What is our problem with breastfeeding?

It’s taken me ages to write this post. I tend to think twice before I write anything about breastfeeding nowadays if I’m honest – partly because of things one or two people have said to me about how speaking out about why breastfeeding matters is going to make people feel bad, and partly because of the general backlash on social media recently against anyone who dares to suggest that breastfeeding our babies might be a good thing.

But it bothers me that I’m feeling this way – that I should be censoring myself when my own breastfeeding journey was supported enormously by reading about other peoples’ experiences. And as World Breastfeeding Week 2017 draws to a close I’m just going to say what’s on my mind.

First a disclaimer: I am a passionate supporter of breastfeeding, but this post is not about judging those who are not. It is not about persuading people to breastfeed either – there are very few people who are not aware of the benefits it brings, but that is not always enough for it to be the right choice. What I want to do is to attempt to make sense of a dissonance at the heart of breastfeeding discourse in the UK, to try to unpick the statistics to get to the bottom of why it has become such a uniquely taboo subject in the generally thorny world of parenting chat.

There seems to be a consensus among mums today that there is an overwhelming pressure from society to breastfeed: that far from the claims of breastfeeding mothers that they feel awkward getting their boobs out in public for fear of reprisal, it is the bottle that is the subject of the dirtiest stares and the source of most negative judgements. You will no doubt have seen the hashtag that has sprung up in defence of the subjects of this persecution – #fedisbest – inspired by the American organisation of the same name. And it has been striking this week to observe that my social media timelines, far from being awash with images of babies and toddlers at the breast, have contained far more pictures of bottles than ever before.

If bottle-feeding mums were in the minority then I would totally understand this. Having faced judgement myself for various of my parenting choices which go against the grain of society’s expectations I have sympathy for anyone who is standing up for their choices in the face of overwhelming pressure to do the opposite. But the reality is that very few of us are breastfeeding, and try as I might I can’t quite consolidate these two things.

If you look at women who are choosing to eschew the bottle completely in the first few months the figures are really quite striking.

69% exclusively breastfeed at birth, but after a week this has dropped to 46%. By 6 weeks this has halved to 23%, by 3 months it has dropped to 17%, and by 6 months – the age at which the World Health Organisation recommends other food sources are introduced – only 1% of mothers are feeding their babies with breastmilk alone.

Figures for mixed feeding are higher as you might expect – 81% of babies receive some breastmilk at birth, 69% at one week, 55% at 6 weeks, and 34% at 6 months – but still are hardly evidence that mums are victims of an overwhelming campaign to force them to breastfeed their babies.

(I should mention that these figures are taken from the 2010 National Infant Feeding Survey, as our government cancelled the 2015 survey, breaking a pattern of data that has been collected every five years since 1975 and making the current position difficult to discern. There are parallels, though, with the more limited data collected by local authorities in 2016-17 which indicate that at 6-8 weeks 45% of babies receive some breastmilk, with 30% being exclusively breastfed.)

It is pretty clear overall that it is breastfeeding mums who are in the minority in this country. And if that reflected the number of women who wanted to breastfeed then that would be one thing – but the stats suggest that it really doesn’t, and that is what bothers me most of all.

90% of mothers who gave up breastfeeding within the first 6 months said they would have liked to continue, and 63% of those who stopped breastfeeding around 8-10 months said they would have liked to have breastfed for longer.

So what is stopping these women from doing what they want?

From my own experience as well as others I’ve spoken to, I think there is a real lack of honesty in antenatal classes about how challenging breastfeeding can actually be, especially for first time mums. There was such a focus on persuading people to breastfeed in the classes I went to, on extolling the benefits which most of us were well aware of already, that when I tried to turn the conversation round to the challenges we might face I was told that it was highly unlikely we would have any problems, that we should just relax and go with the flow.

So when my son arrived, and our introduction to breastfeeding was far from straightforward, I felt like a total failure. After a near-perfect home birth I had no excuse for things to be so difficult, for my beautiful baby to be losing so much weight and for my swelling breasts to be so incompetent at fulfilling their function. It turned out he had a tongue tie that had gone undetected, and once we’d solved that we were able to work on getting breastfeeding established properly. It took several months, nipple shields, supplemental cup feeding, and exhaustion I had never known before, but we got there eventually – by six months the boy who had dropped to the 7th centile in the days after his birth was up to the 95th, and he went on to feed until he was almost four. It was a journey I am proud of but could never could have predicted – and one which so nearly didn’t even get started.

As well as feeling like I was somehow defective for finding breastfeeding hard, I also found it extremely difficult to get the support I needed – something which, given the sharp drop off in breastfeeding rates in those first few days and weeks, I doubt I was alone in experiencing. My concerns were brushed off, and no real answers to my questions about why things were going so wrong were offered. It was only after frantic googling of internet forums and ordering a copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding in the middle of the night, that I began to understand just how complicated this whole process could be – and how many things, in fact, could go wrong.

Of course almost all of the problems I read about had solutions – often fairly simple ones – but the tendency for healthcare professionals to pretend they just didn’t exist really wasn’t helpful. What was, in the end, was reading the stories of people who had faced and overcome these issues for themselves. It would have been even better to have been able to sit down and talk to them, but that kind of support just wasn’t available in my small town.

I suspect that is part of the issue for many women – that lack of a village, the lack of people to talk to who really understand what it is you’re going through and who can hold your hand and make you tea whilst you muddle through those hazy days of new motherhood.

What society tends to offer us instead of that is the encouragement to get ourselves back to ‘normal’ as fast as we possibly can: our bodies, our minds, our social lives, our careers. Creating a tiny human is for many an earth shattering experience, not to mention the overwhelm of learning to care for them, and yet apparently we should not let it affect us for too long.

We should instead work on getting our baby and ourselves into a strict routine of eating and sleeping, ignoring the symbiotic  benefits of feeding on demand to build up our supply and give our baby exactly the nutrition they need to fuel their stratospheric growth in their first weeks and months of life. In particular we are encouraged to chase the holy grail of sleeping through the night, removing hours of feeding time from the equation and confusing our mammary glands in the process.

The life of the new mother is a cacophony of conflicting pressures. The pressure to breastfeed is understandably one of them given the benefits we know it has, but whilst women are lacking the right information and support and simultaneously striving to fulfil expectations which push them further and further away from their natural rhythms it is no wonder that so many of us struggle to achieve our goals in this regard.

And this is why breastfeeding stories need to be told, and successes need to be celebrated.

It is not about making people feel bad about their choices, or about circumstances that for whatever reasons were beyond their control. It is about expanding our understanding of the very real challenges that women face and our perception of what is possible in overcoming them – and hopefully along the way enabling more women to have the breastfeeding journey that they want for themselves and their babies.

One thought on “What is our problem with breastfeeding?

  1. You’ve totally nailed this Sophie, but unfortunately we live in an era where people do feel they’re being made to feel bad for not breastfeeding, as well as a multitude of other things, especially where parenting is concerned. I don’t know what the future looks like on this tbh, it’s hard to look at society in general and not get really bloody depressed…

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