Friday, March 6, 2009

Does Antenatal Education Scare Us Out of Breastfeeding?

If a baby is to brought up in anything like the way nature or evolution intended then it obviously must be breastfed. I know that there are some extreme circumstances under which a woman may be unable to breastfeed, and under these circumstances it is great that a baby can survive by being bottle fed. But in the vast majority of cases we should be feeding babies our hugely beneficial milk - it has massive benefits for their health both as babies and later in life.

Apparently, in the UK, 76% of mothers start breastfeeding their newborn infants. By six weeks this has dropped to less than 50%, and by six months it is as low as 25% (NHS press release). This suggests that women are aware before the birth that breastfeeding is important, but they give it up in the early weeks of their babies' lives. So why is this? As well as logistical issues like going back to work, there are the well known and well publicised problems such as cracked nipples. There is also a widely held belief that some women do not make enough milk to feed their babies.

In my own experience, the difficulties of breastfeeding are very much overstated by the government, the NHS and charities such as the National Childbirth Trust. It seems that the government, in its haste to improve the breastfeeding statistics, has bombarded us with so much well-meant advice that we have become convinced that breastfeeding is nigh on impossible. In your average pregnancy book there will be a couple of lines on how pleasant nursing is whilst pages and pages will be devoted to solving common problems. The result is that we assume these problems will arise and become anxious about breastfeeding. Even the celebrity quotes on the Department of Health's website emphasise the supposed difficulties:

"Because Freya is my first child I was extra cautious to give her the best start in life. Breastfeeding was a great way to help her avoid allergies and infections. I am so pleased I made the decision to breastfeed. It has proved tough at times, but is also very rewarding for both myself and Freya." (Donna Air)

"Breastfeeding isn't always easy. Both times I've nearly given up at six weeks but with some encouragement and reassurance I've persevered and I'm glad I did. It's a wonderful experience and I always feel sad about stopping." (Davina McCall)

Anxiety is much more likely to cause problems with breastfeeding than physical conditions are: stress may delay or prevent the let-down reflex and a baby is likely to pick up on a mother's lack of confidence. I bet that this lack of confidence is responsible for more people giving up breastfeeding than all the sore breasts, cracked nipples and fussing babies combined. So I wish the government and the NHS would spend more time telling women that they CAN breastfeed, that their bodies are made to do it and their babies are made to drink it, that it is instinctive, that problems are unlikely when we offer the breast on demand.

So admittedly it is a bit sore at first and you have to perfect the latching-on technique, but it's hardly rocket science and I reckon we would all figure it out in the end without any help from midwives or books. Six months into breastfeeding, the £10 tube of Lansinoh cream that I bought when pregnant lies unused in a drawer beside my bed while my baby suckles happily every few hours, night and day.

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