Friday, 22 August 2014

Why are we working hard to get mothers to breastfeed, then encouraging them to stop?

This week I've been thinking about the messages mothers get from their health professionals, peers and the older generation about breastfeeding past six months, and how this plays out in our culture of infant feeding in the UK. (This train of thought was sparked off by several conversations I've heard
Breastfeeding my poorly 23-month-old
recently between mothers - mostly first-time mothers - and health visitors, Children's Centre workers and doctors. It's not my intention to be particularly critical, more to explore what we are actually saying to mothers, and the effect it has).

There's a lot of focus (at least in my area of Derbyshire, where we've been working towards, and recently obtained, full Baby Friendly accreditation in the community (DCHS) and the county council (DCC)) on improving rates of breastfeeding initiation and continuation (measured at 6-8 weeks). All the hard work, by DCHS, DCC and volunteer organisations such as BEARS, the peer supporters I am involved with, is really paying off and we were delighted to get the UNICEF endorsement - part of which involves interviews with mothers themselves - that shows how far we've come in recent years and how much better we are doing in supporting women who want to breastfeed, at least initially.

But what happens to mothers after six to eight weeks? Peer supporters at breastfeeding groups often have experience of breastfeeding for much longer than six to eight weeks - so they are well placed to offer ongoing support to mothers who continue breastfeeding. But not all mothers attend the breastfeeding groups, and as their babies grow they have more contact with health visitors, practice nurses and Children's Centre workers at baby weighing clinics, developmental reviews and vaccination appointments, and their friends, relatives and casual acquaintances will all have something to say on the subject of continued breastfeeding too. As the weeks and months go by mothers are exposed to an awful lot of misinformation - hardly surprising when as a nation our breastfeeding rates at six months and beyond are so low, with fewer than 1% of mothers exclusively breastfeeding for six months, and only 34% breastfeeding at all at the six-month mark. Our society's collective knowledge about breastfeeding past six months is thus sadly lacking, something it is well worth bearing in mind when weighing up how much importance to attach to people's comments.

When I took my youngest daughter for her vaccinations at a year old I mentioned to the nurse that she was still breastfeeding (as there was a box to tick in her red book for 'still breastfeeding at all at first birthday'). She said, dismissively, 'oh, we don't need to collect that information'. She then went on to tell me how, if she ever had children of her own, she would definitely bottle-feed them, based on her experience with puppies! I was taken aback, but it was only later that I wondered whether, if I'd been a first-time mum rather than an old hand, I might have been more affected, even unconsciously, by the way she casually diminished the importance of breastfeeding.

I've recently heard a mother of a ten-month-old baby, still happily breastfeeding, advised to cut his daytime feeds in order to give him 'healthy' snacks, and to reduce and stop his night-time feeds as he 'doesn't need it nutritionally'. This mum didn't ask for help to stop breastfeeding; she was worried about her baby's wakefulness at night (for which she was advised controlled crying, despite saying that she didn't want to go that route - a whole different post...). The mother of a seven-month-old baby, who is mixed feeding - breastfeeding with one bottle of formula at night - was again advised to offer snacks in the daytime and encouraged to hurry her baby on to more solids rather than breastmilk so that he will 'cut down on his feeds' - she was told that the baby should ideally be moving to three meals a day plus two healthy snacks, and, somewhat confusingly, that he should still be getting a pint of milk a day, which would equate to '2 or 3 breastfeeds at the most', and she was told that her baby needed vitamin drops as part of the same conversation. The implication was that these mothers were now meant to be transitioning away from breastfeeding, when the reality is that for infants under a year, breastfeeding is still a hugely important part of their overall nutrition, and can continue alongside other foods for as long as mother and baby want. We are doing mothers and their babies a disservice if we are, even with good intentions and an eye on the nutrition guidelines, shepherding them down a path that leads to reduced feeds and an early end to breastfeeding.

Another mother I know of, who had a rough start to breastfeeding and was worried she might have to stop despite having fed her first child for a year, was told not to worry as the 'target' was six to eight weeks! The problem here is not the sentiment - I'm sure this person was trying to say something reassuring to a mum who was struggling - but that actually, her comment misrepresented the situation entirely. The immediate target for increasing breastfeeding rates may be the six to eight week measure in terms of the breastfeeding strategy in the county, but for that individual mother the NHS and WHO guidelines, which recommend breastfeeding to two years and beyond, are much more important for her own health and that of her baby.

What's missing, in all of the above, is an understanding and appreciation of the flexibility of breastfeeding an older baby, toddler or child: the way it continues to provide valuable, tailored nutrition, how it can fit in around solid food, going back to work and changing night-time routines, and the way in which it can continue to be hugely important to mothers and their babies for years to come, both in terms of nutrition, and in terms of their relationship (I wish more people could experience breastfeeding an older child who is poorly and miserable and can't stomach anything else, for example). Children grow up so quickly - why hurry the weaning process if there's no need? Why can't we support and encourage women to breastfeed in the longer term, and then support and encourage them when, for whatever reason, they or their children want to stop?

It's been heartening to see Sharon Spink in the news in recent months talking about breastfeeding her five-year-old, after Michelle Atkin did so earlier in the year. And I loved this story about a mother breastfeeding her toddler on Australian TV. I hope that stories like these, and the debates they provoke, will help us as a society to improve our collective knowledge of longer-term breastfeeding so that we can offer better support to mothers, who in many cases have struggled to establish breastfeeding, only to have it suggested, after a few short months, that they should be 'moving on'.

There's a point to be made here, too, about how that 'moving on' message is one that's frequently heard and seen in advertising for follow-on formula and 'growing-up milk'; if we think babies and toddlers need milk, what better milk for them than that of their own species, delivered by their own mothers, rather than an unnecessary product developed to circumvent the regulations governing the advertising and composition of infant formula, which exists to line the pockets of the big baby food companies? Those companies work hard to target health professionals and mothers to get their messages across - so it is not just that our collective knowledge is lacking, it is also being undermined by those with vested interests. (For much more on this see the Baby Milk Action website; good information about formula milk is available from First Steps Nutrition.)

I'm sorry the blog has been so quiet in recent months; I've been busy working on all sorts of exciting projects, of which more news in future posts...