I've been a breastfeeding peer supporter for two and a half years, since shortly after my third child, who only recently stopped breastfeeding, was born. In that time I've been constantly reminded of the incredible value in what we do. When I hear women's stories (such as this one) of how they've been supported to overcome problems and achieve their feeding goals, I have a great feeling of pride and good fortune to have been able to be part of their support network.
Breastfeeding support doesn't begin and end with a new mother and her baby, although they are at the heart of it. It ripples outward and affects others too - the partner who desperately wants to be supportive but doesn't have all the information he needs; the mother-in-law worried about why mum isn't giving the baby water between feeds; the GP who isn't up to date with treating thrush; the pregnant woman wondering how she will feed her baby; the young girls walking past mothers breastfeeding in coffee shops.
Whatever the ins-and-outs of the latest 'breast v bottle' debates in the papers, on TV or on the radio, peer support, which is truly mother-focussed, exists outside that arena. No one, surely, could have a problem with the idea of women supporting other women, who want to breastfeed, to achieve their goals. In the introduction to my book Breastfeeding: stories to inspire and inform, published a year ago by Lonely Scribe during National Breastfeeding Week, I wrote:
"Peer support is not about judging mothers' choices, or breastfeeding evangelism - it's about positive ways of helping those who want to breastfeed, for whom it matters, to continue as long as they want to, and supporting them to make informed choices for themselves and their families."With its focus on listening (see this lovely post), taking time to understand mothers' concerns and making appropriate, supportive suggestions, peer support fills a need that maternity services and health visiting teams can struggle to provide. (Which is not to say that peer support alone is sufficient to properly underpin breastfeeding in the community; for that you need good systems of upward referral for more complex problems, often sadly lacking). Peer support comes in different guises; we are trained by and supervised by the NHS, but in other areas support may be offered through other organisations, such as the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, La Leche League and the Breastfeeding Network, or through community interest companies like realbabymilk.org or Little Angels.
The feedback we get from mothers who attend our groups and see us at clinics, have home visits from us or call our helpline, is that the service we offer, voluntarily and free of charge, is highly valued and hugely important. Women remember kind words, a listening ear and calm suggestions, whatever course their breastfeeding journey takes, and this in itself is important - they may try breastfeeding again with subsequent children, or be more encouraging of their friends, or challenge misinformation when they hear it, based on their interaction with us. That's a responsibility, but one that I welcome; it feels like an incredibly gentle way of changing the world.
I'm a peer supporter with BEARS in Amber Valley, Derbyshire. Follow us on Twitter @feedingsupport, and check us out on Facebook for details of groups and clinics, and our National Breastfeeding Week events. We're running our popular 'Breastfeeding Millionaire' quiz, with a host of fantastic prizes, all week, as well as a Positive Postcard Project (send a positive breastfeeding message to someone, and receive one yourself). And there's a Big Feed picnic in Belper River Gardens on Wednesday 26th June 2013 at 1pm.
Other Keep Britain Breastfeeding bloggers are involved in breastfeeding peer support: look up Mummyisagadgetgeek, lifeloveandlivingwithboys, Circus Queen, Hex Mum and Twinkle Mummy.
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