More women doing it for longer.

There has been some talk lately about the pressure placed on women to breastfeed their babies.

Ninety-six percent of women in Australian initiate breastfeeding when their baby is born (Australian National Infant Feeding Survey, 2011), which is a cracking good statistic by world standards. It’s definitely up with the leading leaders in Northern Europe.

The well-worn promotional phrase “breast is best” may well be at least partly responsible for this excellent initiation rate, although breastfeeding advocates are well aware of a more pressing problem – that of keeping women breastfeeding.

In the first week after birth, many, many women who had planned to breastfeed either give their babies infant formula or stop breastfeeding completely. This is despite the best efforts to promote the World Health Organisation’s (and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council’s) recommendations that advise there are specific health benefits to babies when they receive ONLY breastmilk in the first six months of life.

The latest figures state that 15 percent of Australian babies are receiving only breastmilk just as they turn six months old.

The question of why this is happening is certainly of interest to breastfeeding advocates and researchers. There is every reason to believe that women who start to breastfeed plan to continue doing so, but as for many health behaviours, the reasons why women enact and sustain breastfeeding are extremely complex, and, I would say, intimately related to the context of their lives. This means that messages like “breast is best” have some power in people’s decision-making, but may not sustain their health behaviours over time.

More influential in the medium term for women breastfeeding their babies might be things like how much time off work a woman has after her baby is born, how supportive and knowledgeable about breastfeeding her friends, partner and family are, how much timely support she gets from health professionals if/when she has difficulties, how comfortable she is breastfeeding in public or even in front of other family members in her own home, and how much she actually enjoys the activity of breastfeeding.

Madeleine Morris’ new book, Guilt-free bottle feeding argues that women have too much pressure placed on them to breastfeed. Earlier, I assumed that 96 percent of Australian women were breastfeeding because they wanted to. It is unsurprising then, that when 96 percent of Australian women start off breastfeeding, our health system is somewhat geared towards supporting them to continue. The known health benefits to mother, baby and community of women breastfeeding might also explain the enthusiasm with which that support is offered.

As for individual guilt, it is generally unhelpful to blame those who helped you try to achieve the goals you set for yourself. Better to protest about the values of a society that purports to like the idea of breastfeeding, but doesn’t provide sufficient affordable, skilled support and education to those trying to do it.

Morris argues that there is really very little difference between breastmilk and baby formula, despite regularly stating throughout the book that of course breastmilk is the best and first choice for feeding a baby. Also confusing is her argument that women want to breastfeed because it is an activity that is inextricably linked in our society to the ideal of a good mother. Rather, the evidence we have suggests that women start and continue to breastfeed because of the health benefits it confers to babies.

There are also many women who struggle to breastfeed in public, whether because of overt comments or because they are worried about the possibility of comments being made. This situation is not likely to be reflective of a society head over heels in love with breastfeeding mothers.

The bigger question remains: if most women start off breastfeeding, why do so many start giving formula as well or stop completely?

To be honest, we don’t know enough about how best to support women to breastfeed. The Cochrane Collaboration’s review paper on support for breastfeeding women particularly mentions the lack of research examining women’s satisfaction with breastfeeding support. My doctoral research will ask women about their experience of care with lactation consultants. I will also observe lactation consultants in practice and talk to them about their work. I am excited by this opportunity to learn about women’s experiences of getting help to breastfeed. It will also be great to observe and talk with the health professionals who support women to breastfeed every day.

There is a happy ending to this story: the Cochrane review also notes that any form of breastfeeding support is most effective in populations with high breastfeeding initiation rates.images-6

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Fixing breastfeeding

 

There is no doubt that concerns about infant mortality rates in the USA at the end of the nineteenth century played a role in motivating the medical profession to find new, safe ways of providing nourishment to small babies.

I just can’t work out why there was so little effort to try and work with human lactation.  Wet nurses were (perhaps rightly) widely condemned, but lactation advice seemed to consist solely of offering something else to feed the baby. This complementary feeding almost inevitably led to weaning because of reduced ( or further reduced) feeding at the breast and then reduced stimulation to make more milk.

What about human milk banks? They seem not to have been thought of … formula was the substitute.

Milk sharing must have been endemic, just from the view of infant survival. And it’s a different phenomenon to wet-nursing: a trusted friend or family member provides the milk (and perhaps the breast), rather than a financial transaction. It is an act of trust between mothers. And then there’s the safety of having milk provided to your baby, that another mother is giving her baby. Many of you will know of the special “cousin” or sibling relationship that milk-sharing confers on babies as they grow up in Islamic cultures.

Dr Virginia Thorley is a Lactation Consultant, ABA counsellor and historian who has written about milk sharing:http://www.virginiathorley.com/Links.html

A pervasive and  general mistrust of the functioning of women’s bodies was certainly at play: breastmilk couldn’t be trusted to be consistently wholesome (not surprising given the prescribed conditions necessary for this), women’s bodies were unlikely to be able to produce enough of the stuff, and if there wasn’t enough, you had to give something else instead.

