I’ve just finished my 9th academic year of teaching secondary Biology (well 7 really, if you count my two maternity leaves…). It’s ironic, perhaps, that here I am writing a blog to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week (1st August-7th August) where the slogan is breastfeeding: foundation for life. Because you could say that education is also a foundation for life. The similarities are perhaps obvious. They both set you up for a successful future, however you might define success. They both need teachers to teach you how to succeed. They both need supporters, friends, family, to keep you on track and keep you going.
Perhaps the link goes deeper. Breastfeeding is in itself an education. Many would think that as we are mammals, we should know what we’re doing and find it easy. But the reality is that many new mums struggle. One of the key indicators of a successful teacher is one who teaches a learner how to learn. A key indicator of a successful teacher of breastfeeding is one who teaches a mother, teaches a breastfeeding family, how to breastfeed, to know how to know what is normal and what might not be. So that a breastfeeding mum, and her child, don’t “just” breastfeed, they learn the art of breastfeeding together. It’s a learning curve, often a very steep one, for everyone involved.
I’ve been a rather passionate advocate and supporter of breastfeeding for 5 years now. My passion began when I had my first child. I’ve undertaken breastfeeding peer supporter training, volunteered on my local maternity wards and run local mum to mum breastfeeding support groups. I’ve read countless books and articles on the topic. I’ve even dabbled in the politics of it all, taking on massive corporations and looked to influence our national curriculum in schools. Yet despite my experience and my knowledge, I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m still absolutely aghast that only 1% of babies are still exclusively breastfed at 6 months (Rollins 2016) despite the the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommending exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond (WHO 2018). At 8 weeks, less than half of babies are fed any breastmilk. Most upsetting is that many mothers who started breastfeeding, and then stopped, wished they could have fed for longer (McAndrew 2010).
What I really struggle with is talking about breastfeeding to an audience where breastfeeding hasn’t happened. For whatever reason. And there are many, many, very valid reasons. In the wise words of Professor Amy Brown, stop blaming mums, let’s have a look at society (Brown 2018). What I struggle with is that the moment we become mothers, we are shrouded in mother guilt. Mothers who feed their babies formula very often feel they had no option. Sometimes that is very true. They can feel guilty and very angry that their opportunity to breastfeed is taken away from them. They can find it difficult when they are surrounded by messages such as “breast is best” and can feel personally attacked when breastfeeding is on the agenda for discussion. I find that very hard to overcome when talking to friends and family who might not have breastfed. Breastfeeding mums are often branded as “bottle bashers”, “breastapo”, “lactonazi”. Delightful. But all breastfeeding mums want to do is to help other mums to breastfeed, if it’s what the mum wants to do. Because they’ve been there. They know the challenges and they know what might help.
Professor Amy Brown is right. We need to look at society. It is no one mum’s fault. The lack of support from society, the lack of knowledge from the health professionals who should know (see the World Breastfeeding Trends initiative (WBTi) UK Report with its Indicators, Gaps and Recommendations), the marketing tactics from formula companies. Society sets up our mums to fail at breastfeeding. And fuel that guilt. By the way, breast isn’t best. Breastfeeding is the biological norm. What is best is that mothers are able to make a FULLY informed choice about how they feed their baby. Informed is best. Support is best. Sometimes, that choice is taken away from mothers for various medical reasons. And hallelujah that we have formula to ensure that child is fed and as healthy as possible. Parents who use formula, accurately called artificial milk, should be taught how to feed responsively, close and lovingly in the way that breastmilk is given. To allow the child to take the lead, to take the teat into their own mouth and allow them to control how much and how quickly they drink the milk. Paced feeding, as this is often described, allows parents to feed their child in the most natural of ways and support the closeness and bonding that should accompany feeding (Spiro 2017).
What I want to explore further in the blogs this week is to focus on some of the key reasons why breastfeeding is a foundation for life. Time and time again, the benefits of breastfeeding are thrust upon expectant mums and their families. However without the support infrastructure, too many mums are let down by “the system” and fail to achieve their breastfeeding goals. We’ve heard all too often that we should breastfeed. But why? Thankfully there is far more scientific research and evidence than ever before to support families to make a fully informed choice about how to feed their child. Grummer-Strawn (2015) raises a very valid point in the editorial. Despite the rigours of scientific research, it is important that the reader scrutinises the research to be clear on the strengths and weaknesses of that research so that they can draw informed conclusions. Several of the papers that Grummer-Strawn comments on, and several areas that I will share, demonstrate the major contribution that breastfeeding makes to the foundation for life.
Feature photo credit: Adobe Stock
Kate Butler is a Secondary School Biology teacher by day and mother to two boys (aged 2 and 4) day and night. She trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter in 2013 and since then has set up local peer support meetings in her local area and joined the committee of West Herts Breastfeeders to support with fundraising and event management. West Herts Breastfeeders is a community based mum to mum peer support group that supports breastfeeding families with their breastfeeding journeys in the community and within West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust.
Brown A, Dispatches “Breastfeeding Uncovered” First shown July 20th 2018
Grummer-Strawn, L., & Rollins, N. (2015). Summarising the health effects of breastfeeding. Acta Pediatrica, 104(S467), 1–2
McAndrew F, Thompson J, Fellows L et al. Infant Feeding Survey 2010. [ONLINE] Available at: http://content.digital.nhs.uk/catalogue/ PUB08694/Infant-Feeding-Survey-2010- Consolidated-Report.pdf [Accessed 26/07/2018]
Rollins N, Bhandari N, Hajeebhoy N et al. Why invest, and what it will take to improve breastfeeding practices? The Lancet 2016; 387(10017): 491–504
Spiro A. The public health benefits of breastfeeding. Perspectives in Public Health 2017; 137 No 6:307-308
The World Breastfeeding Trends initiative (WBTi). UK Report Indicators, Gaps and Recommendations [ONLINE] Available at: https://ukbreastfeeding.org/wbtiuk2016/ [Accessed 26/07/2018]
WHO 2018 [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/ [Accessed 26/07/2018]