Breastfeeding – Supporting Without Judging.

I volunteer as a breastfeeding peer supporter in my home town. I have given talks about breastfeeding to sixth formers as part of their general studies course; I have spoken to heavily pregnant yoga mums about the joys and challenges of breastfeeding their soon-to-arrive milk-monsters; I have sat up with a brand-new, first-time, home-birth mum, in the quietest moments of the night and helped her and her baby off to a great breastfeeding start. Mostly though, I sit in a drop-in in a Children's Centre and listen to women tell me how much they want to breastfeed and why they fear they can't; I watch them feed their baby and see what adjustments can be made to make things easier for them. I give them time, sympathy, support, encouragement, understanding, tissues, tea. And some simple advice and tips which can really make a difference. Sometimes these conversations transform their feeding experience for the better instantly. Sometimes they need to come back several times before mum and baby get the hang of this new skill. Sometimes I never see them again and I am left wondering if their feeding problems are 'fixed' or whether they decided not to carry on breastfeeding, but never came back to let me know that because they worry that I might judge them.

Mothers who choose not to breastfeed, or find it too hard to continue to breastfeed, or are told or become convinced that they can't breastfeed, or in some rare cases whose breasts physiologically cannot produce milk, often feel judged (and sometimes are judged) by those who can breastfeed and do.

I was gently taken to task this week on Twitter, by someone who felt my tweets might be construed as judgmental towards non-breastfeeders. I had tweeted in quick succession: a list of the 'ingredients' of breastmilk and of formula, a video promoting acceptance of breastfeeding in public, an article about the impact on breastfeeding of the drugs used in labour, and a cheeky 'burlesque' video, also extolling breastfeeding and breastmilk:

I tweet this sort of thing because lots of my followers are breastfeeders or breastfeeding supporters and find these links fun or useful. But on this occasion a fellow tweeter was asking what purpose those links served, given that the benefits of breastfeeding are widely known. Her view seemed to be that they just reinforced the self-satisfaction of women who had been 'successful' at breastfeeding. And maybe that's true.

Our exchange started out a bit prickly on both sides, I think, but became warmer as we 'listened' to each other, and as it became clearer to me that my new tweetmate had had a very negative personal experience of being judged for not breastfeeding; given that experience it was easy to see how my tweets could have been construed as a further criticism. I am sorry that they came across that way.

So, it's important to be clear…I have never judged, and will never judge another mum for not breastfeeding.

I support mums who want to breastfeed; I hope to encourage more mums to want to try breastfeeding and to want stick with it even if the going gets tough. What I do judge is this society which makes it harder than it should be for mums to breastfeed easily and confidently.

A great weight of evidence shows that in nearly every circumstance, breastfeeding is the best way for a mother to feed her baby. Breastfeeding has many health benefits for both baby and mother, and fresh research emerges all the time to show new features of breastmilk and new benefits to the breastfeeding relationship. ( http://www.nhs.uk/Planners/breastfeeding/Pages/breastfeeding.aspx ) The majority of women in this country try breastfeeding at the start (over 75%) but many of those have chosen to stop within a couple of weeks, usually because of pain & discomfort, poor weight gain in their baby or a perception that they 'can't' succeed at breastfeeding so it will be better to stop.

By the time a baby is six months old (at which age, the WHO advice is that babies should still be exclusively breastfed) less than 20% of UK mother/baby pairs are still breastfeeding. In many cases the mother's feeling that she can't breastfeed successfully has been compounded by poor advice from people around her including her partner, family and friends, but also sometimes health professionals whose own training does not adequately prepare them for supporting women who are finding breastfeeding hard. This is a social and cultural problem, not a physiological one. British women's breasts aren't different from those of women elsewhere in the world with higher breastfeeding rates. But our lives are different, our surroundings are different, our expectations are different, our support is different.

I ran into extraordinary problems feeding my fourth child. If I hadn't already known how wonderfully easy breastfeeding can be, based on three previous experiences, I know I would not have continued. If I hadn't had the support of a great breastfeeding drop-in, in my local Children's Centre, I still probably wouldn't have continued. I know how close I came to despair many times. How could I judge another woman, whether for the choices she has made, for the choices she hasn't been in a position to make, or for the times she hasn't had a choice at all?

