Why I don’t endorse World Breastfeeding Week

Clare Byam-Cook
Breastfeeding is great but in Britain it is not lifesaving...

I assume that the main aim of World Breastfeeding Week is to highlight the benefits of breastfeeding and persuade more mothers to do it. You would think that as a breastfeeding specialist I would wholeheartedly endorse it, but there are two reasons why I don’t. Firstly, whilst breastfeeding in developing countries is essential and life-saving, in developed countries such as Britain, it is certainly beneficial but not life-saving. Secondly, I feel very strongly that there is currently far too much pressure on women to breastfeed and not nearly enough expert help available if/when a mother experiences problems. There is no point telling mothers that they must breastfeed if we don’t give them the right help and advice to succeed.

It is rarely a lack of effort by the mother that causes her to stop breastfeeding.

Despite the fact that statistics continue to show that approximately 50 per cent of mothers give up breastfeeding within six weeks (saying that they found it too painful or difficult), mothers are still being taught that it is very rare indeed for a mother to be unable to breast-feed. This leads me to question: are these mothers not trying hard enough, are they not getting the right help and advice when they need it, or is it simply untrue to say that every mother can breastfeed? In my experience, it is rarely a lack of effort by the mother that causes her to stop breastfeeding.

So, rather than extolling the benefits of breastfeeding, I would prefer to raise awareness that breastfeeding isn’t always possible and highlight one of the common problems that many breastfeeding mothers experience: that of low milk supply.

Mothers are told that breast-feeding is natural and easy and that their breasts will always supply the amount of milk their baby needs, providing they are eating a healthy diet and feeding on demand. But every week I see mothers whose babies have lost more than 10 per cent of their birth weight and/or are still not back to birth weight after several weeks of following the standard breastfeeding advice. These problems are often a direct result of low milk supply.

Nature doesn’t always get it right.

An article about gorillas in a national newspaper highlighted the problem, describing how a six-month-old gorilla named Okanda had become increasingly listless and unwell. Tests showed the cause of his problems to be the quality of his mother’s milk – Okanda simply wasn’t getting the nutrients he needed. His keepers commented: “If we had kept him with his mum he would have died”. He was nursed back to health by a combination of tube-feeding and bottle-feeding, using baby formula milk.

The reason I find this article so interesting is because it shows, yet again, that nature doesn’t always get it right. Without formula, the baby gorilla would have died and it is the same with many human babies – some are simply unable to thrive on their mother’s milk alone. When this happens, I explain that the mother is not a failure, that some things are beyond her control, and that many other mothers have similar problems – as so do animals!

Breastfeeding isn’t always as easy as everyone makes out.

I never like telling mothers that there is no solution to their milk supply so it is always comforting when I hear back from clients that they realise that I was acting in their best interest when I said that they needed to give formula.

I do of course promote breastfeeding as being the ideal way to feed a newborn baby and I recommend that every mother should plan to breastfeed her baby, but I think we should be honest about the fact that it isn’t always as easy as everyone makes out. Many mothers sail through breastfeeding and gain all the health benefits that goes with it; others find it too difficult – but they certainly should not blame themselves if they give up.

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