|Dr Kasja Brimdyr speaking at BabyFriendly conference|
Breastfeeding and politics are never far apart, and the opening address was a reminder of that. Dr Dan Poulter, MP is the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and the Conservative MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich. He spoke about the vital importance of the first few years of a child's life in terms of development, health and longer-term outcomes, about relationship-building supported by the BabyFriendly standards, and he talked about increased numbers of midwives in training and money that's been invested in improving the environments of maternity facilities.
Unfortunately for Dr Poulter, I wasn't really in the mood for his carefully-worded speech. Earlier in the week I'd read this article about Newcastle - the host city - which explains the utter hopelessness of the city's financial situation and the impact cuts are having on family services (spending on children and family services, via Children's Centres, has been cut by 40%). When asked how much worse it will get, the city council leader replies '[With cuts to] transport for kids with special educational needs and disabilities. That is in the pipeline.' The day before conference I had read this article too, about how families with disabled children are being forced into grinding poverty - the article itself is hard enough to bear, but read the comments for many more real-life examples. Closer to home I've been filling in consultation documents about cuts to family services in my own area. As volunteer peer supporters affiliated to the Children's Centres we deliver our breastfeeding groups, hold our training sessions and support families there. Recently I've also been supporting Cambridge Breastfeeding Alliance's campaign to secure funding to continue their incredibly valuable breastfeeding drop-ins, the victim of cuts to children's services in Cambridge, as well as the RCMs campaign for fair pay for midwives (Dr Poulter told us - again - that more midwives are in training, but - again - didn't address the question of whether there would be jobs for them when they graduate...)
He went on to talk about breastfeeding statistics - another area of concern for me: I've been emailing the Department of Health, writing to my MP and signing this petition to contest the decision to cancel the Infant Feeding Survey 2015. This survey is of immense value to anyone working in breastfeeding as it gives detailed information about national breastfeeding rates, introduction of solids, continued breastfeeding, use of formula milk and so on. Many of the conference speakers referenced the survey in their presentations. According to Dr Poulter the government will be improving the quality, quantity and timeliness of breastfeeding statistics at targeted local level - I'm not sure how, or how the national picture will be monitored, and he didn't elaborate.
So far, so depressing... fortunately, the rest of the conference was a genuine celebration: of 20 years of the BabyFriendly initiative, of accreditations across the country, of the hard work and dedication to supporting mothers and babies that underpins the whole thing, and looking ahead to how the achievements of BabyFriendly can be made sustainable into the future. It's hard to pick out my personal highlights, but I particularly loved Dr Nikk Conneman's presentation about gentle, baby-centred neo-natal care that fully involves the parents: when asked how he handled ward rounds in his unit (when parents are often asked to leave their baby's bedside), he replied 'I don't do ward rounds' and the audience broke into spontaneous applause: I think because it's so refreshing to meet someone so prepared to change the system if it isn't working for the babies and parents. Laurel Wilson's engaging talk about the emerging new science of epigenetics and breastfeeding was described by someone sitting near me as 'mindblowing'; we now know that how a baby is fed can influence the way their genes are expressed, and that breastmilk is packed with genetic material (the only way that this can be transmitted other than through sexual reproduction). It's a topic I can't wait to read more about, and it's closely linked to the work that's going on into the microbiome.
Dr Kasja Brimdyr talked about skin-to-skin in the first hour after birth - there was so much in her presentation that I found fascinating, particularly her observations about the effect of epidural fentanyl on infant responsiveness in the first hour (which ties in with a post I wrote about the effect of epidural on breastfeeding). The fentanyl (a commonly used epidural drug) delays the stages a baby must go through to find the way to the breast and latch on. It doesn't mean they won't or never will, but it may take longer, and those babies need even more skin-to-skin time to facilitate it. She cautioned against paying 'lip-service' to skin-to-skin; it shouldn't be interrupted or hurried if at all possible. Kerstin Uvnas Moberg touched on epidural too - explaining how it blocks the release of oxytocin, causing subtle changes that may affect breastfeeding behaviour.
There's so much more I could mention, but my take-home message was one of positivity and belief that the work we're all doing in breastfeeding really matters. One delegate asked how, given the daily pressures on midwives and breastfeeding supporters, we could give mothers and babies the best possible care? It's a frustration we all share at times, and the answer Sue Ashmore gave was simple but inspiring: keep doing your best, keep trying, keep the BabyFriendly standards at the heart of what you do, and it will be good enough. We don't need to be perfect to make a difference.
Were you at the conference? I'd love to know what your personal highlights were. Leave a comment below...