In my opinion, there are two main factors behind the low rates of breastfeeding in the U.K. – and they are availability of support, and culture.
In fact, the culture kind of ties in to support. Because although I’m not talking about the kind of one to one, individually tailored support that can really make a difference to whether a mother and baby struggling to breastfeed are able to succeed, in a wider context, the attitude of society in general can affect whether a mother feels supported in her decision to breastfeed.
Breast is not best, it’s just normal. But in a culture which has seen two, perhaps three generations increasingly use formula milk, the baby feeding method which has been normal for hundreds of years has now become a massively contentious subject which can inspire huge divisions, stress and pressure for new mothers.
So how can we normalise breastfeeding again? Certainly, if more mothers are seen out and about feeding their babies, if mothers don’t feel that they have to hide away in toilets or feeding rooms to actually do it, if young children grow up seeing breastfeeding happen and don’t recognise it as anything other than a normal, natural way to feed a baby, then that would definitely help! Would spending money on education and support actually achieve that?
New parents can be told antenatally about infant feeding methods, and the positives and negatives associated with each. Having a bit of information about feeding is useful, and if you don’t know anything about it beforehand, then it’s helpful to at least understand what is involved with the different options available. But when it comes down to it, when you have your new baby and your baby is screaming with hunger and won’t latch on, will you remember these? Or will the decisions that you make come down to the support you have around you?
Personally, I didn’t think too much about the link between breastfeeding and health outcomes when I made a decision about how I would like to feed my first baby. And there is no denying that there is a link between breastfeeding and health, although some critics would argue about exactly how positive these links are. But for me, it really came down to the fact that breastfeeding is free. And, being on a budget, the fact that it is free could only be a good thing.
Even so, I wasn’t actually able to exclusively breastfeed the Wee Man in the first few weeks. I didn’t feel bad about giving him formula, but I did feel stubborn about proving that I COULD breastfeed if I wanted to, and so I continued to try.
And being offered £200 of vouchers to do so would not have changed that. I wouldn’t have tried harder (I couldn’t have!). I wouldn’t have refused to give him formula when he was hungry either.
But what it might change, and what might have helped me get to where I wanted to be sooner, is the level of support behind breastfeeding. Because lets face it, if more mothers are considering breastfeeding, then there is going to be more demand for support. That’s not to say that the demand isn’t already there – in fact research shows that 9 out of 10 mothers who don’t continue to breastfeed say they would have liked to, given the support – but what it will mean is that the Government will have to give a lot more consideration to it. I don’t see how it is possible to introduce a scheme like this, without also ensuring that there is support available to ensure wherever possible that those who do decide to breastfeed (and medically speaking, the vast majority of women can) are able to do so. Hospitals will be under pressure to make sure support is available. Midwives and health visitors will be under pressure to make sure it is available. And perhaps women who are told in hospital, as I was, ‘oh, just give him a bottle of formula’ might feel more able to question that advice.
And feeding in public might perhaps be seen as more acceptable too. Yes, onlookers might possibly think to themselves that a mother is only doing it to get her £200, but in the materialistic culture that we have today, that is in fact seen as an acceptable justification – even where health outcomes might not be!
What it also means, is that society is actually actively considering breastfeeding as an option. That there is increased awareness of breastfeeding, and the reasons for doing it, even if those reasons aren’t necessarily the ones that others think are most important. Where previously, new parents might not even have given any thought to the option of breastfeeding, where they’ve seen the formula and the bottles and the baby marketing and the ‘must buy lists’ and assumed that bottle feeding is the way to go, they might instead have a little think about all the options for feeding their baby.
So, linking to what I said above, having breastfeeding seen as more acceptable, having it seen as normal, having children growing up witnessing breastfeeding going on, is half the battle. Because those children will grow up, have their children, and – perhaps like I did – just assume that breastfeeding is the normal way in which babies are fed.
£200 in vouchers may seem a funny way to get there. But – with the support and information behind it to help it succeed – it might just work.