The success or failure of breastfeeding should not be seen solely as the responsibility of the woman. Her ability to breastfeed is very much shaped by the support and the environment in which she lives. There is a broader responsibility of governments and society to support women through policies and programmes in the community.’
Dr Nigel Rollins, WHO, 2016
Across the Western world there continues to be a drive to improve breastfeeding rates. After all, breastfeeding protects the health of mothers and babies and saves economies many millions of pounds. The World Health Organisation therefore recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, with continued breastfeeding up to two years and beyond.
Levels of breastfeeding in the UK are however the lowest in the world. Yes the world. Only one in 200 mothers is breastfeeding at all by twelve months. Although four out of five mothers starts breastfeeding, less than half of babies are still exclusively breastfed by the end of their first week of life, with less than one in six exclusively breastfed at 12 weeks. Less than a third are breastfeeding at all by six months. Comparatively, in many Scandinavian countries three quarters are breastfeeding at six months.
But why? Medical issues that make breastfeeding impossible or ill advised do happen but they are very rare. Most likely affecting less than 1% of women. So what about everyone else? What’s going on that we struggle with breastfeeding here, yet others don’t? In a nutshell … Society.
‘The reasons why women avoid or stop breastfeeding range from the medical, cultural, and psychological, to physical discomfort and inconvenience. These matters are not trivial, and many mothers without support turn to a bottle of formula. Multiplied across populations and involving multinational commercial interests, this situation has catastrophic consequences on breastfeeding rates and the health of subsequent generations.’
Although the ‘breast is best’ message is heard on every corner, it often appears to just be lip service. Our society doesn’t support breastfeeding. It doesn’t accept it. Doesn’t understand it. Doesn’t protect it. We don’t understand what breastfeeding is really like any more, and many mothers feel that they are doing something wrong and they need to stop.
Our ‘normal’ has become formula; more mums have experience of formula by the end of the first day than breastfeed even partially until six months. But breastfeeding and formula feeding are not the same. On the one hand we tell mums they must breastfeed … but with the other place numerous barriers in their way.
Yes they must breastfeed but they must also think about how they look. Their job. Their relationship. Getting their life back. Whether they’re causing anyone distress. And until we change that we won’t increase breastfeeding rates. And we’ll continue paying the health care costs of babies who were needlessly formula fed.
And you know who’s responsible for that? Society. We all are. Unicef Baby Friendly sum this up perfectly in their recent call to action
‘We need to change the conversation around breastfeeding by stopping laying the responsibility for this major public health issue in the laps of individual women and acknowledging the role that politics and society has to play at every level. The goal of our Call to Action is not to put pressure on women to breastfeed, but to remove the barriers that currently stop women who want to breastfeed from doing so.’
The aim of Breastfeeding Uncovered is to raise awareness of what breastfeeding is really like and to shine a light on the barriers we are placing in its way. Overall it aims to serve as a resource for information and support for breastfeeding mothers, but also those around them who have more power in affecting their feeding decisions than they realise.
It’s time to make a change.