Hands off our World Breastfeeding Week!

Some women can’t breastfeed.

Often when I talk positively about breastfeeding, someone will chime in with this nugget. For the record, I promise that I am aware that some women can’t breastfeed. When I trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter I was provided with lots of evidence based information on why some women can’t breastfeed,  and directed to further necessary reading on the subject of women who can’t breastfeed. As a breastfeeding peer supporter, I have met women who can’t breastfeed – because they want to breastfeed so they come to the services that I volunteer with, looking for help. Women who can not breastfeed are routinely tossed aside by our current healthcare model. Doctors, midwives and health visitors often don’t take the time to understand the devastating emotional trauma that can come with discovering that you are unable to breastfeed. These women get little to no support, in coming to terms with the fact that breastfeeding isn’t an option, and also how to proceed safely and positively with formula feeding. They’re all too often given a luke-warm attempt at reassurance, and sent on their way – feeling like they’ve just been thrown at a brick wall, but treated like they’ve got a gnat bite and need to get over themselves. Because of the appalling treatment of women who can’t breastfeed, I, as a breastfeeding Mother and breastfeeding peer supporter, probably know more about women who can’t breastfeed, than many women who can’t breastfeed know.

Not being able to breastfeed isn’t as simple as just not making enough milk.

Usually, when I get into conversations about women who can’t breastfeed (sometimes, but actually rarely, with those women themselves) I bring up the fact that in biological terms, it’s believed that around 1.5 women in 100 are unable to breastfeed – somewhere between 1% and 2%. It could be a bit higher, around 14% of women don’t offer any breastfeeds at all, or don’t breastfeed for long enough for a formal diagnosis to be made. Anyway, usually, when I add this to the conversation, I’m reminded that there are many, often very complex, reasons why women are unable to breastfeed, and milk supply is only one. See above. Part of being trained to support women with breastfeeding, is to understand why sometimes – women can’t breastfeed. We can look at the biological likelihood of a woman being unable to produce milk for her child (unlikely) but that doesn’t take into account the many other reasons that women do not breastfeed, and may object to the suggestion that they “had a choice” in how their child was fed. I am however, entirely aware that the reasons that a woman may not breastfeed are actually pretty much infinite, if we at least acknowledge that women are individuals and therefore their personal experience will never be identical to anybody else’s.

So, I’m about to discuss the lived experience of nursing Mothers, and pointing out that some women are unable to breastfeed, doesn’t add to that. I’m aware. I’m educated on the topic. Those Mother’s might be mentioned in this post but I’m sure as Hell not here to attack them.

Did I sit down at my computer today, and think “I’m going to write a post to round up World Breastfeeding Week. I want it to target women who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder following a series of violent sexual assaults which is triggered by any form of nipple stimulation and who would therefore suffer enormous mental health setbacks that could in fact put their life in danger, if they were to breastfeed. I want to make sure that this post makes those women feel like shit.”? No. Of course I didn’t.

Only you know if you wanted to breastfeed, couldn’t breastfeed, and live with difficult emotions surrounding breastfeeding that might make reading a post about the importance of World Breastfeeding Week an uncomfortable experience. If that’s you, be kinder to yourself and just don’t read any further. I never ever write with the intention of making another Mother feel guilt, shame or regret.

Some women just don’t want to breastfeed.

Not being capable of breastfeeding is, of course, only applicable to some Mother’s who don’t breastfeed. Many women, don’t want to breastfeed. I don’t profess to know about all things, but this is something else that I know about. I know that not all women want to breastfeed, because I was one of those women.

I remember going out for drinks with some friends one night and it ending up just being me and one other woman at the end of the night, in the incredibly swanky champagne bar of a posh hotel in Canterbury. We are still friends now and she’s been a real cheerleader in encouraging me in my breastfeeding journey this time around; but this particular night predates Quinn being born. At this time I only had one child, Seb, and he’d have been about 18 months old . The conversation got on to breastfeeding – probably because her son, who would have been two, was breastfed. I clearly recall the rising frustration I felt when she suggested (completely innocently) that it was a shame I hadn’t managed to breastfeed and perhaps I might have done if I’d had some better support. I think I smiled politely, sipped my Rioja, and assured her that it wouldn’t have made any difference. I just didn’t want to breastfeed. Inside though, I was seething, how dare she just assume that ideally I’d have liked to have breastfed but that I was just let down by someone else? Why was she stripping me of my right to make a choice? We changed the subject.

