Breastfeeding expert Clare Byam-Cook on the politics and practicalities of breastfeeding
You might think that as a breastfeeding specialist I would wholeheartedly endorse the mantra ‘Breast is Best’, but sadly I don’t. This is because I feel very strongly that there is currently far too much pressure on women to breastfeed and not nearly enough expert help available if/when a mother experiences problems.
Despite statistics continuing to show that approximately 50% of mothers give up breastfeeding within six weeks, saying that they found it too painful or difficult, mothers are still being taught that it is very rare indeed for a mother to be unable to breastfeed.
This leads to some obvious questions:
- Are these mothers not trying hard enough?
- Are they not getting the right help and advice when they need it?
- Or is it simply untrue to say that every mother can breastfeed?
In my experience, it’s rarely a lack of effort by the mother that causes her to stop breastfeeding. I do of course promote breastfeeding as being the ideal way to feed a newborn baby – and I recommend that every mother should plan to breastfeed her baby – but I also think we should be honest about the fact that it isn’t always as easy as everyone makes out. Many mothers sail through breastfeeding and gain all the health benefits that goes with it. But others find it difficult to the extent that it might become detrimental to their mental or physical wellbeing to continue. My view is that if these mothers cannot find expert help to resolve their problems, they certainly shouldn’t blame themselves if they give up breastfeeding.
One example of breastfeeding going wrong is provided by its relationship to postnatal depression. A study of 10,000 British women showed that mothers who wanted to breastfeed their babies and then found they couldn’t were twice as likely to suffer depression in the following weeks than mothers who always planned to use formula milk. The study also showed that the lowest risk of postnatal depression was among women who planned to breastfeed and were successful.
The clear message from this study is that breastfeeding is good – but only if it goes well. I think we need to give mothers a more realistic view of breastfeeding. Instead of sending out the message that it’s natural and easy and every mother can do it, antenatal classes should discuss all the common breastfeeding problems that many mothers experience and teach what to do if it goes wrong.
The key to successful breastfeeding and happy motherhood is to do your research before your baby is born. Ask your friends which books and feeding aids (such as breast pumps and nipple shields) they found most helpful and ask whether they can recommend a good feeding counsellor in your area. And don’t assume that all breastfeeding counsellors are good at what they do – some are really nice and give lots of support, but if they don’t fix the problem you should consult someone else!