Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Breastfeeding: peer support in action

I love the work I do as a peer supporter of breastfeeding. It's one of the reasons I wrote Breastfeeding: stories to inspire and inform, which in some ways is peer support in book form (more about that in the introduction to the book!). Today something happened to remind me, once again, of the power of sharing our experiences with other mothers.

When I trained as a peer supporter we were encouraged, as a group, to share our breastfeeding stories with each other. I spoke about my first daughter Evie (that's her in the picture below) and our problems with feeding, and also about my second child, who was completely different and a guzzler from the get-go. I think I was feeding my third child, then only eight weeks old, while I was actually talking! That was in January 2011.

The full story of my breastfeeding journey with Evie is in the book, but I'll summarise here: she had silent reflux*. She would arch her back and cry during feeds, was hard to settle, didn't feed for long or very often, gained weight slowly and went on total nursing strikes. She popped on and off the boob during feeds, making feeding in public messy. She was manifestly uncomfortable much of the time. At five weeks I mentioned the idea of reflux to my health visitor, who firmly told me to put the idea out of my mind, then left without suggesting anything that might help. For the next five months I struggled on, until, after a referral to a paed, Evie was finally diagnosed with reflux and started on infant Gaviscon. Things improved from that moment on and I fed her much more happily until she self-weaned at eleven months, having never been a baby who got much comfort at the breast.

Fast-forward to today. BEARS, our group of peer supporters in Amber Valley, Derbyshire, has a Facebook group (actually, we have two - one for everyone to join, and a closed one for us to talk amongst ourselves). It's a great way for us to stay in touch with each other, and we can pool our experience to better help the women we support. Today the question of reflux came up. And that's when one of the other peer supporters posted this:

"I remember you telling us the story of the silent reflux when we were training... I told my friend about it and how similar it sounded to you so I suggested she ask the doctor about it and the doctor agreed she had all the symptoms... so you passing on your story stuck with me and therefore helped my friend and her baby :) It's amazing that you've helped someone and you didn't even know it :) They are both doing fabulous! She's now 12 weeks old and on meds for the reflux and one very happy breastfeeding baby girl who has doubled her birth weight and some more!"

This is just a great example of peer support in action: shared knowledge meant that this mother could get the help she needed and she and her baby are happily breastfeeding. I feel great to have been involved, however indirectly - and it's stories like this that keep us doing what we do.

*You can read more about reflux here: If you're concerned about your baby, seek help: peer supporters, breastfeeding counsellors from the major breastfeeding charities, IBCLCs and infant feeding advisers should have the information you need or be able to point you in the right direction.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Dr Miriam Stoppard in the Mirror: first, do no harm

I woke up this morning and read this article by Dr Miriam Stoppard in the Mirror. Not good. Not even remotely good. In fact, I can't think of one single thing in the entire piece that could be classified as good. (In contrast, this article from earlier in the year, also in the Mirror, was really very, very good).

I'm not going to go through the article and correct all the errors of fact about breastfeeding, even though, as an editor, it's very tempting to get the red pen out. I'm not sure there would be anything left at the end. Except, perhaps, the opening line: "There’s no keener fan of ­breast-feeding than me. I always advocate breast milk as the perfect food for babies from birth to weaning." I can't help thinking that if Dr Stoppard had left it at that, no harm would have been done. Sadly, she goes on to make a mockery of her opening line by going on to talk a lot of nonsense about breastfeeding that actually undermines it, rather than demonstrating her commitment to it.

And I'm left fuming, once again, about the insidious harm this sort of article does, to everything that breastfeeding supporters (peer supporters, IBCLCs, breastfeeding counsellors, health care professionals) are working towards. We're all actively engaged in trying to create a culture that is more supportive of women and their decisions about feeding their babies, and when yet another 'celebrity' doctor weighs in with an inaccurate opinion piece it feels like a kick in the teeth.

I spend a good proportion of my time trying to bust breastfeeding myths - as a peer supporter I work with women face-to-face at baby clinic, and take my turn answering calls to our helpline, I've published my own book on the subject (Breastfeeding: stories to inspire and inform) and work with other authors on Lonely Scribe's list of parenting titles, which includes the wonderful Fit to Bust by Alison Blenkinsop. I hear recycled breastfeeding myths - plenty of which crop up in Dr Stoppard's article (such as the comment "my guide is the appearance of teeth"*) - all the time, and try, gently and with accurate information, to encourage mothers to get past these cultural stumbling-blocks to breastfeeding. So when articles like this appear in the popular press it feels like all my hard work, and the hours of my time given to volunteering to support women, is being undermined.

Dr Stoppard, casually and with an utterly infuriating lack of knowledge and research (even the most cursory review of the current literature would surely have corrected some of her errors - for example, her representation of the World Health Organisation's recommendations on infant feeding, which are clearly stated on their website, is completely flawed), uses her position, as a doctor and author, to peddle unhelpful myths, spread misinformation and undermine the work of those who are trying to support women to feed their babies in the way that they want to, for as long as they want to. Along with other doctors in the public eye (those of us who support breastfeeding have also recently taken issue with comments made by Dr Ellie Cannon and Dr Christian Jessen), Dr Stoppard would do well to undertake some additional, up to date training in breastfeeding, and supporting breastfeeding, before putting pen to paper.

I've reserved some of my anger for the editors that commission, or agree to publish, this type of article - they are by no means blameless. As a commissioning editor of books, I have to acquaint myself with the subject matter before agreeing to publish an author's material - I need to know if their views are mainstream, out on a limb or plumb crazy, and I need to know whether the material will be well-researched and properly referenced, and where it sits in relation to other writers on the same topic, in order to decide whether it will find a market, both in terms of its content and its commercial appeal. In the past I would have been weighing these decisions based on the aims of the company I worked for; these days, as one half of Lonely Scribe, I'm fortunate in being able to commission work that fits with my personal philosophy: high-quality, well-researched material that really will both inspire and inform readers.

* on the subject of teeth: my third daughter, still breastfeeding at 22 months, got her first teeth at 13 weeks old. All three of my children have breastfed long past the time when their teeth came through. Breastfeeding can be an ideal help with soothing teething pain. Babies rarely bite - many try it once or twice but they can be discouraged from doing so and there are plenty of suggestions online about how to handle this. (An alternative reading of the situation would be to suggest continuing to breastfeed until the 'milk teeth' are replaced by adult teeth, which causes children to outgrow the ability to latch, at the age of 6 or 7.)