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Changing the conversation around breastfeeding

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Student NT editor Holly Morse says that we should change the conversation around breastfeeding ahead of National Breastfeeding Week, which falls in June.

holly morse

In the UK, 81% of women initiate breastfeeding at birth but within the first day, exclusive breastfeeding has dropped to 69% – and down again to less than 50% by the end of the first week.

These are the lowest rates in the world – shocking in an age where we know so much of the risks of infections in babies and cancers in women related to not breastfeeding. But why are so many women who want to breastfeed stopping before they would choose?

”The reasons why these rates drop so sharply are hugely complex”

The reasons why these rates drop so sharply are hugely complex but much can be done to support women who have decided to breastfeed. I visited a local support group and had many conversations with women.

As I found out about the antenatal education, birth experiences and breastfeeding journeys of the women attending the group, it became evident that sustaining exclusive breastfeeding was made difficult by a lack of understanding of the physiology of lactation and unrealistic expectations of newborn behaviour.

Their intention and commitment to breastfeeding their baby was undermined by having little or no understanding prior to birth about the impact of interruptions during the first hour, introduction of dummies and teats, early expressing and a belief that all babies should sleep for long periods between feeds.

Expectations of how long a newborn will sleep and feed for, how much time they instinctively want to be in close contact with their mother, and the fear that a baby can be spoiled by being held, rocked or ‘comfort fed’ all contributed to various issues we discussed.

These included slow weight gain, perceived need for supplementation and a belief they didn’t have enough milk.

The experience of talking to these women – most of whom had struggled at some point during their breastfeeding journey – reinforced the need while practising midwifery to continue revisiting women’s experiences and reflecting holistically on how care and support is delivered. 

We live in a culture that celebrates the idea of a baby ‘fitting in’ without altering our routines and lifestyle, the idea that postpartum bodies should return quickly to pre-pregnancy size and shape and that babies should feed quickly and sleep for hours.

Any new parent can vouch for how unrealistic this is – as midwives, our role is to support the normal biological and physiological processes not only of pregnancy and birth, but of transitioning to parenthood too.

“National Breastfeeding Week aims to change the conversation around breastfeeding”

When it comes to feeding and sleeping, human babies are no different to any other mammal – closeness and frequent feeding provides safety and the ingredients to develop healthy attachments and long-term independence. You can’t spoil a baby.

National Breastfeeding Week aims to change the conversation around breastfeeding - UNICEF say that extensive research shows that things are unlikely to improve unless we change our services, society and culture.

There is a growing consensus that it is time to move away from a focus on persuading mothers to breastfeed towards protecting a context that better supports healthy decisions.

As midwives and students, this is our duty to parents and the generations to come.

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