The United Kingdom has one of the lowest rates of breast feeding in Europe with the latest statistics for England stating that while 73% of new mothers initiate breastfeeding the number rapidly declines to 45% by 6-8 weeks. What on earth is happening between birth and two months of age to warrant such a significant drop?
For starters, finding appropriate support can be a challenge.
Mothers complain there is an awful lot of pressure to breastfeed ante-natally and in the early post natal days but a gigantic void exists between the suggestion that mothers should consider breastfeeding and the quality of information and support mums are getting from their health care providers. In addition we also see that many are either unwilling or unable to signpost women to trained breastfeeding specialists within the NHS or in the volunteer community.
Many mothers, therefore at some point, turn to the breastfeeding Carelines which are operated by formula companies. It's a bit like the NHS pairing up with breastfeeding saboteur Nestle, the new owner of SMA formula milks, to roll out Healthy Start campaigns to the masses. Oh wait...
Indeed, all the main formula companies offer fluffy freebies when mothers-to-be and mothers join their baby clubs. This personal touch functions as aide-memoire when breastfeeding difficulties arise. These companies become the friendly face when mothers need information and reassurance on infant feeding. Can we really begin to believe that a company that exists to sell formula will be given evidence based information and support on breastfeeding?
Of course, there are many, many fantastic midwives (my own Midwife and team of Midwives on the Homerton Homebirth Team, for example) and I have peers who are health visitors and meet GPs on training courses who really do know their breastfeeding stuff.
Some are also breastfeeding counsellors or have completed peer supporter courses with one of the four breastfeeding charities.
Many of them are really good because they have breastfed with some measure of success themselves so they grew to understand the challenges women face. However it is not supposed to be down to pot luck that mothers will bump into a knowledgeable and supportive health care provider. It's really not good enough.
If only consistent and signposting was available throughout the NHS to all new mums and not just those who have Googled 'I need immediate breastfeeding support in London', for example, then more women would choose to continue to breastfeed past six weeks. Which leads me to ask the question - if Google can signpost correctly, why can't the majority of GPs, Health Visitors and midwives?
We are experiencing a dire situation for new mums as professionals continuously give conflicting advice sabotaging women's breastfeeding efforts within weeks. Just one little request for horror stories of bad breastfeeding advice on Facebook and in ten minutes I had these:
'Last year at Darent Valley hospital midwifes on my ward were telling new mums colostrum wasn't enough for their babies and they really needed to give formula until their milk came in.'
'I got told in March from my midwife that my son had jaundice because I was breastfeeding so would need to give him a bottle of formula. This was a home visit around day 5/6 in Northern Ireland.'
And I myself didn't know the first thing about breastfeeding and naively assumed my baby wasn't hungry because she wasn't crying post birth. My midwife took her from me and gave her a formula bottle without my consent as I sat sobbing that I wanted to breastfeed on my hospital bed. This was in St Mary's Paddington in November 2011.
Women are being failed in hospitals by health care professionals who new parents expect to be supportive, knowledgeable and up to date on breastfeeding support and identifying issues. Take midwives for example, whose training in breastfeeding is not actually compulsory past a few lectures, the content of which may be outdated.
Further knowledge generally comes from what she hears from other midwives, on the wards while doing her practical experience. It is up to the individual midwife to continue her professional development and that is usually in her own time and at her own expense.
There are many routes into becoming a health visitor and therefore your health visitor may also not have much in the realms of up to date breastfeeding training unless provided (post code lottery) or off her own volition. And it gets worse.
There's some evidence to suggest that visiting your GP about a breastfeeding issue is about as useful as visiting a gynaecologist about an ingrown toenail, generally because if doctors decide to do any breastfeeding training then it is very basic, short, optional and online.
I can only assume that this is the reason so many baby care 'experts' exist and sadly, there is very little difference in standard of advice given by health professionals and self-styled experts.
It seems that you're as likely to have your breastfeeding relationship damaged by a telly doctor as you are by your health care practitioner. This is what I like to call 'Booby trapping' which means, being advised to do something that has a negative impact on your breastfeeding relationship.
There is no single reason why the UK breastfeeding rates are so low however I do aim to discuss some of the reasons why I feel women are being let down by too many experts across the board. To be continued...