Breastfeeding information is needed. The benefits of breastfeeding, though widely reported, are often obscured by the slick advertising of formula manufacturers, so they need to be reiterated again and again in the same way that advertising gets regular airtime. More important than relaying the benefits, is the transmission of timely, helpful advice and support to ensure that the experience of breastfeeding is improved for the many women who find it difficult, but for whom some simple suggestions could make a huge difference.

The coming week (1 -7 August) is World Breastfeeding Week ( http://worldbreastfeedingweek.org/ ) I will be supporting this week by Tweeting my top breastfeeding tips, links to fun and useful resources and – if I can make the time – blogging some more.

Although it's true that in nearly every circumstance, breastfeeding is the best way for a mother to feed her baby, in any specific circumstance this may not be true for a particular mother and baby pair. So my Tweets are intended to be supportive, fun and helpful to mums who want to breastfeed, but not judgemental to mums who don't (or didn't). I will think carefully about the language I use when I tweet and try not to upset or offend anyone. Please be assured that, although I will be cheering Breastfeeders on, if you are not breastfeeding your baby, I am not judging you. x

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4 thoughts on “Breastfeeding – Supporting Without Judging.

  1. Thank you for writing this. I struggled to feed 4 out of 6 of my babies, quitting before I wanted to eacy time between 6 weeks and 9 months of age. With only the last one, almost 7 months now, has it been easy and enjoyable like so many mothers and bf counsellors assured me it was.It is people like you over the years that made the difference and made me keep trying with every baby- and it’s been a priceless experience with my daughter, I feel privileged and grateful xxx

  2. Great article, agree that the benefits of breast feeding need to be extolled, especially to those other than middle class mum’s who may have less access to information and support. It would have been great to have someone as good as you to support me, but the experience of BF supporters (in my case) was stressful and scary, rather than supportive. I could never quite get what I was doing wrong, plus it felt that my depressive symptoms were ignored (apart fromt the great h/v) and the depressive symtoms worsened hugely when my baby was crying with hunger and I felt I had to resort to giving him a bottle. I’ve never had such a sense of failure and remember lying in the bath, crying and feeling as if it was the end of the world.. I couldn’t go back for support, as after my first child was given a bottle in hospital, as I was told due to low sugar levels (crying ++) the next day, a midwife said (Hands thrown in the air) "Oh that’s it. all the benefits have been lost!". My children are now 3 and 5, both had about one month of breast milk. I am lucky that they are healthy, happy and robust. However, I fear that if they were not, or god forbid, in the future, experience bad health, will I be questioning whether I failed them by not giving them enough breast milk? I have to be at ease though and say that I did try my best, and that good nutrition has to continue ( albeit the odd packet of smarties… !)As a mental health nurse, I feel that on the agenda, with equal importance should be teaching children compassion, to be non-judgemental, to grow up with open minds, and building psychological tools to cope with the road ahead. Sadly I see many adults whose childhoods were damaged, not by lack of breast feeding, but by abuse (physical/psychological) and neglect (sometimes deliberate, sometimes not). By the grace of God go I…. (and thank you for this article and you’re great work!)

  3. This is a great post. It is so hard to strike the right balance in this area. You’re absolutely right that we should make it as easy as possible for others to breastfeed (which is why I volunteered as a peer supporter too), but I’ve friends who assumed that this in itself meant I disapproved of them. Breastfeeding is a commitment and it needs to be a choice. Even if we remove the unnecessary obstacles (of which there are so many), I still think choosing not to breastfeed can be a perfectly valid decision. My youngest child self-weaned at 9 months – I desperately wanted to feed him for longer but I’d gone back to work. Although I expressed at work, my milk supply and ability to get let-down became erratic and he began simply refusing. The breastfeeding counsellor at the support group suggested I sacrifice all time with my partner and other child to "re-bond" with my youngest and make him breastfeed again. But he didn’t want to and it did not, to me, feel worth the sacrifice. I still feel guilty about this. But I’m also not so sure I should. Breastfeeding is, after all, just one aspect of care in a much broader family context. Anyhow, I agree this is so hard to express in the right way, and think this is a really useful piece.

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