It’s never done under cover or in the toilet for fear of chastisement.
So please, let’s have this week. These 7 days to celebrate, promote and welcome breastfeeding. Lets do it for the vast majority who want to do it and for the tiny minority, who against the odds, succeed.