“Multiple Barriers”


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.



As a PhD student, how many of us felt immense guilt over taking a day off or, gasp, even a whole holiday? How many of those coveted hours off did we spend thinking about all the work we should be doing, getting in a stress over how much there was to do when we got back? For anyone familiar with that sinking feeling of guilt, the minefield of maternity may not be such a stranger. Because there is a certain guilt, especially reported amongst those in academia, of somehow ‘letting the team down’ or ‘asking too much’ in requesting your entitled time off. In my personal experience, of the handful of academics I know who have taken time out for maternity, not one of them has had the full 52 weeks. Most, in fact, have culled it at 6 months. And then have returned with papers half written through sleepless nights and all emails answered. That’s less maternity ‘leave’ and more some kind of work-baby limbo.

It’s true that some of these academics have chosen        to juggle the nappies with the grant applications. Some women are just so ambitious and driven that they don’t want to step fully away from the work. But there are others, equally ambitious and driven, who would really like to ‘leave’ when it comes to their maternity, but are too worried about the consequences and reputation of doing so. Not to mention the financial costs of taking extended leave, especially for those on fixed-term contracts. One extreme (but sadly not uncommon) example was covered earlier this year by The Guardian of a woman who was made redundant following her retun from maternity leave, despite other similar roles on her project being kept open. You don’t have to do much Googling to find other similar stories of where women across a range of industries have been made to feel ‘punished’ for taking time out for a baby. So what is going on?

The problem with academia is, it’s busy. Grants are competitive, and nobody is going to move a deadline because you have a cute new bundle of joy. Promotions are based on time-limited criteria, such as your publication record for the year. Outlining on your CV how many nappies you changed or all the baby milestones you’ve nurtured unfortunately won’t count. Papers don’t write themselves. Recruitment doesn’t magically happen. Your students don’t stop needing supervision because you’ve got a younger and messier little thing to supervise as well.

Whilst the whole point of maternity leave is that somebody else should be drafted in to cover all of these things for you so that you can smoothly sidle back in and pick up where you left off, it doesn’t in reality work like that. Academia is lonely. And competitive. So there is a certain guilt attached to handing anything over. Which means that you’re not alone if that conversation begining with “I’m pregnant and I’m going to be taking a year off” sticks in your throat just a little bit.

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. A lot of work is being done, especially with the advent of Athena SWAN, to make maternity leave a much better supported process. Equally as importantly, most HEIs now have initiatives in place to really help new mums return to work, offering flexible working and nursing or childcare facilities. Newcastle Uni still has some way to go in fine-tuning some aspects of these, but over the coming year our faculty E&D team will be running workshops and focus groups to get a real sense of what new parents want, and hopefully put some actions in place to get it. It’s not a short road. But if we take steps the same size as our babies’, we will get there…


Transient States


Today our faculty is promoting the call for applicants to the Sanger Institute’s Janet Thornton Fellowship.This is a fantastic opportunity for anyone who has taken a 12 month break from scientific research to get back into the field, with a competitive salary and excellent training support. Importantly, the fellowship can be taken on a full-time, part-time or flexible working basis, making it accessible to working parents/carers or individuals with other additional needs.

In an academic climate of fixed-term contracts and job insecurity for early career researchers, it perhaps isn’t surprising that intelligent, ambitious, driven individuals are choosing to seek careers outside of the HE research field. But this means that talent nurtured by investment from Universities is migrating to competitors abroad or outside of the HE sector altogether. Fellowships such as the Janet Thornton are designed to support and encourage scientists back into research, and have understood that the terms need to be desirable.

Of course, temporary or zero hours contracts aren’t an evil for everybody. For some people, the opportunity to travel, build up a varied CV and not be ‘tied into’ a longer-term contract suits their needs perfectly. But there are equally a large number of people who find the instability of year-by-year contracts stressful and impractical: It’s very difficult to get a mortgage or plan for a family when you don’t know if your income will stretch beyond the year-end. Things like maternity pay or carer’s leave are difficult to negotiate if your contract barely runs beyond the 9 months of gestation. Plus job applications are time-consuming and stressful,for anybody; for people with additional commitments or disabilities, the difficulty might be exacerbated further.

