Supporting breastfeeding, a battle that can’t be won?


My heart is heavy. There is a battle raging that I fear will not be won. It is becoming increasingly harder to keep my spirits high. What is this battle that is raging? Simply, to support women to breastfeed their babies.

Over the last few weeks there has what can only be described as a war of words in the media. It started with a celebrity stating that he wanted to raise a campaign to help breastfeeding mothers get the support they needed. Let battle commence!

What I saw over the next week was women on both sides resorting to the most cruel of comments and basically setting up camp against each other. My heart sinks, weighed down because in the sea of words, the hurt and the pain, the loss, the grief and the need to be heard, we have lost sight of something, that breastfeeding really does matter.

I would implore you for just the next few minutes that you read this blog, with your heart wide open and with your personal experience put a side and that together we think about the big picture that we are all facing. This isn’t about pressure or guilt, but a real public health issue that we all must acknowledge. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and pretend that it does not matter, because it does. This isn’t about those who have made informed choices on how to feed their baby, or about those who are unable to breastfeed may be due to medical reasons. This is about the majority of families, communities and the bigger picture, because I can honestly see a time when breastfeeding will be almost obsolete.

Breastfeeding rates are at there lowest, funding to support women who want to breastfeed is being cut everywhere, yet this week I have attended two national meetings both to address infant health and breastfeeding was top of the agenda for both. Yet it was openly acknowledged that this issue cannot be addressed because it causes public outcry, that as soon as breastfeeding is mentioned all hell breaks loose.

While it is known that breastfeeding is important to the health of our babies, funding to help mothers breastfeed is dwindling away. Let’s think about that for a minute, two infant health issues that affect the health of our children and are costing the health service millions of pounds each year and they cannot be addressed publicly because of the reaction it may incite.

Is this really how bad things have got, that the word ‘breastfeed” has almost become a dirty word?  What has happened that we cannot look past our own feelings to admit what actually is needed to protect the future health and generations of our precious children? Not only that but the very organisations that admit that breastfeeding impacts long term health are too worried to say so because it is viewed as ‘pressure’. Not only that but there is complete reluctance to give funding to provide the help that families need.

So what really is going on here?

The undermining of parents, their abilities and a total lack of accurate information and support.

The result?

Parents doubting they can breastfeed, a lack of services and medical systems that a letting families down. There are forums upon forums of mothers saying they were unable to feed their baby due to cracked nipples, thinking they didn’t have enough milk, not understanding newborn behaviour, concern over weight gain or their babies sleep pattern, tongue ties, mastitis, yes I could go on and on. Yet these are things that can be overcome and yet mothers are having, yes ‘having’ to give up feeding their baby because of them, why? Because there is so much incorrect information out there. Healthcare professions are struggling with little training and no time to spend with families to support feeding. Peer support is undervalued and funding being cut and so parents are left stumbling in the dark trying to struggle through, unsupported and confused. This then leaves parents feeling like ‘they’ have failed. Is it then any wonder that even the mention of breastfeeding is enough to evoke an outcry of hurt and pain. Of course, they haven’t in any way failed, but have been failed by the systems in place that are meant to support them. 

Yet the reality is that we are stuck in a cycle,  families are told to breastfeed for the health benefits – there is no support to breastfeed – families then struggle to breastfeeding – breastfeeding becomes less and less – result, more issues around public health. Then add to this that trying to address the issues is seen as pressure by those families who have been let down, results in them voicing their hurt and pain at even the very mention of breastfeeding.

So does it really matter if families breastfeed?

There is overwhelming evidence that it does, I could sit here and quote it to you for the next hour but if we all honestly open our hearts we know that it does. Yet admitting that breastfeeding matters hurts, its painful and it’s awful to think that while we are all trying to do right by our children we actually we may not have been able to. It may mean that whenever we hear about breastfeeding we want to shout from the rooftops, get angry and shout because our heart hurts. It also makes us defensive, “my child is fine” or “it doesn’t matter really”. The trouble is this doesn’t get us anywhere. It doesn’t solve the systems that are failing parents, it doesn’t ease the pain of parents that have been let down and it doesn’t solve the health issues that we face.

So what can we do?

