The inspiring story of breastfeeding support in a London borough
I have been reflecting recently on my experiences as a specialist health visitor and infant feeding lead in an outer London borough. The story began twelve years ago, in 2005, when there was a lack of confidence among mothers and staff about the reliability of breastfeeding, which was hidden and rarely seen in public. Over the next eight years, the initiation rate increased from 67% in 2005 to 86% in 2013, and the continuation rate at 6-8 weeks from 50% to 75% (52% breastfeeding exclusively). Breastfeeding became the way most mothers fed their babies. Gradually breastfeeding mothers became visible in cafes, shopping centres, supermarkets, streets, GP surgeries and children’s centres. The Unicef Baby Friendly Initiative assessors stated in a report that, in this borough, breastfeeding had become ‘the normal way to feed babies’.
How did it happen?
How did this change come about in a relatively short period of time? It began in 2005, as a joint project between the NHS and NCT, which secured local health authority funding to set up a breastfeeding support group in an area of social deprivation with low breastfeeding rates. This group became very well attended and was facilitated effectively by two NCT breastfeeding counsellors and a health visitor. A similar group was set up in another part of the borough and was run by me, together with other health visitor colleagues. Many of the mothers were very grateful for the support they received in the groups and some of these women expressed the wish to train as volunteer peer supporters, so that they could help other mothers enjoy breastfeeding their babies, as they had. Two training courses were organised and, that year, 20 peer supporters were trained, registered by the voluntary services of the local Primary Care Trust (PCT), and started working in breastfeeding support groups, in the children’s centres and health service clinics. The news of the training spread rapidly and soon there was a waiting list of mothers wishing to train!
The numbers of groups expanded to be easily accessible to mothers across the borough, running every weekday, in children’s centres, cafes, and health premises. The new peer supporters brought fantastic skills with them, one setting up a website, another a mothers’ Facebook page and another designing our leaflets and posters! One had breastfed twins and set up antenatal sessions for parents expecting multiple births plus a weekly support group for mothers with twins and more. She also visited these mothers at home and lent them cushions, which helped them tandem feed. Soon the exclusive breastfeeding of twins and even triplets became common. A group of Somali mothers was trained and an outreach peer supporter started seeing Somali pregnant women in the hospital. A teenage ‘buddy’ scheme was also started by some of the younger peer supporters, working with the specialist midwife and running antenatal sessions and postnatal support for young mothers. Two peer support co-ordinators were employed to job-share this important role and to deal with concerns of the peer supporters as well as helping with training and supervision. Over the next ten years, more than 200 voluntary peer supporters were trained in the borough and the training continues until the present day.
Public Health prioritises breastfeeding
In 2006, under the government scheme of “Every Child Matters’, the Director of Public Health made breastfeeding the top priority for all children in the borough with accompanying ‘stretch targets’ and funding.
London services are monitored through the ‘Good Food for London’ report on their Baby Friendly status, with details on how each borough is achieving and sustaining the Baby Friendly standards
Baby Friendly accreditation
In 2012 Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative carried out a major review that resulted in new, more holistic, child rights-based standards relating to the care of babies, their mothers and families, with a strong emphasis on building responsive loving relationships. A new award has also been introduced to encourage a focus on sustainability after the accreditation.
In parallel with the rapidly increasing numbers of peer supporters, the journey in the borough to become Unicef Baby Friendly (BFI) accredited started and professional training in the community and local hospital began with the two health trusts starting their journeys jointly. A model of multidisciplinary training of midwives, maternity assistants, neonatal nurses, nursery nurses and health visitors began initially with BFI-facilitated training. This enabled hospital and community staff not only to improve their breastfeeding knowledge and skills, but also each other’s roles, co-operate on work challenges and break down any barriers which may have existed previously. Communication skills and talking about their own life experiences, in order to gain an understanding of their impact, especially with infant feeding, became an important part of the in-service training. Interactive group exercises on different breastfeeding situations became an integral part of the training, emphasising the importance of empathy and seeing the problems through the eyes of the mothers. A neonatal breastfeeding co-ordinator was appointed and started training all the neonatal staff in the hospital, including the doctors, and by 2014, Unicef had awarded both the community and hospital trusts their Baby Friendly accreditation.
Peer supporters were also employed by an adjacent borough to work in the hospital, supporting mothers on the postnatal ward, one even working all night once a week; others taught hand expressing and colostrum harvesting in the antenatal clinic, especially for mothers with diabetes.
Achieving cultural change
Within ten years, breastfeeding became a normal and accepted way to feed babies in the borough. Mothers, fathers, and grandmothers-to-be came in large numbers to the twice monthly breastfeeding workshops, gaining confidence and information, with the expectation of the support that would be available to them to help them achieve their goals. A mother said ‘the session expelled myths and I now know how milk is made and transferred to my baby. I am looking forward to skin-to-skin contact after the birth and will follow my baby’s instincts’. Parents meet peer supporters in the support groups, at toddler groups, in the school grounds, in cafes, at sports events, in churches, temples, synagogues and mosques. Peer supporters live and work in the community and spread their knowledge through everyone they meet. Even when they move away from peer support, they take their embodied knowledge into the work place and support their colleagues there. Cultural change can happen through peer support, resulting in breastfeeding becoming embedded in a community. This change is sustainable over time and in future generations, as it spreads through different social groups. Voluntary peer support and informed, professional support is capable of changing attitudes and behaviour within a community to make breastfeeding ‘normal’ in a very cost-effective way. Commissioners need to be aware of how health outcomes can be improved through breastfeeding, for mothers and children, in the immediate and long-term, and it is essential to protect and increase future funding for midwives, health visitors and peer supporters, in order that vital programmes like this can continue.
The World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative UK report in 2016 affirmed the borough’s actions as it recommends in Indicator 6 (Community-based support) that ‘commissioners ensure that there is a range of postnatal services that include both health professional and voluntary-sector breastfeeding support to meet local needs and provide clear access to specialist support’ and that they ‘maintain the full range of health visiting services, and maintain health visiting as a universal service’. Indeed, the borough’s transformation in breastfeeding support is used as a case study in Part 2 of the report.
One mother with an eight-month old baby told me:
‘I so much wanted to breastfeed, but found it incredibly hard at the beginning. I was convinced that it wouldn’t work and it was such a lonely feeling, like I was failing where other mothers were succeeding. Getting support made all the difference- having someone to listen to me and give me confidence to carry on. Suddenly, I didn’t feel alone any more and it changed everything. I know that I would not be breastfeeding now if I hadn’t got help in those crucial first weeks.’
What one London borough has achieved shows what is possible. Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative’s Call to Action spells out four key actions to create a supportive, enabling environment for women who want to breastfeed, ranging from national strategy and legal protection from harmful commercial practices to the local implementation of evidence-based practices, as described
Photo credits: Unicef UK/Mead
Dr Alison Spiro
Specialist Health Visitor
Member of the WBTi Steering Group
3 thoughts on “Normalising breastfeeding in the community: peer support and professional training”
Dr Alison Spiro and the support provided to me 3.5 yrs ago helped me carry on breastfeeding to 34 months. Incredible women.
Wonderful work, Alison, and what a difference you and your colleagues and the peer supporters will have made to so many lives !