The parallels with men managing childbirth are obvious. Why trust nature when intervention could help so much? Also consider the manipulation of nature with regard to the regulation of rivers and mechanisation of agriculture…

Formula was apparently more attractive because medical practitioners were able to manipulate its contents according to “the baby’s needs”. The implication is that mothers were harder to manipulate! You bet.

But also there was a fundamental distrust of mothers’ ability to care for their babies in general. “Maternal education” was seen as vital to improving infant survival. This was done by means of pamphlets and booklets being produced. But the paediatrician or family physician was seen as the authoritative key to infant well-being. And as he knew little about lactation physiology, most mothers would be bottle-feeding before long.

Thank-you doctor!

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bash the breastfeeding supporter

Is it me?

Probs it is me.

It’s like when you notice women with prams everywhere when you’re pregnant.

Seems to me there’s a bit of beating up of breastfeeding supporters and advocates going on.

Allegedly they (we) are making women feel guilty about not breastfeeding.

Even when a woman has had a bilateral mastectomy for breast cancer (if you must know) … see Emily Wax http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/oct/18/breastfeeding-mothers-formula-breast-cancer%5D

A couple of my thoughts on this:

1.96% of women in Australia initiate breastfeeding. In my professional experience, first-time mothers who plan to bottle-feed their babies from the go-get are as rare as inverted nipples*. I’m guess I’m saying this is a very small group of women to be getting an awful lot of words written about them. They in no way should be judged for their decision, but I would hope that their decision is an informed one.

2.Women who are feeding their babies at least some formula are more and more numerous as time goes by…85% of Australian mothers, in fact, just before their babies turn six months old. So formula feeding to some extent in our culture is not a rare occurrence, although as to why this is….it’s complicated. But women who are formula feeding shoudn’t really feel like a marginalised group. By six months they are firmly in the majority.

What happens?

Lactation Consultants and midwives and peer counsellors who provide care for women and their newborn babies really  want to help the 96% of mothers  fulfil their goal of breast-feeding their babies.  Women need some/none/mega amounts of support to do this.

Some breast-feeding supporters are over-enthusiastic in the way they explain breastfeeding, or in the way they explain the benefits of breastfeeding. It’s all a pretty embarrassing scenario really, with breasts and nipples and crying babies and stuff.

And it’s also in the context of recovering from childbirth (with maybe one third of women recovering from major abdominal surgery), no sleep, managing visitors and a lack of privacy in hospital, perhaps a lack of general support from home too…

All in all it’s a very challenging environment to be teaching people about a new life skill. No wonder misundertandings arise.

Breastfeeding supporters know that this postnatal environment is a tough gig. It’s neither “technologic nor dramatic”.

They (we) do it because they feel privileged to be a part of this time with a family and their new baby – and all the promise it holds. Many do it because they themselves had difficulties with their own first or subsequent babies. Some do it because they feel that this time is one of the most important in a new family’s life, even though it’s the cinderella of maternity care (few doctors are interested or present, many midwives are more interested in labour and childbirth, it’s all happening in a pretty tricky environment,as I mentioned earlier, of sleep deprivation, post-operative pain, sore bums, bloody pads and renogotiated family relationships).

I’m saying that we’re not in it for the recognition or the laughs.

But we believe that if women set out to do something like breastfeed their baby, we’ll help them to, even when it gets tough.

Because they, and their babies are worth the effort.mother_BFing

 

*very uncommon indeed.

The challenge of making baby formula part 1.

When physicians in the US decided at the end of the nineteenth century to put their minds to making safer infant formula, they really threw themselves into the task.

Rima Apple’s history of infant feeding in the US: Mothers and Medicine, describes the complexity of the task of modifying cow’s milk to make it ok for little babies.

Possibly for many many years, cow’s milk was diluted with water as a simple substitute for breast milk.

From what I can gather, it seems like most babies would have had as much breastmilk as could be obtained from mother or other(?), with top-ups of cow’s milk or combinations thereof.  The almost official medical view was that most women were incapable of producing an adequate breastmilk supply, and that most breastmilk was of dubious quality (diet, exercise and sweetness of temperament were essential ingredients for ideal milk production).

The solution was to offer a cow’s milk substitute. Sound familiar?

I can only guess that the ill effects of tiny babies drinking raw watered-down cow’s milk were usually counteracted by the benefits of whatever breastmilk they were also receiving. Or not.  In some US cities in the 1890’s more than one third of babies died before their fifth birthdays. Somewhat complicating this was the widespread public view that bottle feeding was indeed dangerous for babies.

Understandably, there were concerns about the bacterial load in cow’s milk that arrived in urban centres from rural areas: raw, unrefrigerated and in open vats. Customers were often seen to take a sip of milk from the dipper to check for freshness and even home delivery of cow’s milk saw the milkman using the same dipper to fill household vessels (clean or cleanish) for every household on his delivery route. The milkman delivers!