Well what we need to do firstly is, ‘down arms’ and stop fighting. Why are we fighting each other? The truth is we are all being let down, yet we are becoming our own worst enemy. Who is benefiting from the war of words? The celebrity who spoke out was so media bashed he retracted his comments a few days later, the result? What could have been a national voice that could have raised the issue of support, now silenced. Not only that but something else that really troubles me is that as a father, a husband who sought to speak out was silenced and his voice ignored. Time and time again we talk about getting fathers involved in parenting, caring for their babies, supporting women and being good role models. Yet here is a father that speaks out and is slammed down. Why can we not see that we are only hurting ourselves, our families, our communities?

Instead of the fighting, the slinging of hurtful words, the slamming down of ones that try to speak up about the very really issue of breastfeeding, why can we not join together and fight the real causes of the issues we face as families?

If you didn’t have support shout about it, not to those that are trying to support breastfeeding or those trying to secure more services, but those responsible for the lack of it.

If you chose to not breastfeed and you have made a choice that is right for you then it is important that this is respected, but also that you own your choice and the fact you had the right to make it. However also see that there are many families out there that do want to breastfeed and they need support, just as you need support with your chosen way to feed. When these speak up about the lack of support it isn’t to make anyone feel guilty, only to say they need help. Why would we deny help to anyone? Support should be equal to all.

Remember that discussing breastfeeding and why it is beneficial is not a personal attack on anyone. We know that everyone is doing everything they can to do right by their little ones. But we have to make sure that we give the truth to families because their health matters. We all have choices, whether it be to eat donuts all day, exercise or how to feed a baby. You have the right to make those choices, but you also have the right to be told the truth, the risks and the benefits so you can make an informed choice. Do we really want to be in a situation where we are not told the health implications of the choices we make? We accept this about other aspects of parenting, that we must use a car seat, or how to safely sleep with a baby, how to make up formula safely, yet if we try to do this about breastfeeding suddenly it becomes pressure, guilt and taboo.

If you couldn’t breastfeed your baby you may find it hurts you when you hear breastfeeding mentioned. Maybe you couldn’t because you had a medical condition or due to medications you needed to take. For you, you had no choice. You have nothing to feel guilty about, you are absolutely doing everything you can to care for your child, often in very difficult circumstances. What more can anyone ask? We can’t always do and give our children everything that we would like to. But we can look and see that others who may be able to breastfeed are struggling and not getting the support they deserve from the systems around them. Everyone deserves support for the issues their family faces.

If you tried to breastfeed, whether it be one feed, one day, one month or one year then give yourself the credit you deserve. If I had a pound for everytime a mom said ” I only breastfed for…”, I would be very rich indeed. Every feed, every drop is an achievement. It is not something to be viewed negatively or as not good enough. You don’t fail when you try because what matters is you tried to do something you desperately wanted to do. Yes maybe you were undermined, or let down or given the wrong information, but that doesn’t diminish what you did achieve. But what you can do is fight to give other families what you didn’t have, the support, the help, the information. Channel your frustration, your hurt, your pain into making a difference for others.

So let us not fight each other. We need each other, we need each other’s support. When we fight a war of cruel words no one wins, it only seeks to create more wounds. Instead let us look with new eyes, let us see that we all face very real issues regarding our health and yes breastfeeding is one of them.

It is a choice that families must make, but let it be a choice we make armed with the weapons that help us to make the right choice. No one should say “I had to give up”, no one should say, “I wasn’t supported to feed my baby”, whatever way they choose. As women we have spent many years fighting for choice, fighting for support, fighting to be heard. If we turn on each other what then? Where do we turn? Rather let us unite and fight battles that can be won, that mean equal support, equal choice and also the truth.

I’ve seen the difference support makes, seen families go from despair to joy. I’ve helped mothers to start their breastfeeding journey and end it. We all need each other, we all need to instead of fighting each other, realise that the battle is not with ourselves but with the systems that try to undermine us.

Breastfeeding does matter, it matters because just as we have the right to choose not to breastfeed, we have the right to breastfeed with help, support and that right should be protected too. Let us work together to protect all our rights, own our choices and win our battles, whatever they may be.


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