On breastfeeding in public in the UK
Okay – so this has sat in my drafts for FOREVER. I’ve resisted pressing ‘Publish’ because I don’t want to be seen as a ranter. But do you know what? Nothing changes if we don’t talk about what we see. And I see a culture that doesn’t support it’s mothers as well as it could.
Of course there are bigger fish to fry than breastfeeding. But in many ways, the issues around breastfeeding are representative of what is wrong with this planet. We’ve lost a lot of what it means to be human. And perhaps it starts with how we mother our children.
And so I hit ‘Publish’ ……..
There have been many, many cultural differences between New Zealand and Northern England – countless. The weather is a constant source of conversation, it is possible to apologise for anything at anytime even if it is clearly not your fault at all, cups of tea are suitable day and night, always, always, always, and Lancashire drivers must be the politest bunch in the world, flagrantly flouting the road rules so they can let someone go in front of them.
Undoubtedly, perhaps thankfully, a great many of the differences have flown completely under my radar. But one cultural difference that as been on full bore, impossible to ignore since we arrived, has been around breastfeeding.
No-one does it here. Everyone intends to do it, but no-one does. I say everyone and no-one flippantly, but the stats do actually back my exaggerations up. Around 81% of women are breastfeeding at birth. To be more accurate it should probably say something like, “..around 81% of women try to breastfeed their newborn” , because no-one has established breastfeeding magically at the very birth of their baby, but hey-ho, tomato, tomatoe.
The important fact is, the vast majority – 81% of women, do want to breastfeed. But, one week in, less than half will still be breastfeeding, and by the time their child is 12 weeks old, only 17% of UK women are breastfeeding.
81 mothers wanted to breastfeed at birth and just 1 gets to do it wholeheartedly. This riles me, so, so badly.
I have belonged to a few mothers groups – and I have heard other mums give reasons for why their baby is formula fed; “my milk didn’t come in properly,” or “he couldn’t suck” or “she kept on waking up through the night” or “I struggled for six weeks and couldn’t handle it any longer”, or this clanger, “my baby just doesn’t like the taste of my breastmilk.”
I’ve heard all sorts of new mothers make all sorts of justifications for why their baby is bottle fed.
It’s sad to me.
Not that their children are missing out on the best start to their life, but because, all the women I meet blame themselves – or worse, their baby, for the fact they aren’t breastfeeding. No-one, not one woman that I have spoken to here, has blamed bottle feeding on the culture within which they live.
A culture here in the UK where breastfeeding is at best, totally invisible, but at worst seen as somehow perverse.
Let me just say this here and now to any of the British mothers who are reading this ,
If you wanted to breastfeed and you didn’t succeed,
you have not failed and neither has your baby.
It is not as if British babies and mothers are somehow less able to do as nature intended than mother’s in other countries with higher rates of breastfeeding.
So what’s going on?
It seems to me, that mothers just do not get the support that is needed.
And when I say support, I suppose I mean wisdom. There seems to be great gaps in breastfeeding knowledge. Bottle feeding is far and away the norm, and was for the generation above us too. And so new mums today, knowing they want to breastfeed, are trying to do so in a bit of a vacuum.
I’ve had friends have nurses grab and force their crying baby’s head onto their breast, had friends leave the hospital before any successful breastfeeding has even taken place, had people tell me that I will need to stop breastfeeding once Fred gets teeth and that breastfeeding isn’t needed once they start solids.
Falsehoods, lies and confusion abound.
And to add to the mess, everyone thinks that because breastfeeding is natural, it is instinctual and therefore easy. But that’s not really the case. Breastfeeding is a learned skill. We learn as mothers how to feed our children – not by giving birth them, but by mimicking the breastfeeding we see around us.
This becomes a bit of a problem when there is little to mimic.
Like the story of a gorilla in the 1980s in an Ohio zoo who didn’t know how to breastfeed her baby. She had never seen breastfeeding gorillas before. Her first gorilla baby sadly died as she didn’t know what to do. The zookeepers, knowing that breastfeeding isn’t instinctual, but a learned skill, got a human breastfeeding mother to come and feed in front of the gorilla. She successfully breastfed her next gorilla baby.
We are apes too, and there’s this need for mothers to see other mothers breastfeed. I suppose back in the day, we would have had mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunties in our more immediate everyday lives – we would have seen woman feeding their children. We would have learnt from a young age what breastfeeding looked like. We don’t have this collective wisdom anymore and that’s why we are shocked when we see breastfeeding. It’s not normal at this moment in our woman culture. It’s why we need breastfeeding classes and clinics and lactation consultants.
But there is more to it even than this.
Support isn’t just about getting good advice and mentoring. Support is about being able to feel that the society you are in is around you. It’s about good workplace policies and good maternal leave. It’s about knowing that the community understand why breastfeeding is important and approves of this choice.
This is not my experience here.
Perhaps it is different in the South of England, but I have not seen another women breastfeeding in public in Lancashire since I have been here.
(I have to note here, I have seen plenty of breastfeeding in my babywearing group, but out on the street, cafe and mall? Nadda.)
And I understand why.
Shaming of breastfeeding mothers abounds.
I have breastfed Fred in public in the UK since we arrived when he was 12 weeks old through to when he stopped having any daytime feeds – somewhere around 18 months old. But it wasn’t easy.
