Seeing the world through babies’ eyes

Seeing the world through babies’ eyes

This week (7- 12 June) is Infant Mental Health Awareness Week and the theme is ‘20:20 vision: Seeing the world through babies’ eyes’. The Week is led by the Parent-Infant Foundation (PIF) and the First 1001 Days Movement, a collaboration of relevant organisations with the PIF as secretariat, which is being launched during the week.

What is infant mental health? It is the emotional wellbeing of babies. The Movement’s vision is that ‘every baby has loving and nurturing relationships in a society that values emotional wellbeing and development in the first 1001 days, from pregnancy, as the critical foundation for a healthy and fulfilling life.’

What babies want is what they need and these needs are basic. As obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read  wrote in the mid 20th century:  

“The newborn has only three demands. They are warmth in the arms of its mother, food from her breasts, and security in the knowledge of her presence. Breastfeeding satisfies all three.”

They do also need to receive attention from other humans. If their needs are usually met, babies can form secure relationships (attachment) with their caregivers. Usually, there is one primary caregiver, most commonly the mother. Attachment theory was developed by the psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1950s. An attachment figure who cares responsively for the infant provides a secure base. It is believed that behaviours by the infant to stay close when separated, like screaming and clinging, have been reinforced by natural selection (see What is attachment theory).

Babies are vulnerable – as Donald Winnicott, paediatrician and psychoanalyst, among his other insightful quotes, stated:

‘There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone’.

However, infants are not passive as they communicate by giving cues to their needs, such as the rooting reflex when hungry. If their needs are not responded to quickly, they become upset. Dr. Edward Tronick’s ‘still face’ experiments in the 1970s showed the importance of human connection for an infant. If the parent’s face is still and unresponsive to her baby, the baby looks confused and then becomes distressed. The experiments also showed that ruptures in a relationship like this are easily repaired. Parents do not need to respond perfectly.

However, when there is repeatedly no response to a baby’s distress, as in sleep training where the baby is left alone and expected to adapt, it was found that the babies’ behaviour changed so that by the third night they were no longer crying but their cortisol (stress hormone) levels were still high so there was a mismatch between behaviour and physiology; instead of learning to self-soothe it seems as though they were giving up so in despair. 

The significance of the care babies receive is that their experiences, starting before birth, influence the neural connections that are formed in the developing brain – the ‘wiring’. A parent who is emotionally not really available to the baby (so not attuned to their needs) will find it difficult either to respond or to respond appropriately, providing an unintentional ‘still face’ or angry face. The parents could be ill, depressed, addicted, suffering domestic abuse, desperately worried about their financial situation, overloaded with responsibilities………It is therefore crucial for a society to care for parents so that they can be emotionally available to their children.

Feeding is a crucial part of nurturing care and breastfeeding facilitates the process.There is considerable evidence that not being breastfed is linked to poorer physical health in infants (Lancet, 2016). Breastfeeding provides personalised nutrition. Antibodies and other components in breastmilk reduce the chance and severity of infections. Oligosaccharides in breastmilk feed and thus favour beneficial bacteria in the infant’s gut and this helps the development of a healthy immune system. It is difficult to allow for confounding factors in studies on breastfeeding but reviews show it is linked with better cognitive performance, which is likely to be due to the fatty acids in breastmilk. But what about any impact on emotional development? There are studies which suggest that being breastfed is associated with paying more attention to positive emotions in others.  Breastmilk contains the calming hormone oxytocin, which stimulates social interactions, and which is further released through touch and suckling, so the moods of both mother and baby benefit. Several studies indicate that mothers who are breastfeeding tend to touch their babies more, are more responsive and tend to gaze at them more, all of which will help the infant’s emotional wellbeing. The Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative leaflet, Building a Happy Baby, provides practical suggestions for parents to support their baby’s brain development and addresses myths and realities. 