So began campaigns to make cow’s milk safer for everyone: promotion of home pasteurisation, legislation that meant lids for milk vats were compulsory, milk stations positioned in urban centres with quality control standards and educational pamphlets for mothers…. and eventually, refrigeration for transport vehicles carrying cow’s milk.

But the real science was in the way cow’s milk was changed to suit a baby human’s digestive system. Complex percentage systems of adjusting the cream and water and milk sugar were devised by physician Thomas Morgan Rotch. He also added lime water (calcium hydroxide) to make the rather acidic cow’s milk more suitable for baby’s digestion.

For family doctors and paediatricians he recommended a chart be used that had 30 different combinations of cow’s milk formulae for babies up to 12 months old. Mothers were expected to consult regularly with their doctor for feeding adjustments in their baby’s first year.

Ironically perhaps, this multitude of different concoctions was designed to reflect the way mothers’ breastmilk varied over time.

And breastmilk continued to be recognised as the best way to feed a baby.But if there was difficulty with breastfeeding, there was little medical understanding of how problems could be remedied, part from offering bottles.

Rotch was influential in his work, but ultimately public health officials demanded simpler systems of devising baby formulae.  Importantly, the medical profession insisted that they be the first point of contact for guiding the mother in feeding her baby.  Manufacturers of baby milks or modifiers usually encouraged this too, or at least with some of their milk products.

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Cult of the mother.

I’ve just spent a good many hours reading a book about the history of infant feeding in the USA.

Mothers and Medicine: a social history of infant feeding 1890-1950. By Rima D.Apple

It has been interesting to learn about the way breastfeeding was viewed at the end of the nineteenth century, just as artificial baby formula was being developed.  Although this is definitely a history of the US experience, we can allow reflections on breastfeeding in Australia where many broad cultural themes were similar, such as the role of science and medicine in everyday life, and the lived experience of women.

The “cult of true motherhood” or the “cult of domesticity” described how women were viewed in the latter part of the nineteenth century: women were defined by their role as mothers, and were entirely responsible for the well-being of their children.  Kind of nice to have the recognition, but at times it would have been a tough load to carry.

In the nineteenth century in the United States, breastfeeding was generally seen as the best way to feed a baby, but the lactating breast was also seen as a sensitive and unpredictable organ: milk supply could be effected by anything from a “fretful temper” to a “fright”, and breastfeeding was likely to overtax the mother’s well-being, causing a “general weariness and fatigue”. Lactating women were encouraged to eat well, exercise a little and cultivate a serene disposition(!).

Go on…breastfeed…just make sure you do it perfectly. Oh, and good luck.

The second best way to feed your baby (should your unpredictable breasts not do your asking, despite your serenity) was for another woman to feed your baby. But wet-nursing was also problematic: how to ensure that this woman from the working class would be eating well, maintaining some serenity and not wasting her precious milk on her own infant? Never mind the enduring view of character being conferred by a baby’s food source.

Infant mortality rates were alarming, criticism of wet nurses widespread. The medical and scientific solution to the problem was to further develop baby formula. Bottle feeding was seen as a thing able to be manipulated by science, unlike the vagaries and uncertainties of that most female of activities: lactation.

And so began an era of medical advice for infant feeding. While mothers were very special people who were expected to take responsibility for their children’s upbringing, they would need a little bit of help from medicine if breastfeeding wasn’t working. That help would be in a bottle of baby formula, perhaps suggested by a doctor qualified in the newest of medical specialties: paediatrics.o-VICTORIAN-BREASTFEEDING-PHOTOS-570

5 things that the Australian Breastfeeding Association do really well.

1. Provide accurate, up-to-date and thoughtful information about breastfeeding, bottle-feeding and parenting on their website: https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au

2. Base their entire organisation on the principle of mother-to-mother support for breastfeeding mothers and families. Peer support rocks.

3. Run a national breastfeeding helpline that is operational 24 hours a day (please, just urgent business overnight), seven days a week, that is staffed by trained, VOLUNTEER breastfeeding counsellors, all of whom have breastfed themselves (and might be breastfeeding when you ring … that’s street cred).

4. There are 230 local ABA groups chugging away all over Australia. Their group leaders plan meetings and walks in the park and provide a local contact for breastfeeding help and support. They’re a bit like a low-stress mothers group, and sometimes they even talk about breastfeeding.

5. Local and regional groups all over Australia run Breastfeeding Education Classes for pregnant women and their partners (women who have difficulty in the past with breastfeeding also come). The classes cover the usual information and give participants a realistic idea of what life might be like breastfeeding a new baby. The jewel in this crown is that most classes will have real-life mamas breastfeeding their real-life babies (for demonstration purposes) as a part of the class. Now that’s a very useful version of “here’s one we prepared earlier”.