Breastfeeding in public. Build a bridge.

I’ve been a subscriber to google alerts for a couple of months now. The topics I am sent include “breastfeeding”, “bottle feeding”, “pregnancy” and “lactation consultants”. I get links to newspaper and magazine articles that the great google machine finds via its keyword searches.

Most days I skim them, some days I read a few and my midwife Facebook friends will know that I often post links that I think are discussion-worthy or particularly interesting.

The breastfeeding posts and links and articles have predominantly been focussed on two things: reported incidents of women breastfeeding who have been asked to cover up or leave the space they’re in. The other topic is how women are unfairly pressured to breastfeed by so-called breastfeeding nazis – a topic I have addressed in another post (More women doing it for longer).

I am coming to think that breastfeeding in public is a key issue for ongoing breastfeeding rates in Western countries. And it’s an issue of human rights…no,dammit, women’s rights.

If a woman is going to have the freedom to leave her home and surrounds with her breastfeeding infant she needs to know that she can feed her baby whenever and wherever she wants to, and more importantly, whenever, wherever and for however long it takes for her baby to feed. With no judgement whatsoever, and even with some encouragement – not a cheer squad, but maybe a nice place to sit and a drink of water.

Women who breastfeed in public are expected to look after the feelings of everyone else who enters that public space. It’s less of an issue that anyone can actually see anything (for example, areola or nipple) and more about the idea that this woman could be breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding women are often being asked to be discreet by the members of the public who see themselves as Reasonable People: “I don’t mind if women breastfeed, but they should be discreet about it”.  These people seem uninformed as to the realities of feeding a live, wriggling child.  And also to how rare sexual exhibitionism is amongst breastfeeding women.

Being a mother of a small baby and toddler can be an isolating experience. A lot of a mother’s time is spent in her own home with her children, attending to her childrens’ needs and running the household. Being able to get out, even if it’s to the shops, is what you need to do every day and sometimes it’s a downright lifeline (please take note shop keepers).

We all expect that when we enter the public sphere we can act as we please, within certain boundaries.

For a breastfeeding mother that means that she will very likely need to breastfeed her child at some point in public.She needs to do that so that she can leave her house, buy food, feel part of a community, stimulate her child, maybe even have a latte…in short, live her life.

Frankly, anyone else’s sensibilities will need to take a back seat if we can agree that, as a member of our society, she has the right to do those things. And breastfeed.

In Australia she has the inalienable legal right to do so.

I know that women’s bodies being displayed in public is a complicated issue in Western society. And breastfeeding is seen as a private activity that shouldn’t (?) be brought into the public sphere. What better way to cut through the hypocrisy around the objectification of women’s bodies than for a mother to carry out a beautiful, physiological activity of love and food with her child?you-can-do-it-breastfeeding

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Maternal and Infant Nutrition and Nurture …oh my!

10 things I learnt and loved about #MAINN2014.

This conference is usually held each year in Grange-over-Sands in the UK, by the University of Central Lancashire. It is a conference dedicated to presenting and discussing research on infant feeding with an emphasis on alternative, contextual approaches to the subject. This year it was held at the University of Western Sydney in Parramatta. These are some of my personal highlights…in no particular order and with ruthless editing to make it digestible to others. Thanks to Virginia Schmied from UWS for making it happen.

1. Exploring the highs and lows of the Baby Friendly Initiative with Fiona Dykes from the UK and Danielle Groleau and Sonia Semenic from Canada. Good to know that there are people interested in the way that health professionals (midwives) live with the 10 steps and the culture of the accreditation.  Fiona spoke about the problems with a “top- down”approach with any behaviour change, but also about the promise of relationships in breastfeeding support.

Sonia spoke about the challenges of introducing the 10 steps into NICU units worldwide: there is a general pre-occupation with infant growth, calories and volume. There are also significant challenges associated with baby illness and feeding. It will be so exciting to see the progress with this work.

Danielle’s work looked at the varied impacts that BFI facilities seemed to have on women’s breastfeeding behaviour in the longer term. She highlighted the  need for more research into the impact of BFI on women from low income groups. She also spoke very clearly about the sociological theory that shines a light on the the problematic issues of breastfeeding cessation amongst women from low income backgrounds and breastfeeding in public. Symbolic capital…mmmm.

2.Renee Flacking reporting on her ethnographic study of four NISC units: 2 in Sweden, 2 in UK. eleven months of fieldwork (phew!).  Her comparison of the different models of care was effective in demonstrating the many benefits of the “womb” model: continuous skin to skin with mother (and/or partner), a separate, private space that allowed families to “focus within”, with the baby as the context.  Interactions between mother and baby “effortless”. Importantly, parents can “be who they are”. Her description of the “standard” nursery care with one uncomfortable chair for mama highlighted the culture in many nurseries of parents being expected to stay an hour or three, but not for longer.

3. Investigations of the impact of peer support for breastfeeding in the UK with Gill Thomson.

Nursing Mothers and the Australian Breastfeeding Association have done this en masse in Australia over the past 50 years. Yup, we reckon it works. Kate Mortensen from ABA is investigating breastfeeding peer support globally and the RUBY study  (Ringing Up about Breastfeeding) will examine the impact of telephone peer support for breastfeeding mums in Melbourne, as presented by Heather Grimes from La Trobe University… it’s already under way.

4. Shanti Raman’s ethnographic study of families in Bangalore,India: “nothing special, everything is normal”. How pregnancy and childbirth is part of the discourse of everyday life in India, and how it is woven into the rich repertoire of celebration and ritual. This resonated with my own experience of providing care for Indian families in Australia… somehow enviable in our culture where pregnancy and childbirth seems so “other”.

5. Gold star to Charlene Thornton for making me like stats!  Her “normal woman” enables effective comparison between care models. Some juicy details: C/S rates, inductions and episiotomy in  private compared to public.

6. Deborah Lupton – renowned health, food and  now digital sociologist.  Enjoyed her quick summary of her own work and directions over the past 20 or so years, with some emphasis on the sociology of risk: “The precious foetus” and more. Mothers place so much pressure on themselves to perform as guardians of their children. Children are both beloved and reviled in our society. Food for thought …

7. Examination of the breast pump discourse: Helene Johns, Kath Ryan and Athena Sheehan. Soft touch indeed. The impact of advertising culture on breastfeeding culture: when breastfeeding comes to equal breastmilk.

8. Talking at meal breaks.  To anyone and everyone – so friendly! What is it about people who do research into breastfeeding and birth? I’d like to think we are uncorrupted by wealth or status!

9. Meeting strangers at dinner. Actually, turned out to be new friends.  This was the kind of conference where, no matter who you spoke to, they were interested and involved in breastfeeding research  and/or clinical practice. Often both. I found out a great deal about what breastfeeding support looks like in Queensland. I also was delighted to share my own plans for research (thanks guys!).

10. Being at UWS in Parramatta. Home of the Whitlam Institute. The campus is an oasis from the traffic and noise of the bustling city.  It’s also a stunning combination of old architecture and new as well as useable and attractive open spaces.  An amazingly culturally diverse community in Parramatta and a calm and beautiful walk each day along the beautiful Parramatta river. Harbour? Who needs a harbour?!

 

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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