July 9, 2008

Too Many Mothers Not Breastfeeding


MATERNITY services were rated this year (for the first time ever) as to the quality of care provided.

We now know that Gateshead's Foundation Trust is one of the best- performing providers in the country. Seven months ago I gave birth in what was rated fair, but I found to be excellent: Oxford's John Radcliffe.

What worried me most about after-birth care was something Unicef UK raised as an issue in 2002: our national strategy on breastfeeding. It just isn't very good, the strategy that is.

Whether children are breast or formula fed matters significantly, because breastfeeding plays an important role in public health and in addressing inequalities. "The sad fact is most babies are not breastfed for anywhere near as long as they should be.

The benefits include protection against gut, lung and chest infections; a reduced likelihood of developing allergies, childhood diabetes, asthma, or eczema; a reduced risk of obesity or cot death; better brain development and an IQ on average seven points higher than those that are largely formula fed.

Breastfed babies are being allowed to express natural behaviour: a desire to suckle their mother both for food and comfort. Mothers benefit from a reduced likelihood of breast or ovarian cancer. Their bodies return to a pre-pregnancy state more quickly, regardless of how many slices of cake are consumed every day (certainly a benefit in my mind).

The 2005 NHS survey into infant feeding found only 48% of UK mothers were still breastfeeding their babies at six weeks old and only 25% at six months. Count only those exclusively using breast milk as opposed to a mixture of breast and bottle, and the figures drop further. This is far less time breastfeeding than recommended.

If this many women are genuinely unable to breastfeed for very long, then surely the survival of the human race and the current population of the developing world are miracles.

What's more, the better educated and older a woman is, the more likely she is to successfully breastfeed. If a woman's own mother bottlefed, she is more likely to go down this route thus making bottlefeeding habitual in many families.

Our society and the formula feed marketeers have normalised bottlefeeding. TV soaps present babies as bottlefed. Baby dolls in shops often come with bottles. It sends out a message that bottlefeeding is fine: it might be fine as a last resort, but it clearly isn't the best option for most babies.

Support for breastfeeding should be given much higher priority. We need more high-quality, specialised support for women in the first month after birth when they are vulnerable and exhausted. We need to provide in-home support in the critical early weeks to ensure women don't give up on breastfeeding without a damn good fight.

Health visitors and midwives have more than enough to do dealing with the other health concerns of new mums and babies, and many lack the necessary training. What we need are more specialist breastfeeding counsellors.

We should never make those women who, in spite of help, genuinely cannot breastfeed feel guilty. However, pretending that breastfeeding isn't better or allowing women to continue to give up too early because of a lack of informed guidance or for reasons that are more like an excuse than a necessity, is to do a disservice to babies.

More women bottlefeed than could reasonably need to and we need to do more to tackle this. The benefits of breastfeeding need to be conveyed forcefully, just as much as the support for women to help them feed successfully needs to be provided more routinely.

Fay Tinnion is a teacher and Labour Party activist in Gateshead

The sad fact is most babies are not breastfed for anywhere near as long as they should be

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