Jones found that breastfeeding helps to protect infants from the harmful effects of maternal depression

Mothers who stop breastfeeding before they want to are at greater risk of postnatal depression (Borra et al 2014) so mothers need easy access to breastfeeding support to help them continue, thereby benefitting their babies physically and emotionally. Sadly, there are barriers to breastfeeding throughout society, as outlined in the WBTi UK report.

Parents and carers urgently need more support, especially during the stresses and isolation of lockdown and the COVID19 pandemic. We call on government to make infants and their families a high priority during the pandemic and in our plans to rebuild a stronger society.

Photo used with permission

Patricia Wise is an NCT breastfeeding Counsellor and a member of the WBTi UK Steering Group

Shocking gaps in emergency preparedness for Europe’s babies

Shocking gaps in emergency preparedness for Europe’s babies

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how important it is for countries to protect their citizens from illness.

Yet a new WBTi regional report shows gaps in support for families across Europe, with the poorest overall scores in national leadership and, shockingly, emergency preparedness, where the UK scored 0/10. This pandemic is an emergency for infants and young children and only North Macedonia was found to have an adequate strategy.

Babies who are breastfed have better health and resistance to infection, and most mothers want to breastfeed. Yet many European mothers stop or reduce breastfeeding in the early weeks and months, and bottle feeding is prevalent, due to inadequate support from health systems and society.

Launched today, the first European report on infant and young child feeding policies and practices, Are our babies off to a healthy start?, compares 18 countries and identifies the considerable improvements they need to make in supporting mothers who want to breastfeed. A summary report has been published today in the International Breastfeeding Journal .

The full report can be downloaded from the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative global website.    

The new report, Are our babies off to a healthy start?, compares the  implementation of WHO’s Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding across 18 European countries. The comparisons show clearly that inadequate support and protection for breastfeeding mothers is a Europe-wide problem. The health of babies, mothers and whole populations  lose out as a result. However, countries do differ considerably. Turkey rates highest overall; the five countries with the lowest scores belong to the European Union. 

     ‘Nutrition is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals related to health, education, sustainable development, reduction of inequalities and more.’

Joao Breda, Head, WHO European Office for Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases

The scope of the assessment is wide-ranging, with ten policy and programme indicators, including national leadership, Baby Friendly hospital and community practices, marketing controls on breastmilk substitutes, health professional training, emergency preparedness and monitoring. There are also five feeding practices indicators, such as exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, a WHO recommendation. 

The original assessments were all carried out using the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi), a tool first developed in 2004 by the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) but only launched in Europe in 2015. It requires collaboration with relevant organisations within a country on assessment scores, gaps identified and recommendations for improvements. The Report highlights good practice, enabling countries to learn from one another.

     ˝Success …rests first and foremost on achieving political commitment at the highest level and assembling the indispensable human and financial resources.’

WHO Global Strategy 2003

If governments, other policymakers, hospitals and community services, public health departments, institutions that train health professionals, and others, adopt the report recommendations, it will enable more mothers to initiate and continue breastfeeding, strengthening the health of the population for the future.

The WBTi European Working Group, led by Dr. Irena Zakarija-Grkovic of Croatia, produced the Report and comprises coordinators from European countries which have carried out a WBTi assessment. The production of the report was supported by the Croatian Ministry of Health and UNICEF Croatia.

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UK media contact: wbti@ukbreastfeeding.org

We want the new government to invest in the health of women and children by supporting and protecting breastfeeding.

The WBTi UK team are proud to be part of producing this joint statement calling for our next government to make breastfeeding a priority in setting the agenda to prioritise the early years of life.

Download the PDF HERE

The new government needs to prioritise the first 1001 days of a child’s life, from conception to age two, to enable children to survive and thrive. How an infant is fed and nurtured strongly influences a child’s future life chances and emotional health. Importantly, if a woman breastfeeds there are substantial health benefits for her – having impacts onher future long after breastfeeding has stopped.

Independent, practical, evidence-based information and support is essential for every family.  Supporting women with breastfeeding can go a long way to protecting children and mothers from a wide range of preventable ill health, including obesity and mental health problems.

