July 22, 2008

This Woman is Still Breastfeeding Her Two-Year-Old Child


I DON'T know when breastfeeding in public stopped being an issue for me.

In the early days, I would fi nd myself in restaurants feeling like a rabbit in the headlights, trying to juggle shawl, breast and baby's head somewhere around the level of the dining table, while balancing food on a fork and attempting to avoid dropping it into the convenient receptacle of my son's ear.

It didn't matter that I knew it was illegal to stop any woman breastfeeding in a public place in Scotland.

I was self-conscious, at odds with this new body of mine. Even in private I was struggling to get baby, mouth and nipple to meet in any non-traumatic way, so the public performance was fraught. And no matter how assiduously my partner worked at repositioning the shawl on my shoulder, the panicked, flushed couple trying to hide out in the back corner were distressingly conspicuous.

Things are easier now. Fellow diners rarely even notice that I am feeding and slipping my son's head under my T-shirt has come to seem a normal thing to do. It may still not quite be a normal thing for some people to see, however, particularly now that he is over a year old, but it seems to me that the more we stop juggling shawls and treat breastfeeding as a normal function, the more it will become the automatic choice for all new mothers.

The Breastfeeding (Scotland) Act of 2005, which made it an offence to stop someone from breastfeeding n a public place, was informed by the belief that getting it out there in the open would encourage uptake. By allowing women to get on with their lives with baby in tow, it might also encourage them to breastfeed for longer.

Today, similar legislation is being processed for England and Wales. Equalities minister Harriet Harman says that her forthcoming bill will make clear that "it is not acceptable for women who are breastfeeding their babies to be shooed out of restaurants, public galleries or other public places". However, while the Holyrood act covers children up to two years old, the Westminster plans have sparked anger because they only cover babies of six months or younger. Given that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for up to 24 months and beyond, why should women feeding older babies have to do so in private? It's true that, since less than 1per cent of British mothers even follow the WHO recommendation of breastfeeding exclusively for the fi rst six months, such women are a tiny minority. But they do exist, and as the mother of a breastfeeding 15month-old boy, I'm one of them.

In researching this article I met several women who have breastfed their children beyond two years old, some until the youngsters self-weaned at four-and-a-half. None felt it was a problem to breastfeed in public. One even suckled her four-month- old while conducting job interviews.

Rosemary Brotchie, still happily breastfeeding two-and-a-half- year-old Harriet, says: "People sometimes come up to me when I'm breastfeeding and touch Harriet and say, 'What a lovely baby'.

They don't seem to realise she is breastfeeding. Or else they are too embarrassed to say."

So how do we explain the media outrage that the Westminster legislation has generated? Irate radio chat show callers have talked of their disgust at seeing an exposed breast. Meanwhile, blogs and online newspaper comment pages have been full of statements like this: "Girls, breastfeed discreetly by all means, but please don't do it brazenly in restaurants and cafes. That just looks common and slatternly." And: "It's not misogyny to find a big, fat, ugly woman breastfeeding in public utterly repulsive. It's a normal reaction."

Evidently, some people find the lactating breast more unsettling than a pornographic image. So it's little wonder that many women still feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding.

Has the Holyrood law increased the uptake of the practice? Not yet. In the three-and-a-half years since it was enacted, levels have remained fairly stable, even declining in some areas.

In 1994, the UK government set an ambitious target of encouraging 50per cent of women to breastfeed by 2005, but while there was a signifi cant increase from 30per cent to around 36per cent between 1994 to 2005, the rise seems to have levelled off and we remain far short of that ambitious goal of seeing half of all mothers breastfeeding for six weeks or more.

Why is it proving so difficult to remould a culture of filling our babies with cows', rather than human, milk? And why, when 75per cent of women say they want to breastfeed, are so few making it through to the six-month mark? Baby milk companies still exert some influence. Prohibited from advertising formula aimed at babies under six months, they are permitted to do so for follow-on feeds for older babies, and can therefore promote their early infant milk products by association. Phrases such as "inspired by breast milk" and "close to breast milk" are vague enough to muddy perceptions. A 2005 survey found that 34per cent of women incorrectly believed that formula is the same or almost the same as breast milk.

Then there is the matter of support for breastfeeding mothers. Linda Woolfson, infant feeding co-ordinator for Greater Glasgow and Clyde, points out that although breastfeeding is a natural function, women still have to learn how to do it.