I also remember reading an interview with Louise Redknapp when I was pregnant with Seb, in which she talked about not wanting to breastfeed, and how she was really lucky that she made it clear to her midwives when she was pregnant that she didn’t want to breastfeed and wasn’t open to discussion on the topic, and that everyone she encountered was very respectful of that. This realisation of sisterhood got me in the feels, I thought “yes! That’s the respect that I want. I can be Louise Redknapp, I don’t want to breastfeed either and I will own that decision and command acceptance.”

Incidentally I didn’t really own that decision at all, but that’s a discussion for another time. I do however still very much remember how “not interested in breastfeeding at all” Me felt at the time, as a pregnant and new Mum. I find “not interested in breastfeeding at all” Me quite frustrating, and I might wish I could go back in time and have a bit of a word with “not interested in breastfeeding at all” Me, but – she does give me a level of understanding for women who don’t want to breastfeed, I know how many of them feel, I know what many of them think – and I get it. I really do.

So, World Breastfeeding Week has been and gone, and it’s been a mixed one this year, as with every year. One friend messaged me over the weekend to say that next year, she’s getting rid of social media for a week when this comes around again. Not because she doesn’t like seeing all of the pro-breastfeeding content – the opposite, as a breastfeeding Mum she finds the backlash too upsetting. And I have to say, I feel similarly.

On the one hand, it’s lovely to see women sharing breastfeeding photos, regardless of whether it’s something they do regularly or not. It’s great to see lots of facts about breastmilk being shared. I love hearing about the success of Big Latch On events, and Breastfeeding Week picnics. I enjoy seeing lots of special product launches, and breastfeeding related brands using the opportunity to market products that make breastfeeding more convenient. I also find it interesting, though sad, to read stories from women who weren’t able to reach their breastfeeding goals. As someone who is dedicated to breastfeeding support, I recognise the importance of stories like this – it makes it clear to me how much needs to be done to help breastfeeding families, and where possible, I do what I can to reach out to those women. Their stories, stories of heartache and struggle and, essentially, of feeling like a failure, are important to World Breastfeeding Week, they illustrate more than any glorious tale of easy success, why breastfeeding matters – and World Breastfeeding Week is very much for those Mothers as much as it those who experienced happier breastfeeding.

However – what I can’t stand to see, is the anger that spills forth, the misinformation, the self entitled grumbling, and the straight-up hate. This extends far far beyond those women who can’t breastfeed (who, for the most part, remain pretty pro-breastfeeding, even if they carry a lot of emotional baggage attached to the subject), World Breastfeed Week draws out the “I’m all for breastfeeding but…” brigade, those who want to tell us that breastfeeding is great as long as it’s under a shawl, or at home, or anywhere where people aren’t trying to eat, or not done by women with big breasts, or near men, especially married men, or in church. It encourages people to discuss how there are “no real benefits to breastfeeding” (again, arguably correct but that’s another post), that formula is “just as good” as breastmilk, that breastfeeding is only beneficial until the colostrum runs out, or until 3 months, or 6 months, or 1 year. That the NHS only recommend breastfeeding for the first 6 months (the NHS actually recommend breastfeeding for a minimum of 24 months and from there, as long as possible as long as Mother and baby both want to continue) – these are all based on things I’ve seen posted in the last week, and honestly, I’m exhausted.

Why do people have such an issue with World Breastfeeding Week? Not only is it an invitation for Daily Mail readers to drop some uneducated trash in the comment section, but it also encourages a wave of writers to publish articles, blog posts, Instagram monologues, and Facebook statuses, about how and why World Breastfeeding Week conspires against them, because they didn’t/couldn’t breastfeed.

If you wanted to breastfeed and you didn’t/couldn’t, then WBW is for you. It’s for you to seek support, to share your experience and your current feelings about that experience. It’s a great time to open a discussion about what might have helped you to achieve your breastfeeding goals. World Breastfeeding Week is not an opportunity for you to discuss how much breastfeeding pisses you off.

breastfeedingolderchild

World Breastfeeding Week is not an opportunity to promote infant formula. I’ve read as many pieces of writing this week on why formula is as good as, or better than, breastmilk, as I’ve seen images of babies being breastfed, and these posts, the posts about formula, are posted with a World Breastfeeding Week headline.