This window of opportunity cannot be missed for the future health outcomes of mothers and the next generation. In addition to well documented health outcomes, supporting breastfeeding will also contribute to a stronger economy – potential annual savings to the NHS are estimated at about £40 million per year from just a moderate increase in breastfeeding rates.

Support for breastfeeding is also an environmental imperative and recognition of the contribution breastfeeding can make to avoiding environmental degradation should be a matter of increasing global and political attention.

In the UK, the majority of women start to breastfeed but breastfeeding rates drop rapidly – our continuation rates are some of the lowest in the world and are even lower amongst women living in deprived areas, where increasing rates could make a real difference to health inequalities. Support for all women, parents and families with breastfeeding falls short of what is wanted and needed. 

Women tell us they encounter difficulties with the public perceptions of breastfeeding out of the home. Families tell us they are still regularly exposed to conflicting messaging and marketing for formula milks that drowns out advice from healthcare professionals.

Women tell us they receive little to no help with infant feeding and that their health visitors, midwives and doctors often have little training or knowledge about breastfeeding and limited time to support them.

Recent cuts in health visitor numbers and breastfeeding peer support services mean many women may be left without the support they need however they choose to feed their infants. 

Despite robust evidence showing that investment in breastfeeding support and protection makes sense, politically breastfeeding has been viewed by governments as a lifestyle choice and so left to parents to work out for themselves. For too many women, trying to breastfeed without support, or stopping before they want to, is deeply upsetting and the situation is made worse by fragmented care, and poor and often conflicting advice from those they are seeking to support them. To ensure an increase in breastfeeding rates, to help reverse obesity rates and to reduce widening health inequalities will require significant investment in breastfeeding. 

It is essential that our new government prioritises breastfeeding and invests in its support and protection.

We call on all political parties to commit to the following actions, if elected:

  • To appoint a permanent, multi-sectoral infant and young child feeding strategy group and develop, fund and implement a national strategy to improve infant and young child feeding practices
  • To include actions to promote, protect and support breastfeeding in all policy areas where breastfeeding has an impact.
  • To implement the Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative across community and paediatric services, building on the recommendation for maternity services in the NHS Long Term Plan.
  • To protect babies from harmful commercial interests by bringing the full International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes into UK law and enforcing this law.
  • To commission, and sustainably fund, universal breastfeeding support programmes delivered by specialist/lead midwives and health visitors or suitably qualified breastfeeding specialists, such as IBCLC lactation consultants and breastfeeding counsellors, alongside trained peer supporters with accredited qualifications.
  • To maintain and expand universal, accessible, affordable and confidential breastfeeding support through the National Breastfeeding Helpline and sustaining the Drugs in Breastmilk Service.
  • To deliver universal health visiting services and the Healthy Child Programme by linking in with local specialist and support services.
  • To establish/re-establish universal Children’s Centres with a focus on areas of deprivation, offering breastfeeding peer support.
  • To make it a statutory right of working mothers and those in education to work flexibly as required and to access a private space and paid breaks to breastfeed and/or express breastmilk and manage its safe storage.
  • To commit to resourcing for charitable organisations who play a key role within the health agenda working at a national and local level to support families and communities with infant feeding.
  • To support the commitment to undertake an Infant Feeding Survey which builds on the data previously collected in the Infant Feeding Survey 2010 (now discontinued). 
  • To implement the recommendations of the Becoming Breastfeeding Friendly (BBF) study.

CASE FOR ACTION

  1. Breastfeeding benefits all babies, and studies have shown that just a small increase in breastfeeding rates could cut NHS expenditure considerably.  It is vital to invest in breastfeeding support in the early months and this will reap rewards in the future that are likely to exceed the initial cash flows associated with putting proper support in place.
  2. UNICEF report states that “no other health behaviour has such a broad-spectrum and long-lasting impact on public health. The good foundations and strong emotional bonds provided in the early postnatal period and through breastfeeding can affect a child’s subsequent life chances”. 
  3. Evidence has also demonstrated that a child from a low-income background who is breastfed is likely to have better health outcomes than a child from a more affluent background who is formula-fed. Breastfeeding provides one solution to the long-standing problem of health inequality.
  4. Research into the extent of the burden of disease associated with low breastfeeding rates is hampered by data collection methods. This can be addressed by investment in good quality research.