And it's not easy. Friends tell me they would rather go through childbirth again than suffer the pain that can accompany the fi rst few weeks of breastfeeding. If labour is the acute 100-metre sprint of maternity, breastfeeding can be a long, demoralising marathon. One friend described the pain she experienced as like glass slicing through her nipples. (Happily, she got through it and is still feeding a year later. ) Research suggests that painful nipples and the baby not suckling are among the commonest reasons cited by women who give up within a fortnight.

Six weeks is considered a turning point, the impression being that if you can make it to that milestone, things will get easy. For me, that was the hardest stage. As soon as one feed fi nished, I would start dreading the next. My son was slipping down the weight charts, shrinking in relation to his pillow-thighed and double- chinned baby peers.

On the brink of giving up, I decided to attend a support group. Someone in the group suggested I try lying bare-chested, with my baby also naked, and letting him crawl up from my belly and latch on himself. I spent the following few days allowing him to wriggle over me until he found the breast. It half-worked, but it also meant being stuck at home for weeks on end. I couldn't imagine restaurateurs or shopkeepers welcoming the sight of a woman stretched out on the fl oor, stripped to the waist with an infant crying and squirming all over her.

IS pain inevitable? As a new mother, I remember being told repeatedly that if it was sore, then I was doing it wrong. Linda Woolfson points out that the right sort of support and teaching should eliminate much of the discomfort associated with feeding. Meanwhile, Karla Napier, a La Leche League counsellor who helped me through my early problems, says: "I wonder how much of the pain women experience is created by the way we help women to breastfeed in our culture. We try so hard to help, that I think we actually interfere with normal processes."

Six weeks was not the only point at which I came close to giving up. Returning to work was another.

But although work is seen as one of the commonest factors in discouraging prolonged breastfeeding, plenty of women manage to continue after their maternity leave ends. When Rosemary Brotchie went back to work, she decided to continue nursing seven-month-old Harriet. "Because I had a struggle starting off breastfeeding I was determined I wasn't going to stop." She was, she says, "quite militant" about taking breaks in order to express milk.

I, too, kept feeding after returning to work, but my approach was much more random than Brotchie's. Too disorganised to drop feeds in the fi nal weeks of maternity leave, I continued on a wing and a prayer.

My baby's fi rst birthday was the next stage at which I almost gave up. Where I live, there is a middle-class acceptability level when it comes to breastfeeding. The general impression is that it's right and good to keep it up until your baby is about six months old. Continue up to a year old, and you're doing something extra special. Go beyond that, and you are starting to get weird. Current cultural mores determine that breastfeeding is good:

but not too much, and not too conspicuously.

What constitutes "too much" depends on where you are geographically, and in which strata of society you occupy. In England and Wales, the equality bill seems to suggest that "too much" means anything beyond six months. Too much, in some council estates where breastfeeding rates remain disturbingly low, might be anything beyond the first few days in hospital.

Gillian Baxendine, who fed her daughter until she was four, recalls the reaction of fellow mothers.

"For about a year to 18 months they kept asking, 'Well when are you going to stop?' Then they just started to joke about it: wondering whether she was going to be fi nished by the time she went to school, or university."

For me - the middle-class daughter of a breastfeeding mother - the decision to do the same seemed straightforward. But for the 25per cent of women who have no wish to breastfeed, that choice is not straightforward at all. As a community midwife, Linda Woolfson once visited a young girl in Glasgow and asked her how she was going to feed her baby.

"In the normal way, " she replied. "Oh, you're going to breastfeed?" Woolfson said. "No, " replied the girl, "that's not normal."

For Woolfson, normalising breastfeeding is one of the most important elements of her job and involves getting to people early Her team has devised a nursery schools pack which looks at the images children encounter every day. "You would be surprised how many young children's books have pictures of babies being bottle- fed. There's always a baby in a pram with a bottle and a dummy."

Currently, it seems that the normal way for adults to see breasts is as sexual organs. The move to allow mothers and babies "skin to skin" contact in maternity hospitals signals that progress has been made on de-sexualising the breast According to Woolfson, when the idea was first mooted, Scottish health professionals were "aghast".

Sometimes, when I am feeding my son, I wonder how I got here. How did I get to a stage where I could travel through Europe with my baby, feeding him whenever and wherever is required? I used to think I was the only woman who had ever sat in the back of a car, curled like a circus contortionist around a rear-facing baby seat with my nipple pressed against my son's mouth. Now, having spoken to other mothers, I realise that the motorways are filled with such lactating cargoes, I wonder if breastfeeding will ever to become a normal practice in Scotland, as it has in Norway, where 99per cent of mothers manage to do it for six months. Scotland, as Woolfson points out, is a very different culture and the bottle remains a more familiar image of infant comfort than the bosom.

But the battle to change attitudes goes on.

Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.

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