An online article in The Guardian today raises the question of why the UK has such a low rate of breastfeeding, especially post 6 months? Of the 10 countries being compared, the UK’s rates were in the bottom 3, especially for longer-term breast feeding at 12 months. In their letter to The Guardian, 17 signatories from health and government sectors called for the government to address this issue, citing ‘multiple barriers’ as being in the way of a more accepting and progressive attitude to breastfeeding.
So what are some of those barriers? Certainly, practicality is a big one. Maternity benefits vary dramatically depending on the UK job sector one works in, so that many mothers cannot afford to take longer than 6 months (or even less) leave. A return to work is often what coincides with an end to breastfeeding, indicating that there are not enough support mechanisms to continue doing so within the workplace. Things such as on-site childcare facilities, spaces to breastfeed or express milk, secure places to store milk and, most importantly, feeling comfortable to do these things at work. The workplace has a social responsibility to ensure these things happen, but perhaps this needs to be something the government should more formally address.
Access to accurate information might also be a barrier for some women. Whilst the WHO does huge amounts of work around the world to educate and support women to breastfeed, there is more that could be done on a local level to ensure this information is getting across. Not every mother in the UK can read an information pamphlet or access the Internet. Not every mother in the UK Has English as their first language or the intellectual ability to understand a barrage of medical terminology and acronyms. Not every mother has the physical ability to access medical centres or seek help. Even when they do, the advice can sometimes be conflicting and unclear. More work needs to be done by local organisations to reach out to the diversity of groups who might need support the most.
It’s not just the information (or lack of) that might stand in the way of continuing to breastfeed. Actual, real hands on support on how to do it, with some friendly faces, is definitely needed more. Of the reasons cited in a mumsnet survey as to why mothers had ceased breastfeeding, most were around the physical drain it put on them: Feeling beyond exhausted; frustration over the baby not latching on; concerns over the baby not feeding enough; extreme pain when expressing.These are part and parcel of breastfeeding but can be incredibly off-putting and downright frightening, especially for new mums. Some GPs could certainly do more to take concerns over breastfeeding more seriously. In one personal story, a new mum had to go to her GP 3 times complaining of mastitis before she was taken seriously enough to be prescribed antibiotics. She was originally sent away having been told “You’d be in more pain if it was mastitis” and was told on her 2nd visit “You’re a new mum. Of course you will worry. But breastfeeding does just hurt”. These are definitely not the helpful or supportive comments that might encourage one to persevere with the breastfeeding. As it turns out, this particular mum did carry on, because she was absolutely determined to and had excellent support to help her at home. But not everyone is in that position. Having more support in place to talk through these issues with other mums as well as friendly, empathetic healthcare practitioners could make all the difference.
Last but probably worse, is the social stigma that stands in the way of breastfeeding. Perhaps one of the most worrying findings to come out of Professor Modi & colleagues’ research was young children’s perceptions of breastfeeding as being ‘yukky’. A lot of mothers simply do not feel comfortable enough to breastfeed in public for fear of the looks or comments they might receive; this means that, if their daily routine is largely in the public domain, they have no choice but to squirm their way in a state of stress through what should be a bonding and positive experience, or just stop. Professor Modi suggests that we need to be addressing and removing this stigma in our future generations by teaching children from a young age that breastfeeding is perfectly normal. Even better, exposing children to it in their siblings or friends’ parents so that they can see it’s a perfectly natural process.
Breastfeeding has increasingly become a much debated issue in the media. And there will be women who, for any number of personal or health reasons, choose not to do it. But that’s what we want to see: Women having a choice. In an ideal future, we would like it to be the case that the only women who don’t breastfeed are the ones who have made an informed decision based on their own needs, rather than a lack of help or support. No woman should have to stop because something is standing in the way.