30 July 2018
To mark this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, Channel 4’s Dispatches have produced a special episode on breastfeeding in the UK, including interviews with professionals and families about the barriers to successful breastfeeding. This week we’ll be hearing from some of the people interviewed – starting with our Programme Director Sue Ashmore, who shares her thoughts on feeding pressure in the UK and how we can better support families.
In the UK we put too much pressure on mothers to bottle feed. Why does that sentence sound so strange and like I have perhaps made a typo? Because in the UK it is normal to think of bottle feeding as good enough, a normal and everyday activity that’s barely worth a mention. Meanwhile, breastfeeding is seen as, at best, ideal and virtuous and at worst, as a bit rude and odd. Therefore, when health advocates point out that breastfeeding is our biological norm and should be the default method of feeding babies, they seem extreme, and when the substantial and growing body of evidence for the value of breastfeeding is mentioned, it feels like unnecessary pressure on worn out new mothers to be perfect.
In reality, the pressure to bottle feed in the UK is enormous. From very early childhood, a toy bottle is given to little girls to feed their dolls. When these little girls become mothers, many won’t even have seen a breastfeed let alone feel confident to do it themselves. And when mothers do initiate breastfeeding and there are concerns that the baby isn’t feeding enough, is feeding too much, doesn’t settle, doesn’t sleep through the night, or when a mother wants to go out in public, or go back to work or for a hundred other reasons, the answer – from family, friends, the media and advertising is always, always … to bottle feed. The result is some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and 8 out of 10 mothers reporting that they had to stop breastfeeding before they wanted to.
And the bitter truth is, in the UK, it really is impossible for those mothers to continue. If you don’t have people around you who believe breastfeeding is important, or that you can succeed, or even that it is safe, how could you possibly keep going? If we ever want to see significant rises in our breastfeeding rates, it is this culture that we have to change. We know from other countries, where breastfeeding is the norm, that it is possible to support mothers to breastfeed for as long as they wish. In Mongolia, for example, one mother observes, “Though babies might cry for many reasons, there is only ever one solution: breast milk … When I breastfed in the park, grandmothers would regale me with tales of the dozen children they had fed. When I breastfed in the back of taxis, drivers would give me the thumbs-up in the rearview mirror and assure me that Calum would grow up to be a great wrestler. When I walked through the market cradling my feeding son in my arms, vendors would make a space for me at their stalls and tell him to drink up … The constant approval made me feel that I was doing something important that mattered to everyone – exactly the kind of public applause every new mother needs.” It is easy to see that in a culture such as this, where breastfeeding is celebrated and supported, it becomes attractive to start breastfeeding and then possible to continue.
However, closer to home we’ve seen that countries can revive breastfeeding rates when they have dropped – Norway, for example, took strategic action on infant feeding in reaction to a dramatic fall in breastfeeding rates following widespread growth in formula milk advertising – now 71% of babies are receiving breastmilk at six months, compared to just 34% in the UK. Norway managed to revive its breastfeeding rates after just one generation of bottle feeding, while we have had an entrenched bottle feeding culture for many generations; but we can still learn from their joined up and strategic approach to change.
Baby Friendly’s Call to Action campaign calls for national leadership on infant feeding, and action across healthcare, community and wider society settings to improve breastfeeding rates. It’s time to change the conversation around infant feeding in the UK, recognising this as a public health issue, acknowledging the pressure that families face to stop breastfeeding, and working together to create a more supportive and enabling environment for them to continue.
Visit our blog during World Breastfeeding Week to hear more from people interviewed on this week’s Dispatches.
Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan, Ruth Kamnitzer
Supporting breastfeeding is everybody’s business, Sue Ashmore