Breastfeeding Uncovered: Why are breastfeeding rates so low in the UK?
Tonight, I watched with mild trepidation Channel 4’s Dispatches: Breastfeeding Uncovered. I was worried that it would somehow paint breastfeeding in a negative light, or just feature lots of gratuitous boob shots and it would all just feel a bit awkward. However, I needn’t have worried.
The main focus of the programme was to look at why breastfeeding rates in the UK are some of the lowest in the world, something our blog earlier this month also discussed. Most women want to breastfeed (80%), but only half are breastfeeding at 6 weeks, and only 30% are giving any breast milk at all at 6 months, with a tiny 1% exclusively breastfeeding by that point.
The programme made it clear that individual women are not to blame. Sue Ashmore from Unicef’s UK Baby Friendly Initiative said instead it was an issue with society as a whole. “We have such a bottle feeding culture that if you have problems, the answer tends to be to bottle feed”.
Thankfully we have formula as an option for those who need an alternative way to feed their babies. The programme was not criticising women who choose to formula feed, but more looking at why some might feel that they would be better off formula feeding, or those who felt unsupported when they wanted to breastfeed.
One issue is that, “67% think there is no biological difference between breast milk and formula”. So if those parents experience an issue, they may be easily tempted to move onto formula to rectify it, and clever marketing from formula companies doesn’t help the issue.
The programme went on to clearly outline the health benefits of breastfeeding, and Dr Natalie Shenker and Dr Simon Cameron from Imperial College London showed the huge variety of components of breast milk, something that simply cannot be replicated in formula. “Human milk is more than just nutrition for the baby. It is also about priming the immune system for a baby that is born almost defenceless… It establishes lifelong health” (Dr Simon Cameron). Therefore, wherever possible, breastfeeding should be encouraged for those long-term health benefits.
Another issue is the heartbreaking fact that other people’s attitudes towards breastfeeding are affecting women’s decision to stop breastfeeding. One older woman interviewed about breastfeeding in public said she felt it was a private thing between the mother and child and it was not a “spectator sport”.
Of course, mums don’t feed in public for attention; they feed in public if their child needs feeding! Would we really still be suggesting in 2018 that a mum has to hide away to feed their child? In a public toilet? Never leaving the home just in case baby gets hungry? Kate Quilton breastfed throughout the programme and not once did we see her nipple. We saw lots of other mums breastfeeding and at most we saw the top of their boobs – but no more than we see in a low-cut top or bikini. Why are we okay with lingerie adverts in shop windows but not okay with a mother discreetly breastfeeding her baby? Clearly we have a way to go still to target public opinion and reduce the scrutiny breastfeeding mums face.
I felt proud watching that programme to have continued breastfeeding my son even when I felt awkward feeding in public. Even when I felt alone in my journey. And even when people suggested I stopped. As someone posted in a breastfeeding support group I’m part of, "I could cry with pride and relief that I persevered".
We can only hope that programmes like Dispatches go some way to change the public perception of breastfeeding to stop the stigma, and take away the fear that some women feel about breastfeeding in public. And hopefully more people are now informed about why breastfeeding is so beneficial.
And for those that need support and may be a victim of the ‘postcode lottery’ of funding cuts, reach out online - to breastfeeding groups; to us! There is a wealth of information online but you can also find your ‘village’. You may not need practical support with your latch; you might have been very lucky and had no pain, no mastitis, and no issues with supply. But you may still need support.
If you’ve had a bad night, it’s not helpful for someone to suggest they might ‘need a bottle to fill them up’.
If it’s hot, someone telling you they need water makes you worry unnecessarily (as breast milk is 88% water, exclusively breastfed babies do not need anything extra – check out the facts here).
If you say you feel awkward feeding in public, you need someone to build your confidence, remind you it’s your legal right, and take you out for a coffee, not suggest you cover your child’s head when this wouldn’t work for you and your baby.
And sometimes you just need to know others understand when breastfeeding feels hard. We hope that you feel that here at Ordinary Mothers we do understand, and if we can do anything to support you on your breastfeeding journey, just get in touch and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction. Or check out our Top Tips for prolonging breastfeeding for things that helped other mothers on their breastfeeding journey.
We’d love to hear if any of our content has helped you on your breastfeeding journey in the comments!