Stowmarket mum says attitudes to breastfeeding must change
- Credit: Archant
The UK has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world and it shows little sign of improving. Sheena Grant finds out about local intiatives to change things and hears from one mother, who breastfed her daughter until the age of two-and-a-half and believes the problem lies in society’s sexualisation of women’s bodies.
Every August a global campaign is staged to raise awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding.
World Breastfeeding Week is widely supported by health organisations and mums’ groups across the UK. Yet Britain continues to have one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world with just one baby in three being breastfed at six months old, falling to one in 200 at 12 months. Only 80% of babies are breastfed immediately after birth in the UK whereas in Scandinavia the figure is 98%, with 80% still being breastfed at six months.
Breastfeeding is associated with better health, an improved bond between mother and child and lower rates of postnatal depression. If the rates could be raised to just 50% at six months, experts reckon it would save the NHS an estimated £40 million in prevented health problems. What’s more, it’s free and convenient.
Studies show most mothers want to breastfeed. So why are more than half of British babies having at least some formula by the end of their first week?
The problem, say many, is not physical or medical. It is society.
Earlier this month, a group of health experts and academics penned a letter to the Guardian, calling for a change in social attitudes that, they said, deterred women from breastfeeding for more than a few weeks.
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Prof Neena Modi, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, one of the signatories to the letter, said research had found children thought breastfeeding was “yukky” and some new mothers said their partners would not be happy if they breastfed.
In the letter, the presidents of five royal colleges and heads of expert organisations call for the “multiple barriers” to breastfeeding in the UK to be overturned. “Though some women are unable to breastfeed and some choose not to, with the right support, the vast majority of women are able to breastfeed successfully,” it says.
Many of those barriers are all-too evident, with women who feed in public sometimes finding themselves in the headlines because of the reaction of others. Only recently, 22-year-old Katherine Guest was stopped from getting on a bus in Shropshire because she was breastfeeding her 10-week-old baby. Under equality legislation it is illegal to discriminate against a mother for breatfeeding.
Suzanne Mildinhall, who is part of a peer support group for breastfeeding mums in west Suffolk and fed her own daughter, Gretchen, now three, until the age of two-and-a-half, says she never experienced any negative reactions herself but knows mothers who have.
“When I fed in public I mostly went to cafes and businesses where I knew I would feel comfortable and never had any problems but equally, if I had to feed somewhere I didn’t know as well I wouldn’t worry about it,” she says. “If people wanted to look and sneer, they could. No-one ever challenged me but I know people who have had problems and more often, I’ve heard of negativity that comes from women rather than men.”
Suzanne, who lives in Stowmarket and since her daughter’s birth has trained as a hypnobirthing practitioner (www.balancedbirth.co.uk), working across East Anglia, believes the problem with attitudes to breastfeeding lies in the sexualisation of women’s bodies.
“The primary purpose of a woman’s breasts is to feed children, yet our culture has sexualised women’s bodies in a way that is damaging,” she says. “Hardly anyone would bat an eyelid at a bikini advert where you see more breast than bikini yet they’ll often take offence at a breastfeeding woman.
“I fed my daughter until she was two-and-a-half and I probably would have carried on for longer had I not started working in the evenings, which made it impossible to continue. I always intended to do it until she was at least two as that is what the World Health Organisation says is most beneficial.
“Quite often, there will be this idea that you should stop when babies get teeth or start walking, which is wrong. There’s this idea that if you continue any longer, you’re doing it for the yourself, not the child, as if it’s some kind of perversion. It’s crazy. The international average age of weaning children is four.”
Through her involvement with the breast feeding peer support group, Suzanne says the biggest hurdles new mums face in continuing to breastfeed are night-time feeding, weaning queries and feeling uncomfortable feeding in public.
“I’d like all women to feel supported and able to breastfeed if they want to,” she says.
The experts calling for change agree. They believe schools should teach children that breastfeeding is natural and stress healthcare professionals should be careful not to make mothers feel breastfeeding is something that is hard to learn and do properly. “We’d like women going into this anticipating that it will be a wonderful, joyous thing, rather than what seems to be happening in some cases, with women slightly worried and fearful that they are going to be failures,” says Prof Modi.