I’ve been thinking about this more this week as I’ve been drafting a statement on breastfeeding for a journalist on behalf of Doula UK (in my role as Head of External Communications), with the help of some on our amazing Infant Feeding Group members.
“Breast is best” has been the official tagline for breastfeeding promotion campaigns for some years in the UK. It’s catchy, it rhymes….but is it right? It has always been criticised by those women who did not achieve their breastfeeding goals, but it also gets a lot of criticism from those that work tirelessly to support mums and babies on their breastfeeding journey.
Let me do my bit to set the record straight.
Breast is NOT best.
Breastfeeding is the physiological norm for human infants.
Feeding a human baby human milk has numerous protective benefits for baby (which I always thinks sounds like a “well, d’oh!” phrase when written like that!). Breastfeeding has protective benefits for both baby and mum.
If a mum feeds her baby artificial infant formula, then the baby has more chance of getting diarrhoea and vomiting (and being hospitalised for it), ear & chest infections, eczema and Type 2 Diabetes and if a mum does not breastfeed she has more chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer in later life. There may well be numerous other risks, but those are the ones with really solid levels of evidence. Oh and that’s for a mum and baby in the UK, not a third world country.
81% of UK mums initiate breastfeeding, with 69% exclusively breastfeeding after birth, so it would seem the “breast is best” message has got through.
But despite the recommendations (from the NHS, UNICEF, the WHO) on duration of breastfeeding – that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life, with breastfeeding then continuing alongside the introduction of solid foods for as long as mum & baby both want to, ideally for at least 2 years – only 23% of UK mums are exclusively breastfeeding by the time their babies get to 6 WEEKS old.
Support, the right support at the right time (which I think means from before baby is born and pretty much 24/7 if needed!), is a deal-breaker for breastfeeding. Get it right and mums generally achieve their breastfeeding goals and quite possibly exceed them. Mums who are supported by a doula, Breastfeeding Counsellor or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant are far more likely to establish breastfeeding successfully, not because they are pressured or judged, but because they have access to facts, emotional support and practical help they need. Hiring a doula sure as hell does not protect you from problems like tongue tie, but it does mean you should be better informed and better supported.
So often I have heard “breast is not best because … struggling unsuccessfully led to PND / my baby would’ve starved because we weren’t breastfeeding properly / I couldn’t cope with breastfeeding whilst looking after my other children myself / etc, etc”. So, so many of these stories have one common theme. A lack of decent support. Baby’s tongue tie doesn’t get diagnosed till day 10 when breastfeeding was already badly compromised? Poor support. Nipple trauma from using poor positioning and attachment in the days after birth? Poor support. Not enough help so you can care for yourself and baby while you establish breastfeeding and recover from birth? Poor support. I can go on forever.
Breast is not best. Breastfeeding is the physiological norm for human infants, and the fact that so many mothers do not successfully establish breastfeeding says NOTHING about the benefits of breastfeeding over using infant formula, and EVERYTHING about how mothers and babies are being failed by the system that should be supporting them.
The photo at the top of this post is me breastfeeding my first newborn, awkwardly, anxiously and in fear because of poor support. It is one of my least favourite breastfeeding photos but it shows me how far I have come.