"Breastfeeding is an unequalled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants; it is also an integral part of the reproduction process with important implications for the health of mothers. As a global health recommendation, infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Thereafter, to meet their evolving nutritional requirements, infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to 2 years or beyond. Exclusive breastfeeding from birth is possible except for a few medical conditions, and unrestricted exclusive breastfeeding results in ample milk production."
So there you have it - the official guidelines from those in the know....so why is there so much debate over breastfeeding? Why are people surprised to see babies older than 6 months breastfeeding? Obviously I am only talking about in the UK here, as I can't speak for anywhere else. I think the answers are quite simple really:
1) Breastfeeding can be hard work to get established. It can be painful and sore.
2) Breastfeeding is often hidden away as something private, particularly with older children. Therefore unless you know someone who breastfeeds, your experience with it may be very limited or even non-existent.
3) It's an emotional topic and when breastfeeding doesn't work out for someone, it can affect how they feel about it.
Apparently only 2% of women cannot physically breastfeed either due to medical conditions or for an unknown reason. A common misconception, particularly in the 1960's and 1970's, was an inability to feed due to a lack of milk. It is unlikely that this would truly have been the case for the majority of women who switched to formula milk. This was a time when women were advised to put their babies into 4 hourly routines and not feed them in the night time which is has since been evidenced as being detrimental to milk supply. However it is something that is still said today, and many mothers are still worrying about routines and length of time between feeds, and consequently questioning their ability to produce enough milk. There is also little known about growth spurts, so when the baby is suddenly feeding all day and all night to increase milk supply, again mother's can question their milk production - sometimes leading to early weaning onto solids; but that's another debate!
So anyway that's the guidelines and official figures - still doesn't tell you my opinion does it? 98% of women can breastfeed....does that mean that 98% should? No I don't believe it does. Nor do I believe that repeatedly telling people the health benefits is the way to increase the number of breastfeeding mothers. I believe that some antenatal class teachers, some of whom are midwives, are almost frightened to talk about the difficulties that women may have with breastfeeding, worried that it will stop women from even trying. Some midwives don't discuss breastfeeding at appointments for a variety of reasons, such as not having enough time, thinking it's too early to consider, that it will be covered by antenatal classes, that anything that is said won't be remembered anyway etc.
Some women don't want to breastfeed. They don't want to try and it doesn't matter what anyone says to them, they simply don't want to do it. Is that wrong? Well it might be an alien feeling to my own, but it doesn't make it wrong. We are lucky to live in a country of choice, where formula can be made up safely with clean water and for some women the choice is clear, and they choose formula.
A lack of support is probably the most common reason for women to stop breastfeeding - whether it is a lack of support from health professionals or family and friends. This can be combined with pain, or a lack of knowledge about how breastfed babies feed. I have alluded to routines and growth spurts already but this aggravated by comments such as "are you feeding that baby again?" or "why don't you give that baby a bottle?". There is no benefit to comments such as this and for a mother who has pain and is unsure what she is doing, it can't help.
Some women try to breastfeed but stop because of pain and soreness. There can be a number of reasons that there is pain during breastfeeding, most of which can be corrected. If the baby is positioned incorrectly, then the nipple can become very sore, cracked, even bleeding. If the mother is given support and advice before too much damage is caused, then the mother can go on to breastfeed as long as she likes. Poor positioning can sometimes also lead to mastitis as the milk ducts aren't emptied properly but again with the correct support and advice this is easily remedied. Nipple thrush can be another cause of pain to the mother, but also to the baby. Once identified, both the mother and baby must be treated simultaneously or it will continue to be passed from one to the other. Thrush can be a nuisance to get rid of, and it can be a nuisance to get the correct treatment for, but with the correct support and advice, it is easily dealt with. Engorgement is also a common cause of pain for the mother, especially when the milk first comes in. The easiest way to deal with it is feeding the baby although it can make it harder to get the baby latched on, in which case, it can be easier to express a little milk off just to make the breast softer. There are other causes of pain of course, but these tend to be the most common so I have focused on these for now.
However before anyone thinks this is a pro-formula post, it isn't. For me, it is like choosing to buy powdered dried milk in the supermarket instead of the bottles of milk in the chiller. It is a perfectly good substitute but it's not what I would choose - give me fresh every time! Wouldn't you say that's what most people do? Isn't that how breastfeeding should be? The norm? In cultures where breastfeeding is the norm, problems with positioning are practically non-existent. Women are used to seeing breastfeeding, and learn from childhood how to position their babies. They automatically support each other, and after giving birth, the family rallies around so that the mother can get used to her baby and get feeding established, without worrying about visitors and the housework.
I am proud that I have breastfed my children. Whilst the health benefits didn't matter to me before, they do now. I am glad that I have given them the best start in life but at the same time I am incredibly grateful that I had the right support in order for that to happen. I hope I don't come across as smug about it, but actually help to further the view that breastfeeding can be easy, pain free and enjoyable and that it might just be worth a go?