Friday, 25 January 2013

Having a baby? Planning to breastfeed? Don't read the papers...

Two articles have been bothering me this week: Helen Rumbelow's 'Your mother-in-law was right: breastfed babies don't sleep through the night' in The Times and Anna White in the Telegraph: 'Is baby-led weaning a load of mush?'.

The two pieces had much in common despite their different subjects. Both were judgemental, short on facts, and failed to accurately represent the best research we currently have about infant feeding. Helen Rumbelow suggested that there was some sort of conspiracy going on: 'This is what your health visitor, midwife, baby sleep book, the NHS and the National Childbirth Trust [an easy target perhaps, in the wake of the Kirsty Allsopp/NCT stand off?] won't tell you: your mother-in-law was right'. She claims the 'news', that breastfed babies wake more often at night, has been 'hushed up' in an effort to persuade women that breast is best. The implication, although she doesn't state it specifically, is that if you are breastfeeding and suffering from sleep deprivation, the solution is obvious: give up breastfeeding. I've blogged before about how this isn't supportive of women who are breastfeeding and consider it important. They don't want to give up breastfeeding, they just need more sleep. There are other ways to achieve that than to give the baby artificial milk, and any good breastfeeding supporter will have a range of suggestions that may help (including, but not limited to: co-sleeping, sleeping apart from your partner so that they get an unbroken night and can support you in the evening/morning, getting help from family or friends so you can nap in the day...). Elizabeth Pantley's book The No-Cry Sleep Solution has many breastfeeding-friendly ways to gently encourage your baby to sleep longer stretches.

What annoyed me most about the article was not its undermining of breastfeeding (although I didn't like that either). No, what got to me more was the assumption that babies waking up at night was a bad thing, as opposed to something normal. This is backwards: we should be asking why artificially-fed babies sleep so soundly and considering whether that is really desirable. We know that breastfeeding has a protective effect on the incidence of SIDS; it is likely that the waking patterns of breastfed infants are part of the reason for that. (See Isis for sound information about normal infant sleep.) Rumbelow goes on to draw her own conclusions from what is admittedly interesting research; I take issue with her interpretation, however, which continues to undermine parents who've decided not to artificially feed or sleep train their babies. She glibly asserts that 'Once a baby is weaned onto solids at six months, it is developmentally ready to sleep through the night', and goes on to claim that 'the type of mother to breastfeed her kid in the UK gets her heart broken every time her baby cries at night. And she could totally get a better night's sleep if she just adopted a harder line.' From where I stand, on the front-line with breastfeeding mothers, the whole picture is a lot more complex than that. Breastfeeding is not just about food, for one thing; night-wakings are not all about nourishment, at any age - growth spurts, development, separation anxiety, the child's (and mother's) personality all play a part. The research is valuable, and I'd be interested to read more about it, but I don't think Rumbelow did it, or breastfeeding mothers, justice in her piece. About the only thing I could agree with was the idea (not her idea, but that of the researcher she spoke to) that the research could lead to parents being given a more realistic picture of what to expect from their breastfed baby's sleep habits.

Anna White in the Telegraph did a similar job of undermining those mothers who've decided to ditch the spoon and puree method of weaning in favour of baby-led weaning (BLW). It clearly doesn't matter that the evidence in favour of baby-led weaning is sound, or that health visitors are now recommending it to mothers. (I've been talking to mothers about BLW, breastfeeding and cow's milk this week myself; I mentioned this NHS booklet and Gill Rapley and Tracy Murkett's excellent books Baby-Led Weaning and Baby-Led Breastfeeding). No, for Anna White BLW is a 'craze' that has 'divided mothers'. Really? Or is that just the aim of this sniffy article?

Reading on, it becomes clear to anyone who has read anything about BLW that Anna White has missed the point, since she claims that 'you have the faff of preparing dinner for two and a finger-food buffet for one' - in fact, BLW is easier as the baby can just have bits of whatever you're having. Case in point - steak, homemade chips, grilled tomato and broccoli, followed by melon with blueberries and strawberries. Sounds good to me - and it would all be baby-friendly too. If you start BLW at six months, you can skip the 'smooth puree, one-taste-at-a-time, veg first' scenario completely (those guidelines applied to babies who, we now know, were starting solids earlier than they should have).

I think what I most objected to in the piece was the suggestion that by choosing the new 'fad' of BLW, parents were somehow caving in to their children in an unhealthy way: 'This early selection process gives children the freedom to turn their noses up at food making it difficult to later on enforce such rules as no greens, no pudding. Staple values end up in the bin once you hand over control on a plate.' I can only suggest that Ms White does a little more research, which suggests that breastfeeding, followed by BLW, gives you the best shot at raising a child who is comfortable eating a wide range of nutritious foods and can trust their own appetite. And I have to wonder, since it became clear at the end of the article that she has not yet had any experience of starting solids with her own children, whether her views might mellow with experience in the months ahead.

While writing the above I've had my attention drawn to a third article, this time in the Daily Mail - no surprise there - about the home birth shown on Nursing the Nation on ITV1. Journalist Kathryn Knight's piece, entitled 'Would you ask your neighbours round to watch you give birth? Natalie did, not to mention her four other children, mother, best friend and a TV crew!' Subtext: what will these crazy women get up to next? The tone echoes the articles already discussed, coming across as deeply critical of anyone who makes a choice outside a narrow range of the so-called normal. 'Most would see Natalie’s choice as bizarre. After all, mothers generally prefer this most private of events to take place in front of no one other than their partner and a medical professional.' That sounds to me more like Knight's personal view of the matter than a fact. The same personal feelings are to the fore when she writes 'It’s a brave woman indeed who seeks to share these most primal and unflattering images of herself with the nation.' Unflattering? The pictures that accompany the article are beautiful, as was the film! That this mother was willing to share the positive experience of her birth with others is a great thing; exposure to positive stories of pregnancy and birth is known to have an impact on women's own births. When they know what their bodies are capable of, fear, and its capacity to put a brake on the physiological process of birth, recedes. This is what the Positive Birth Movement is all about.

I remain disappointed in the mainstream press and its coverage of birth, breastfeeding and babyhood. I've complained before about the editors that commission this stuff - does it really sell newspapers? It certainly doesn't contribute much to the real and interesting debates that are taking place online, and in Positive Birth discussion groups, homebirth groups and breastfeeding support groups across the country. I'm glad to say it's not all doom and gloom this week - I've been somewhat cheered up by the launch of Birthrights, a new organisation that aims to protect women's human rights in childbirth. Do have a read of their website - there's stacks of important information there for anyone giving birth in the UK today.

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