Why We Don’t Need a Week To Celebrate Breastfeeding

World Breastfeeding Week: Who Cares?

Isn’t It Time for a World Infant Feeding Week?

How World Breastfeeding Week Isolates Women

Did World Breastfeeding Week Cause your PND?

Why Is There No World Formula Feeding Week?

Do you know what this is? This is rude. And this is ignorant. World Breastfeeding Week is an initiative co-hosted by a number of different leading authorities on infant health. This includes the World Health Organisation, Unicef, the International Lactation Consultant Association, and the International Baby Food Action Network. It isn’t a clever sales gimic set up by a big name corporation, or a silly made-up calendar date to encourage the sharing of funny photos (hello International Doughnut Appreciation Day). World Breastfeeding Week makes up part of a larger action plan in delivering breastfeeding information to women across the world. It is held on the 1st-7th August every year to mark to anniversary of the Innocenti Declaration. It’s important. It may not be important to you, and that’s OK, but breastfeeding is important, and it deserves to be focussed on, it deserves to be loudly and unapologetically promoted, and it needs to be shared openly without backlash from people who feel breastfeeding “wasn’t for them”.

The uncomfortable truth is that we are currently experiencing a public health crisis as a result of falling breastfeeding rates. Believe me, as a Mum who previously didn’t breastfeed and felt uneasy hearing about the benefits of breastfeeding, I know that this isn’t a topic everyone is happy discussing. I didn’t want to hear it for a long time. The simple truth is that by 6 weeks, breastfeeding Mothers are in the minority, which means that at 6 weeks of age, the majority of babies are at an increased risk of ear and other infections, asthma, cancer, acute respiratory disease, allergies, obesity in later childhood and adult hood, chronic diseases such as IBS, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease in adulthood, diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as fertility problems and SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). This isn’t a case of choosing between white and brown bread at lunchtime. I totally get that for women who can’t breastfeed, or women who don’t want to breastfeed, acknowledging that formula feeding carries significant health risks is awkward at best. Sometimes it feels like someone is saying you’re less of a parent for knowingly (or unknowingly) putting your child at a risk of being unhealthy. Let me be very clear that that is not my attitude, and that I strongly believe that there is no correlation between ability to parent well, and infant feeding method. However, we can’t ignore the fact that if we continue to accept formula feeding as the social norm and pussy foot around speaking loud and clear about the risks associated with artificial feeding, we are going to see this crisis become a disaster.

Formula is not, and never will be “as good as” breast milk. It just won’t. If you’re using it, and preparing it safely, you’re not being attacked by this statement. Human babies are born with a body that expects to receive human breastmilk. No baby is born with enzymes in his/her digestive system that have been created in perfect balance to receive modified corn starch, or the powdered milk of another (very different) animal, or sunflower oil, or many of the other ingredients in infant formula. Formula can and will keep a baby alive, which is great, alive babies are a good thing  – and if you’re in a situation where formula is necessary for your baby’s survival then obviously I’m a proud advocate of it’s use. Formula however, if not the natural food of human babies.

Formula feeding is A-OK. Sometimes it’s totally necessary. Often it saves lives.

Breastfeeding is important. Not breastfeeding puts lives in danger. Babies deserve to be breastfed if possible.

Over 800,000 infant deaths could be avoided every year by enabling Mother’s to breastfeed. Those figures don’t simply apply to babies in developing countries. In the UK, formula feeding increases your baby’s risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (dying suddenly in their sleep) by approximately 54%.

We must cease to use World Breastfeeding Week as an opportunity to draw attention away from the important message that it’s founders are seeking to spread. Even if you don’t/didn’t/can’t/couldn’t/won’t/wouldn’t breastfeed – World Breastfeeding Week is still an opportunity for you to encourage more women to breastfeed, to acknowledge and amplify the message that breastmilk is vital to babies wherever it is available, and to listen and learn from breastfeeding Mothers sharing their experiences, past and present. A poorly considered blog post about how World Breastfeeding Week annoys you, trivialises the fact that baby’s are literally dying because we don’t circulate the correct information to new parents. Stop it.

 

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