References

1. Laurence M. Grummer‐Strawn Nigel Rollins, (2015), Impact of Breastfeeding on Maternal and Child Health. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/16512227/2015/104/S467

2. Borra C, Iacovou M, Sevilla A (2015) Maternal Child Health Journal  (4): 897-907. New evidence on breastfeeding and postpartum depression: the importance of understanding women’s intentions

3. Brown, A, Rance J, Bennett, P (2015) Understanding the relationship between breastfeeding and postnatal depression: the role of pain and physical difficulties.  Journal of Advanced Nursing 72 (2): 273-282

4. https://www.brunel.ac.uk/research/News-and-events/news/Breastfeeding-for-longer-could-save-the-NHS-40-million-a-year

5. Li R, Fein SB, Chen J, Grummer-Strawn LM, (2008) Why mothers stop breastfeeding: mothers’ self-reported reasons for stopping during the first year.  Pediatrics 122: S60-S76

6. Support for breastfeeding is an environmental imperative. (2019) BMJ 2019;367:l5646 https://www.bmj.com/content/367/bmj.l5646

7. McAndrew F et al (2012) Infant Feeding Survey 2010

8. NHS (2019) NHS Long term Plan https://www.longtermplan.nhs.uk/

9. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2013) Postnatal Guideline NICE, London https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg37

10. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2012) Improved access to peer support   NICE, London

11. Rollins N, Bhandari N, Hajeebhoy N, et al (2016) Why invest, and what it will take to improve breastfeeding practices?  The Lancet 387 491-504

12. Wilson AC, Forsyth JS, Greene SA, Irvine L, Hau C, Howie PW. 1998 Relation of infant diet to childhood health: seven year follow up of cohort of children in Dundee infant feeding study. BMJ. Jan 3;316(7124):21-5.

13. Brown, A, Finch, G, Trickey, H, Hopkins, R (2019) ‘A Lifeline when no one else wants to give you an answer’ – An Evaluation of the BFN’s drugs in breastmilk service. https://breastfeedingnetwork.org.uk/wp-content/pdfs/BfN%20Final%20report%20.pdf       

Empowering communities through integrated sustainable solutions #WBW2019

Empowering communities through integrated sustainable solutions #WBW2019

I’m a lactation consultant and writer who has just finished a Masters degree in Health Promotion at Leeds-Beckett University. This blog touches on some of the insights that my studies have given me, not least how data, like WBTi’s reports, can help health promoters create integrated, sustainable solutions that make health a resource to be shared by everyone.

In 1986, the World Health Organization (WHO) Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion defined Health Promotion as “the process of enabling people to increase control over, and to improve, their health.” Whether the focus be on breastfeeding, preventing obesity, supporting mental health or any of the complex (so called ‘wicked’) problems that challenge our societies, it is health promotion’s recognition of the social determinants of health that has most affected my thinking.  All too often our society is quick to blame the individual for unhealthy behaviours; my increased awareness of the social determinants of health, that is, how socio-economic, cultural and environmental conditions determine individuals’ well-being, has changed my perception. It’s given me a heightened awareness of how prevailing political ideologies influence the way we think about society, and how this plays out into how likely (or not) individuals are to be able to make healthy choices throughout the course of their lives. 

“This unequal distribution of health-damaging experiences is not in any sense a ‘natural’ phenomenon but is the result of a toxic combination of poor social policies, unfair economic arrangements …and bad politics.” WHO[1]

To give an example, indicator 6 of the WBTi looks at community-based support, so key to women continuing to breastfeed.[2]In the UK, the recent NHS Long Term Plan’s recommendation of UNICEF UK Baby Friendly accreditation is cause for celebration and will boost the capacity of midwives and health visitors to support breastfeeding in the community.

