This year’s National Breastfeeding Celebration Week will take place on 25-29 June in England, while Scotland and Wales will celebrate their Breastfeeding Awareness Week on 18-22 June. These initiatives provide an opportunity to look at the support women currently receive and what might be improved, in line with UNICEF’s recent “Call to Action” which recognises breastfeeding as a collective responsibility.
LLLGB has been supporting mothers who wish to breastfeed for over 45 years and we believe there are several things which could make a difference to breastfeeding rates.
Information on breastfeeding starting at school age
Children are surrounded by the message that babies have bottles. They are seen on television, in books, adverts and as symbols for changing and feeding rooms. The fact that breastfeeding is the normal way to feed a baby needs to be discussed from an early age and presented as such in educational material.
Breastfeeding being presented as the normal way to feed a baby
Many discussions on infant feeding present breast and bottle feeding as a choice for parents, instead of making it clear that, as mammals, we are biologically programmed to breastfeed our babies. Unless a parent has a specific reason for asking about formula, talking about feeding a baby means assuming this will be breastmilk.
Accurate information given about the significance of breastfeeding to health and wellbeing, and the risks of bottle feeding
Infant formula can never replicate breastmilk as it is a manufactured product. Breastmilk contains living cells, hormones, active enzymes, antibodies and compounds with unique structures tailor made for each individual baby. Unlike formula, it adapts over time to suit each baby’s development, protecting her gut and immune system.
Resources and support put into areas with low breastfeeding rates both before and after birth
Whereas in the past women grew up seeing babies breastfed within their families and communities, many now give birth to their first child without knowing anyone who has breastfed. This leads to women losing confidence in their ability to breastfeed. To make a difference resources need to be put in place to encourage women to start breastfeeding and then providing the means to support them to continue for as long as they wish to. The support and recognition are an important factor in continuing to breastfeed, to create a community where breastfeeding may once again be seen as something natural and normal.
Opportunity for skin-to-skin contact
Birth can have an impact on the way breastfeeding gets started. Having the baby skin-to-skin can encourage him to latch on and birthing partners can help by holding him close to you. Keeping the baby close and allowing him to nurse whenever he wants to helps to establish a good milk supply for the future. Hospital staff can help by ensuring that women are able to keep their babies close to them.
Good information and support after birth
Breastfeeding is not always easy at first and many women are unfamiliar with its normal course. Breastfeeding can be a learning curve and mother and baby need time to get to know each other. Hospitals can have a direct impact on the successful outcome of a mother’s intention to breastfeed. Inconsistency and lack of up to date knowledge amongst healthcare professionals can confuse and misinform women who then feel unable to initiate and maintain breastfeeding. Lack of communication and time to support a mother means small difficulties can build up.
Skilled breastfeeding support and information continuing to be easily accessible from pregnancy through weaning
Breastfeeding support organisations, peer supporters and breastfeeding buddies can all be a good point of contact. Women who do not receive help or support with problems after giving birth are more likely to stop breastfeeding within two weeks. Mothers who have the support of partner, family or friends are more likely to breastfeed for longer.
Acceptance of breastfeeding in public spaces and facilities for this
One of the biggest hurdles many women face is fear of disapproval and receiving negative comments when breastfeeding in a public space, particularly in the early days. Almost half of breastfeeding women say they find it difficult to find somewhere they feel comfortable feeding. Babies need to breastfeed and they don’t usually do it to a schedule. Things are improving, with many places now aware that women are entitled to breastfeed in public spaces and some doing their best to make breastfeeding mothers welcome. However, there is a long way to go before it is accepted that a baby’s need to breastfeed is more important than any complaints about finding it offensive.
Good facilities and breastfeeding breaks – or shorter working days and flexible hours – for breastfeeding mothers returning to work
When women decide to return to paid work, they need good facilities and breastfeeding breaks to allow them to express milk, or directly breastfeed their babies. They need the option of shorter working days and flexible hours. Given the positive impact of breastfeeding on the health of both mothers and babies, finding ways to help women to continue nursing will also benefit employers.
Greater restrictions on the claims and marketing of formula companies
Inappropriate marketing of breastmilk substitutes can also play a part in the decisions women make. In November 2016, the United Nations called for “urgent action to stop the ‘misleading, aggressive and inappropriate’ marketing of breast-milk substitutes in a multi-billion-dollar global industry”  and added: “These marketing practices often negatively affect the choices women make on how to feed their infants in the best way possible, and can impede both babies and mothers from enjoying the many health benefits of breastfeeding.”
Knowing that the intensive and sometimes challenging early days do pass – as mothers and babies learn and grow together, breastfeeding usually becomes a very enjoyable part of mothering
Talking to other mothers who understand that things are not always easy and are able to offer encouragement can make a big difference. Seeing other mothers enjoying their breastfeeding relationship can give a new mother confidence to continue, even if it is taking time to get to know her baby.
Change happens slowly, but mothers and babies can’t wait. Changing society’s attitude towards breastfeeding and putting in place support for women right after birth, in the early months of motherhood and when considering returning to paid work, will hopefully lead to breastfeeding once more being considered the norm. Instead of being perceived as something difficult by most women, it can once again become something they feel happy and confident about.
1.Breastfeeding a matter of human rights, say UN experts, urging action on formula milk, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=20904&LangID=E (accessed 14 June 2018).