Funding and the fast-paced nature of research mean that temporary contracts are likely to be on the rise. So the solution needs to be in providing other incentives for early career researchers to stay in research. Fellowships that address some of their needs and accept that not everybody can do a full-time job with the occasional over-seas conference thrown in are a good starting point for supporting the diverse nature of today’s post-docs. But if we want to retain talent, there’s still a lot more work to be done…

The trouble with teenagers

One of our MSc Psychology students has recently completed a project looking into the support networks available for parents and carers of adolescents. This has generally been a relatively neglected area when considering support for parents; there are an abundance of resources available for parents of babies or younger children, but very little once their children hit high school. As one parent has commented “There is a lot of sympathy and understanding when you lose sleep over a new-born but far less when you can’t sleep for worrying about what your errant teenager is up to.”

One of the striking findings from the MSc report was that parents have no idea what ‘normal’ teenage behaviour is, and can feel very isolated worrying about what may or may not be atypical behaviour. The proliferation of social media and the Internet has raised a whole plethora of new concerns for parents that didn’t exist a decade or so ago and this can be very difficult to deal with. Cyber-bullying; grooming; inappropriate access to sex and violence. These are all challenges that parents are trying to navigate and sensitively deal with. Then there are a whole barrage of mental health issues that come with being a teenager. Self-harm is massively on the increase; eating and self-perception disorders are exacerbated by the media, and adolescence is typically a time when affective disorders might manifest. How do parents know what is a ‘phase’ and what might need professional intervention?

Parents in our study generally said that they would like to see more forums for meeting other parents and having an opportunity to talk about their issues with other people who were going through similar experiences. They also reported wanting access to professional advice, such as workshops or information leaflets. In response to this feedback, the E&D team in FMS will be planning at least one workshop over the coming months to address some of these issues and provide advice/support for parents or carers of adolescents. There is clearly a demand for access to this kind of information, and we are keen to trial a workshop that may lead to a further series of events.

In researching the information that is currently available to parents/carers of adolescents, we came across a fantastic organisation that is all about promoting mental well-being in teenagers. Young Minds offers toolkits and info packs to schools and parents, as well as providing a forum for parents and teenagers to express their views on the issues affecting them. They run various projects throughout the year, focusing on the challenges affecting teenagers, such as self-harm, building resilience, and a range of mental health issues. This is exactly the type of forum parents have been asking for, and we hope to help build links to provide better access to these kinds of services…

We no longer say ‘thee’ and ‘thou’…

Tube sign

Last week, Transport for London (TFL) announced that they will be adopting gender-neutral announcements across their network and ditching the old “Ladies and gentlemen” salutations. Really, it’s about time. If you even, for one minute, leave aside the fact that this traditional greeting excludes those sections of society who do not identify as being either of those things, it’s at the very simplest level, old-fashioned and out-dated language. One does not wonder, as they stand on a dusty tube platform “Wherefore dost thou methods of transportation be of such a tardy nature?”. So there’s really no need for the announcements to follow a similarly Shakespearean format. The Globe might be around the corner, but that kind of prose is best left to the actors.

The decision to abolish gender-entombed terminology has been met with heated discussion on various online forums and articles, with some individuals claiming that they are a lady/gentleman and why should they be ‘excluded’ by taking away this title? But surely the alternative greeting ‘Good morning everyone’ is nothing but inclusive? It even incorporates those pesky tube rats.

‘Be’ is a voluntary organisation based locally here in the North East that supports the needs and development of Trans and non-binary individuals. In response to some of the backlash appearing online, they have written a thought-provoking blog post addressing some of the comments and issues raised over the past week. Their message is clear: Language matters. And by making what are really only minor changes to how we address one another, we can have a massive impact on how comfortable we make one another feel.

As Northern Pride hits the Town Moor for 3 days of celebrating diversity with music and fun this weekend, perhaps this is exactly the time when we need to take a second to mind what we say. Volunteers from FMS will be going along to support a range of stalls and events happening over the weekend and cheer along the Frontrunners race . So we’re certain that the only salutations to be heard there will be ‘Go for it. You’re bloomin’ great!’


Talking Equality, Diversity & Inclusion in the Faculty of Medical Sciences and at Newcastle University.