I’ve had plenty, plenty, plenty of stares, had perfect strangers question me on how old my child is (presumably as a not-so subtle hint that perhaps he is too old for breastfeeding), have been with friends who go to the toilet to breastfeed.
The worst experience, by far, was having two fully grown men purposefully sit at an empty cafe table beside me, side eyeing and giggling as I breastfed. There really wasn’t anything to see, save for the side of my boob, but it was horrible all the same. I was on my own and felt really vulnerable. I wish at this point I could tell you that I was this amazing fearless warrior who challenged them. But no. I got very red faced, turned away, pulled Fred off well before he was done and quickly scarpered. I told Marcus, and he complained to the cafe. I didn’t really see what it had to do with the cafe but Marcus insisted they should know. He was right to tell them. They were shocked and gave us a gift voucher, which was nice. And even better? The next time I visited, a ‘Breastfeeding is welcome’ sticker was posted by the till.
So, when a photographer approached me asking me whether he could take some photos of me breastfeeding in public, I was both bemused and eager.
I was attending a baby wearing coffee group in a family pub restaurant, and he was taking some photos of those of us who were breastfeeding. The images he captured are now part of an online bank and a book, called We Do It in Public. Personally, I think the title is unnecessarily lascivious, but the purpose is noble, it seeks to normalise the sight of a woman breastfeeding
her child in the UK.
I am saddened such a resource is needed, happy that it does exist, and pretty proud we got to contribute to it, in our own very small way.
They aren’t the best photos of either of us – but I think that is the point of the image bank: breastfeeding in it’s mundane and ordinary, everyday glory.
But why is all of this important at all? Like, who cares, aside from yourself, how you choose to feed your own child? And once this period of their life is over, what does it matter?
Well, it matters.
I want to reiterate how little this has to do with each of us as individual mothers. I’m not bagging on mothers that formula feed, I’m bagging on a culture within which it is very hard to do anything else. And when that’s the case, we aren’t really free as women to make our own choice about what we want for our children at all.
Formula companies have one hell of a marketing budget. There is this ad for follow on formula,which by the way is a totally pointless product, which pulls at the maternal heartstrings. There’s this baby and it shows its future self as a ballet dancer, and then another baby and it’s future self as a climber, and another baby with it’s future self as a mathematician. I mean, that stuff looks goooooood. It helps your baby get good at stuff. I mean who doesn’t want that right? And then on the other hand there’s the breastfeeding ad. ………..What? You’ve not seen it? No, me neither. There is little money to be made from a successfully breastfeeding mother – nothing to sell to her. No big profitable company, no great marketing budget, no clever ad campaign, little influence.
We may think it is a free choice what we feed our child, but with a million pound formula industry on one side and a bunch of breastfeeding mums sitting in coffee groups on the other, it’s hardly a level playing field.
And then there is the sustainability issues. I can’t even rant about that, save to say, what are we even doing creating a mainly superfluous product that is less than what our own body can produce? (again: I have to add that there are very real reasons for formula, obviously. Heck, my own Albie, had formula topups for 18 months for medical reasons. But do we need the rates of formula feeding that we have? No, we do not.)
And whilst I am on this trip, stop with the whole, ‘breast is best’ business already. This message permeates so much of the literature. No it is not ‘best’, human milk is biologically NORMAL. It’s not best, it’s not the gold standard. It’s not something to aim for – it is, or it should be, completely and utterly normal. Which means anything less than human milk is less than normal, less than what they could have, naturally. Do you see the difference? By saying breastmilk is the best, it implies that formula is perfectly adequate. It isn’t anywhere near what breastmilk is. We have to challenge what is sold to us as women. And I think this language is important.
But again, tomato, tomatoe.
There are loads of examples of the wacky discourse we have around breastfeeding once you start to notice it. Recent research, has shown that breastfed babies have a higher IQ, spend longer in education and earn more. The difference increases with the length of breastfeeding, and is seen across socio-economic bands. What riles me the most, again, is that it is reported that breastfed babies have a ‘higher IQ.’ Well, no they don’t. They simply have the IQ that they were designed to have, biologically. It could be argued instead that formula feeding or reducing the length of time a baby has breastfed for has reduced a baby’s IQ – not the other way around.
Maybe I am being all tomato, tomatoe again, but I don’t think I am.
And whilst I am on this rare, and rather endless rant – quodos to you if you are still reading – let’s stop poo-pooing breastfeeding as something that isn’t all that important, just because we’re a bit uncomfortable with the idea of it. I suspect that some British people, as charmingly prudish as they are, struggle to even say the word ‘breastfeeding,’ as it has ‘breast’ in it.
Well, breast, breast, breast, breast, breast.
You see breasts everyday people, learn what they are actually for.
It really is important.
So, in conclusion, if you are breastfeeding in public in Lancashire, fist pump to you! You’re doing a radical public service for future generations of mothers.
And, if you see a woman breastfeeding in public, give her a broad, acknowledging smile. She’ll feel better for it I promise.
Oh my days. I need a lie down.
Hit me with your thoughts – sweet, or otherwise.
I don’t subscribe to the whole ‘Mommy Wars’ concept. We can have divergent opinions and not be at war. It’s cool – I promise.
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