Do we really need World Breastfeeding Week?

I’m not normally a follower of these sorts of things, but apparently it’s World Breastfeeding Week. Do we breastfeeders get a party? A badge? Balloons? (You could argue we already have those…)

As my son reaches six months, I’m proud to say he’s been breastfed for most of that time. I’m proud, not because the world says we should breastfeed, but because I can remember the dark early days when I cried at every feed and wondered for how much longer I could go on. Especially after a bout of mastitis which was swiftly followed by a dose of a pretty nasty tummy bug.

But I’m quite a bloody-minded person and as my ideals of a water birth surrounded by peace and calm (yes, I know) went out of the window, I was determined that feeding E would go to plan.

On the subject of breastfeeding, my feelings are very much ‘each to their own’. We have a lifetime to stress and worry about ensuring we do what’s best for our children. As long as you’re giving your child milk – be it breast or formula – that’s fine with me. Do what’s right for you. This blog post isn’t intended to make anyone feel bad, it’s me wanting to give my thoughts on how we can better support women who want to breastfeed and then find they have to give up for one reason or another.

The way we promote breastfeeding in the UK concerns me and it’s why I have an issue with World Breastfeeding Week. Messages of ‘breast is best’, ‘it’s the most natural thing in the world’ and ‘you and your baby will be more likely to suffer from x,y,z condition if you don’t breastfeed’, are not only missing the point, but worse, failing mums.

Perhaps those responsible for promoting breastfeeding could make better use of the Infant Feeding Survey, carried out every five years by the Health and Social Care Information Centre. 10,768 new mums were polled during the last survey in 2010, which makes for interesting reading.

When looking at the numbers of women who breastfed at all following the birth of their child – including those who had breastfed baby once – the figures suggest that many women want to give their baby breast milk in some form, whether it be expressed or as part of combi feeding. 81% breastfed at birth, 69% at one week, 55% at six weeks and 34% at six months.

So with the statistics showing eight out of 10 women put their baby to their breast at birth, you could argue that the majority want to give breastfeeding a go. Looking at the drop off rates and their timing with the hurdles of cracked nipples, cluster feeding and more frequent feeding at night, it’s easy to see where the focus of support should be.

And yet, despite the ante-natal classes and videos with their demonstrations of ‘nose to nipple’, I don’t recall being told about the all night feeding binge to bring in my milk, or the eight weeks of hour long feeds every two and a half hours. I was still in hospital during the long night of the first cluster feed and when I asked for help, was advised to give E some formula. Which I did because I thought my baby was hungry and I didn’t have enough milk. And so combi feeding began.

Turns out I’m not the only one who could have done with hearing a bit more about the way breastfeeding works. Quite a few people I’ve spoken to who started out breastfeeding said they went over to formula as baby was ‘hungry all the time’ during the first few weeks. You could say that I should have read more, but with footage of newborns finding their way to the breast within minutes of being born, I naively thought there wouldn’t be a problem.

So here’s my advice for mums-to-be who want to breastfeed:

If you’ve got friends who breastfed their children, talk to them – My friends and sister made it look easy and during the dark moments I blamed myself for finding it difficult. One conversation with them after the birth changed all this as they too regaled me of their trying times.

Get help – My local community midwife and health visiting service picked me up where the post natal ward failed. Two came out within half an hour of my tearful phone call – one gave me her personal mobile number so I could call at any time. It’s because of them I was able to reduce the combi feeding and exclusively breastfeed from four weeks. Remember, you’re not being a burden and you’re certainly not the only one to have needed help.

Believe other mums when they say it will get better – Chained to the sofa and being told to make the most of it, I saw my time on maternity leave being spent as one hour feeding and one and a half hours trying to fit everything else in before the next feed. I couldn’t see how this would change when suddenly we got to eight weeks and gradually fell into ten minute feeds. I then started worrying that E wasn’t getting enough milk!

Go by weight gain and nappies – You may think the constant feeding is a sign you don’t have enough milk. This isn’t always the case, so rather than trying to guess, check your baby’s nappies and go for regular weight check ups. Plenty of wet and dirty nappies? Regular weight gain? Then you’re fine.

Never give up on a bad day – I came close so many times, when I thought the cracked nipples would never heal and my baby would cry for food in the evenings less than 45 minutes after the previous feed. But instead I gave myself a week each time – if things hadn’t improved in that time then we’d go to formula. And as the weeks went on the good days started to outweigh the bad.

And finally,

Be kind to yourself – You’re tired, you’re stressed and you’re more than likely blaming yourself for not getting the hang of it. Breathe and repeat the phrase ‘This will soon pass’. Ultimately you have to do what’s right for you and baby and giving your baby formula will not make you a bad mum. Feeling crappy on a daily basis is not good for either of you – you don’t need me to tell you that this time is precious.

So, World Breastfeeding Week people, can we turn the focus to highlighting the challenges of breastfeeding and supporting mums to get through it? That would be something I’d break out the bunting for.


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