World Breastfeeding Week was designed to promote, protect and encourage breastfeeding. To celebrate the marvel of women nourishing a whole new tiny person. To highlight why we need to invest in our new mothers, babies and the future.
Yet for many mums, this week sends a chill straight through their core. It makes them want to shout and throw things because breastfeeding certainly isn’t something to celebrate for them.
For far too many women, any mention of breastfeeding reminds them of pain, anxiety and a lack of support. It reminds them of their determination to do what had been promised to them as simple, enjoyable and the right way to feed their baby. Determination which slowly turned to desperation when it didn’t work for them.
It reminds mothers of the heartbreak they felt as they stopped breastfeeding before they were anywhere near ready – it wasn’t just about the promised health benefits but the feeling that their body wasn’t doing what it was meant to do, and the fact they just really wanted to do it.
All the pain, regret and anger that mothers feel is the reason we need to shout so loudly about breastfeeding. This hurt comes from women being so badly let down by a society that does not protect breastfeeding. Because, while there are many mums and babies who experience health problems that stop them from breastfeeding, there are even more who would breastfeed if the right support was in place.
We need to change this attitude, and one of the best ways we can do that is by drawing attention to its importance. Because although it might not seem like it to some, breastfeeding has become the underdog in a society that might shout about its importance but actually works rather hard to undermine it.
Breaking down barriers
Britain has ended up in a situation where, despite the known health and economic benefits of breastfeeding, rates are abysmal. In fact they’re the lowest in the world. More importantly, 80% of mothers who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks are not ready to do so, and stop because breastfeeding has become seemingly impossible for them.
Breastfeeding should not be so difficult for so many and should only be impossible for a very, very small minority of mothers. However, while society appears to promote breastfeeding, there are actually numerous barriers ranging from formula milk adverts to a lack of community support, that ultimately make breastfeeding feel impossible.
Society does not understand what it is like to breastfeed. Women are given information that damages breastfeeding such as babies should sleep through the night, rather than wake to feed, for example. Some think misunderstand studies, and come to believe that breastfeeding causes things that are actually just normal baby behaviour and that formula is the solution. Others believe self-styled experts who make money out of telling mothers that their baby should be in a routine – despite research showing that strict routines are actually incompatible with or discourage breastfeeding.
Invest in breast
Rather than protecting breastfeeding, the government doesn’t invest properly in the services, support and expertise that would actually enable mothers to breastfeed – despite reports finding it could actually save the NHS money. Instead, cuts to services take away essential volunteer groups and funding of breastfeeding specialists. What should be an easily fixable issue gets turned into months of suffering.
Though no longer allowed to advertise to mothers of babies under six months, the multi-billion formula milk industry still dominates. Some might argue that the world doesn’t need a week celebrating breastfeeding but in reality, every week is world formula feeding week.
Mothering is not valued or supported. Instead weight loss is celebrated, tips on reviving your sex life are published, and the focus is on “getting your life back” post-pregnancy. Celebrities are snapped back in their jeans and out partying a week after having a baby. “Normal” mothers meanwhile are ridiculed and criticised for simply trying to feed their hungry baby in public.
The simple truth is that we set women up to fail. Most breastfeeding problems are created by a society that is not breastfeeding friendly: the actions of others are responsible for poor breastfeeding rates and the trauma of mothers. And we must change this.
If as a society we encouraged breastfeeding, properly supported women and the government cracked down on the way in which formula is promoted, there might not be this level of problem.
Ultimately if we did all of this then there would be no need to shout about breastfeeding and no need for special events. Because it would just be normal. Just how babies are fed.
In the words of the UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative Call to Action: “It’s time to change the conversation.” We need to keep speaking out about breastfeeding and direct our trauma into action, until everyone who can plays their part in creating a supportive environment for new mothers.