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He For She: Why Men Are A Crucial Link In Breastfeeding Support

07/08/2017 15:25 BST | Updated 07/08/2017 15:27 BST

Recently a group of men took to an online forum to discuss how they apparently really feel about breastfeeding in public. Although most were supportive, some believed that women should wait until they got home, only being 'allowed' to breastfeed behind closed doors. Babies eating in public seemingly distressed their sensitive constitution, with presumably an unfortunate physical issue preventing them from simply turning their head away.

The reaction of most women (and indeed most good men) will be to raise their eyebrow, chuckle at their delicate nature and simply get on with life (and feeding their baby however and wherever they wish). However, attitudes like this do matter, and they are not only restricted to men. In fact, some research suggests women can be even more critical. These comments reinforce a feeling that others are free to suggest that how mothers care for their babies is anybody's business. Crucially they also add to the vast range of factors that slowly destroy women's confidence to breastfeed.

Barriers and pressures

Despite public health messages that breast is best, many things in Western society seem to seek to make breastfeeding as difficult as possible. Cuts to budgets for vital breastfeeding support services leave many with difficulties that could have been solved with some expert advice. Dispersed families mean many new mothers lack a 'village' to help them with their new baby meaning many struggle with sheer exhaustion, isolation and loneliness making breastfeeding feel insurmountable. Pressures to get your life / figure / career back lead to sitting on the sofa cuddling your baby feel bizarrely lazy.

So you can understand why public comments such as these can be the straw that breaks the camel's back when it comes to breastfeeding confidence. And indeed, these comments can erode the confidence of even the most self-assured, especially when you're struggling with sleep deprivation and wondering whether any sense of 'normal' life will ever resume. But given breastfeeding is pretty much one of the most natural things a woman can do and doing so in public is a protected right under law, where do these attitudes come from? And what on earth gives some the right to share them?

Misogyny, sexism and breastfeeding

Misogyny plays a key role. Men who score highly on sexist traits tend to dislike women exercising their rights. Others place women on a delicate pedestal and get angry when she breaks out of her innocent label. Sexual objectification is another one. Here, breasts are good but only if used in a way deemed suitable for their viewing pleasure. However saying all of that, women can and do criticize breastfeeding too; potentially because they have internalized these ideas that the breast is sexual and should only be seen in a private context, or perceive those breastfeeding as exhibitionism.

Thankfully men with these attitudes are rare, but it's not enough for others to simply be silent on the issue. Silence is complicity and all that. But the real reason we critically need men to add their voice to the debate is their very notable absence from it. Breastfeeding works best when women feel supported by those around her and that includes men; potentially her partner but also her father, her brother, her friends... their attitudes matter.

Yet many see breastfeeding as a woman's issue, meaning investment is low. Far more money is spent on erectile dysfunction research than is on supporting breastfeeding. Yes, personal experience (and equipment) helps but isn't a precursor. It's just another body part and just another part of caring for a baby.

What's it got to do with men?

So why is breastfeeding a male issue? Well, firstly breastfeeding protects the health of babies and mothers. Women you love. Children you love. It saves money for the economy through reduced health costs. Taxes you pay. It helps the environment, as there's nothing to throw away. The world you live in. That makes supporting breastfeeding all our responsibility.

And more support for breastfeeding is desperately needed. Despite recommendations for babies to be exclusively breastfed for at least six months and then as long as mum and baby want, only half of babies in the USA and Australia are having any breast milk at all by six months - and in the UK it is just half. What is important though is that far more women want to breastfeed and over 80% who stop in the first six weeks did not want to do so. Yes, this is complex and some women will not be able to breastfeed, but for many, environment matters. A supportive environment where breastfeeding is accepted, protected and enabled.

So what can you do?

Support the women in your lives who are breastfeeding. Become her advocate is she has problems, reassure her at 3am if she thinks she can't do it any more, drive her to breastfeeding support groups if she can't get there. Most importantly support her to care for her baby in ways that don't involve a bottle; make her a meal, take the baby out for a walk, or just sit and cuddle her when she's feeding (this part is probably best kept to your partner rather than your friend but I'm sure she'd appreciate a cup of tea and a chat).

But more widely - get interested and involved with promoting breastfeeding in the same way you might any other health issue. It's not just an issue that affects women. Share articles. Join in the discussion. Learn how to help. Stand up for her rights to breastfeed peacefully and without criticism in public. Be part of the voice that tells the patriarchy to support women rather than criticize them.

We know that mothers need more skilled, practical help to be able to breastfeed successfully, and they also need a more supportive environment to breastfeed. To help bring about these changes, I'm helping to launch a new national campaign - called Better Breastfeeding - during World Breastfeeding Week. The campaign will highlight the cuts to breastfeeding support services that are happening all over the country, and we also hope it will also get people talking about breastfeeding in a different way. We need to move on from those tired old 'breast versus bottle' debates or discussions about whether it's ok to breastfeed in public, and work out how we can best support all women, whatever their circumstances.