However, cuts to peer-support services, and the closure of over 1000 Sure Start centres have disproportionately affected poorer members of society. If a mother in the community has persistent nipple pain, no car, no public transport, no money for a lactation consultant and her nearest breastfeeding group is 20 miles away, even with the support of the hard-working volunteers on the National Breastfeeding Helpline, her capacity to protect the health of her family through breastfeeding will be limited. 

Incidentally, the discipline of Health Promotion, while focusing on the up-stream causes of health inequalities, is also focused on empowering communities to participate in the creation of healthier societies. The UK’s WBTi report, under Indicator 6, points out that in England and Wales there is often little coordination between NHS services and peer-supporters, who can offer so much to new mothers. It recommends a range of integrated postnatal services that include voluntary sector breastfeeding support, meet local needs and provide clear access to specialist support.

Integrated breastfeeding support is outlined in the criteria for UNICEF Baby Friendly accreditation for community services:

  • Basic: universal services such as midwives, health visitors, and support workers are trained to BFI standards
  • Additional: a network of trained local peer supporters and support groups
  • Specialist: a referral pathway to specialist help at IBCLC level, for complex cases that cant be resolved by “Basic” and “Additional” support

The guidance and standards on community breastfeeding support from NICE, Baby Friendly and Public Health England are summed up in this “Breastfeeding Support Within Maternity Transformation Plans: Guide to the Guidance” by Better Breastfeeding.

As an individual health promoter, the scale and complexity of the social determinants of health can feel overwhelming. Nonetheless, recognising them sets the challenge to health promoters (in all disciplines, not just those who work in traditional health services or policy) to work empathetically, creatively and collaboratively. After all, ‘Success in breastfeeding is not the sole responsibility of a woman – the promotion of breastfeeding is a collective societal responsibility’ (The Lancet).


[1]Commission on Social Determinants of Health (2008). Closing the Gap in a Generation: Health Equity Through Action on the Social Determinants of Health (PDF). World Health Organization. 

[2]Dennis C (2002) The Effect of Peer Support on BreastFeeding Duration among Primiparous Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Canadian Medical Association Journal 166(1):21-8.

Alice Allan is a lactation consultant, writer and communication specialist who has worked in Ethiopia and Uzbekistan on maternal and child health. Her novel, Open My Eyes, (Pinter and Martin) set in an Addis Ababa NICU, recently won The People’s book Prize for Fiction. She currently lives near London with her family and an Ethiopian street dog called Frank.

Prevention intention

Prevention intention

A Vision for Prevention

Matt Hancock, UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care since July 2018, launched his prevention vision on 5 November.

His other priorities are to advance health technology and provide better support for the health and social care workforce. He sees prevention as having two aspects. Partly it is about keeping well physically and mentally, to prevent ill health, but  also about the environment around people, their lifestyle choices and how existing health conditions are managed. The aims are for the average person to have 5 more years of healthy independent living by 2035, and to reduce the gap between the richest and poorest. At present there is a large discrepancy in spending with £97 billion (public money) spent on treating disease and £8 billion on prevention across the UK!

The proposed actions in the vision  are:

  • “Prioritising investment in primary and community healthcare
  • Making sure every child has the best start in life (our emphasis)
  • Supporting local councils to take the lead in improving health locally through innovation, communication and community outreach
  • Coordinating transport, housing, education, the workplace and the environment – in the grand enterprise to improve our nation’s health
  • Involving employers, businesses, charities, the voluntary sector and local groups in creating safe, connected and healthy neighbourhoods and workplaces”

The Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) paper is called ‘Prevention is better than cure: Our vision to help you live well for longer‘.

