Just as the saying goes: 'it takes a village to raise a child,' it takes a community to support mothers to breastfeed. During World Breastfeeding Week 2017 we look at how we can build a village of support around our mothers, helping them to breastfeed for as long as they wish.
We know that many women and new parents in the UK do not have a 'village' behind them and in many instances they do not even have one person to turn to who believes in them and their ability to succeed at breastfeeding. Many women live in an environment where bottle feeding is the cultural norm; where three or four generations of families have bottle fed, where friends in their street bottle feed and the idea of breastfeeding can be considered unnecessary and sometimes even taboo. It just doesn't happen.
On the other hand, travel to another 'village' and for the women living there, breastfeeding is the norm; their mother and grandmother both breastfed, and they have grown up with women in their community; friends, sisters and cousins breastfeeding around them - where breastfeeding cafés thrive and mothers confidently breastfeed in public - almost without thinking about it. It happens every day.
Why does this matter?
Breastfeeding saves babies' and mothers' lives, reduces obesity, improves mother's mental health and helps them to form close and loving relationships with their baby. Whilst more women are starting to breastfeed their baby in the UK, there are large social and demographic variations. Recent data from Public Health England demonstrates how women's experiences in England are at two polar opposites of the spectrum. For example, if you travel to one area of England you will find only 22% of women breastfeeding their baby at 6 weeks, but if you travel to another you can find 77% of babies being breastfed. With 8 out of 10 mothers in the UK stopping breastfeeding before they want to, we need to look carefully at the reasons for these disparities.
It's a complex, emotive and profoundly sensitive subject. Talking about the challenges and trying to explore what can be done differently can sometimes lead to mothers and families in both 'villages', breast or bottle feeding, feeling hurt, upset and bruised at the implication that they didn't do the best for their child. We must acknowledge this pain before talking about how we can improve mothers' breastfeeding support and experiences.
How can we build a supportive 'village' for every mother?
So for this World Breastfeeding Week let's think about what the 'ideal village' might look like and how it could enable more women to breastfeed. It takes a whole community to support mothers; governments, healthcare providers, breastfeeding counsellors, families, friends and employers can all play a role in changing the culture of infant feeding in the UK.
At a macro level, Unicef UK is calling on UK governments to put systems in place to help remove the barriers to breastfeeding. For example, governments could start to create a 'big village' of support for new parents by ensuring that all hospital and community services are required to implement and sustain the Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative Standards. This action alone would provide a strong foundation and ensure that all babies are born into a Baby Friendly environment where families are given the opportunity to develop a close, loving relationship with their baby and get feeding off to a good start.
Building on this, local authorities could then implement support programmes such as peer support groups, breastfeeding friendly spaces and back-to-work schemes, helping mothers to keep breastfeeding going beyond the early days and weeks. This will maximise the benefits of breastfeeding and create a breastfeeding cultural norm, where children grow up familiar with breastfeeding and expecting to breastfeed their own children.
In addition, governments should adopt in full, monitor and enforce the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions ("the Code"). This will protect parents from harmful commercial interests by ensuring that formula feeding parents receive clear, impartial and accurate information about products, and that breastfeeding is not undermined by the UK formula industry, now the 11th largest in the world.
At a micro level, women need to be helped to build 'a village of support' around them. During pregnancy the mother needs to be helped to explore what her support network could look like; be it a partner, a friend, her mum, dad, cousin, stepmum, a childminder or another local mother who is breastfeeding or has breastfed. With the help of someone who believes in her, as well as ongoing, face-to-face, predictable support from a trained health professional and a local breastfeeding peer supporter, a mother is more likely to start and continue to breastfeed. Once she becomes confident in her own ability and in her transition to motherhood, she will be able to share her story and help the next mother on her breastfeeding journey.
Knowing the benefits that breastfeeding can bring to the mother, her baby, her family and wider community means that we all have a social responsibility to create a supportive UK village that values the needs of the baby to be breastfed and of the mother to be supported to breastfeed. It is the responsibility of us all to make this happen, and we all have a role, each and every one of us.