By Emma Pickett
Chair, Association of Breastfeeding Mothers
I imagine like me you have watched some pre-election television debates in the last few weeks. It’s easy to start daydreaming and picture yourself in that audience putting our leaders on the spot. If you had the opportunity to ask that one key question of the main political leaders and get it broadcast on national television, what would you choose to focus on?
For many of us who have been involved in the WBTi project, it’s a no-brainer: What would they do to improve the situation around breastfeeding and infant feeding in the UK?
Except you’ve only got one sentence to outline a situation that took WBTi more than 70 pages.
You’re talking about health care professional training and the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes, national leadership, maternity protection in the workplace, data collection. Plus, you are talking to people who don’t even realise there is a problem in the first place or have little understanding of the complexity. There are few soundbites developed for an issue that affects families across the UK and for a situation that many of us see is in crisis.
Breastfeeding is a public health imperative
Politicians are nervous to touch on an issue which they often see as being about individual choice rather than a ‘collective societal responsibility’, as Dr Nigel Rollins described breastfeeding in The Lancet report last year. But when you look at the reality of what is happening in the UK, there is no need to fear having a conversation about breastfeeding. It’s not controversial to be disappointed to hear that 86% of women who stopped breastfeeding in the first two weeks would have liked to have continued for longer. Or 63% of those who stopped before 10 months. It’s especially not controversial when you learn more about the impact of breastfeeding on maternal mental health and its role in reducing inequality.
Which politicians wouldn’t be interested in something UNICEF describe as ‘a natural safety net against the worst effects of poverty’ or a factor shown to have a significant impact on the national economy? We can read through the manifestos of the political parties and see references to obesity and child health and mental health and find ourselves exasperated that infant feeding hardly gets a mention. However, it IS there. In every discussion about fighting inequality or improving chances or protecting the environment or stimulating the economy or supporting parents or focusing on mental health. They just don’t KNOW it’s there.
It is our duty to get this message across.
We may not be sitting in a Question Time audience but we meet our candidates. We have their emails and Twitter accounts. We can speak to them once they are sitting MPs.
Use the WBTi sample email and add your own messages to all the candidates in your own area. What are the gaps in breastfeeding services in YOUR area? Tell YOUR story.
It’s about emphasising why funding matters and why breastfeeding support in the community isn’t a nice optional extra. We are hearing about the huge variation in community-based support across the UK. Cuts to services in England are particularly a worry. Parents are finding groups closing, peer support services disappearing and when they are struggling with more complex problems, there is often nowhere to go. Specialist positions are either being lost or the integration of services means signposting to more qualified breastfeeding specialists such as IBCLCs is confused.
There is no point sighing about the crisis in infant feeding unless we also act. No point in putting a nice meme on your social media account, without also making sure you take 5 minutes to educate a politician who may simply not understand the basics. No point having anger towards our leaders if they are uninformed. WE are the ones who can do the informing: the new parents, the breastfeeding organisations, the healthcare professionals. It’s all too easy for social media to become a place where we all just talk to people who already agree with us. It has never been easier in history for us to directly contact our candidates and politicians. They won’t understand these issues unless we educate them. It starts with one email or one tweet or one conversation.
Have you done it?
For more information about cuts to community breastfeeding services, see WBTi’s 2016 briefing
See the Open Letter signed by dozens of royal colleges, health professional bodies, researchers and voluntary organisations
Responses from political parties
Baby Milk Action have asked all the major political parties about their breastfeeding and infant feeding related policies. You can read their letter, which refers to the WBTi UK report, and the responses they have received here.
Photo credit: Sophie Burrows
Emma Pickett IBCLC is Chair of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers. She is also an ABM breastfeeding counsellor (www.abm.me.uk) in North London. She has supported breastfeeding mums in Haringey as a volunteer since 2008.
Emma is the author of You’ve Got It In You: A Positive Guide To Breastfeeding and blogs at Emma Pickett Breastfeeding Support