It states there is strong evidence that prevention works and recognises that a healthy population is both vital for a strong economy and for reducing pressure on services like the NHS (almost 10% of the national income is spent on healthcare). Average life expectancy is now 81 years, helped by:

  • advances in healthcare
  • changing attitudes so there is less stigma with some conditions
  • improvements in the environment, at home, work and in neighbourhoods
  • antibiotics and mass vaccination
  • public health programmes.

However, there are major challenges in the huge discrepancies between areas – ‘A boy born today in the most deprived area of England can expect to live about 19 fewer years in good health and die nine years earlier than a boy born into the least deprived area.’ (p.7)

Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, welcomed the change of focus to more emphasis on prevention and pointed out the need for collaborative working – NHS, national government, local government, voluntary and community sector, and industry.  It will be important to monitor industry involvement to ensure that it does not create conflicts of interest, undermining health. Infants, young children, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers are particularly vulnerable, which is why the World Health Organisation developed guidance to protect them from conflicts of interest (WHO 2016 Guidance on the Inappropriate Promotion of Foods for Infants and Young Children) and other inappropriate commercial influence (International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, 1981, and subsequent WHA resolutions).

Improvements will depend both on encouraging individuals to choose healthy lifestyles and manage their own health, and expecting local authorities to take the lead in improving the health of their communities. The challenges of smoking, mental ill health, obesity, high blood pressure and alcolol-related harm are mentioned, along with the benefit of having a more personalised approach to health.

The section on ‘Giving our children the best start in life’ (p.20) mentions healthier pregnancies, improved language acquisition, reducing parental conflict, improving dental health, protecting mental health and  schools involvement, but infant feeding is not mentioned at all! 

However, in the Parliamentary debate on the vision (Prevention of Ill Health: Government Vision) on 5 November, Alison Thewliss MP made the case for supporting breastfeeding by investing in the Baby Friendly Initiative to bring all maternity and community services up to the minimum standard. Matthew Hancock’s reply sounds positive: ‘The earlier that we can start with this sort of strategy of preventing ill health the better, and there is a lot of merit in a lot of what the hon. Lady said.’

 

‘Prevention, Protection and Promotion’ at Public Health England

Earlier in the year (March 2018), Professor Viv Bennett, the Chief Public Health Nurse, and Professor Jane Cummings, the Chief Nursing Officer, came together to launch a campaign on the ‘3Ps –  Prevention, Protection and Promotion’, which is about actions to improve public health and reduce health inequalities. Breastfeeding is mentioned in the Maternity Transformation Campaign and Better Births and there appears to be increased govenment commitment to the key role breastfeeding plays in improving public health.

 

Directors of Public Health have a key role

The DHSC paper expects Directors of Public Health to ‘play an important leadership role’ (p.15). As an example, the Annual Report of Croydon’s Director of Public Health, published in mid-November, We are Croydon: Early Experiences Last a Lifetime, focusses this year on the first 1000 days of a child’s life.

It includes three breastfeeding recommendations:

  • Reset targets for increasing breastfeeding rates at 6 to 8 weeks and 6 months across the Borough and within particular localities
  • Achieve level 3 of the UNICEF Baby Friendly award
  • Turn Croydon into a breastfeeding friendly Borough, so women feel comfortable breastfeeding when they are out and about

 

How can progress on prevention occur unless it starts at the beginning – with infants? Will other Directors come up with similar recommendations?

 

Make London a ‘Baby-Friendly’ city

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, aims to “make London a ‘Baby-Friendly’ city” in the London Food Strategy. This strategy aims to increase the health of all Londoners from infancy onwards, including supporting and normalising breastfeeding across London Transport and across government buildings and workplaces, and encouraging all London boroughs to become Unicef UK Baby Friendly-accredited in maternity and community services.

 

The UK government is due to publish a Green Paper on Prevention in 2019 to set out more detailed plans and, together with the NHS Long Term Plan, which is due to be published soon,  is relevant to a future with better health for all.

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30. Photo for WBTi MAINN presentation
Patricia Wise is an NCT breastfeeding counsellor and a member of the WBTi Steering Group.