Breastfeeding for Geeks
I get sent a LOT of articles and books and notes and emails and personal stories about breastfeeding. I have never studied infant health. I have never worked in maternity services. I studied economics. And from this point of view, in my humble and mathematic-loving opinion, I wish policy-makers would get over their fear of approaching infant feeding as a personal choice each mother is free to make for herself.
The UK has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. Some may say this is because we are lucky, free, and can choose not to undertake this mammoth task. Mathematically, this view seems not to hold up. More likely, it seems, being able to ‘choose’ to breastfeed in the UK is a massive privilege that most women cannot or do not want to partake in due to cultural, social, economic and political reasons.
For those mothers who, with all the body confidence and knowledge and support they could ever wish for, do not choose to breastfeed, this is not about you. We need to stop arguing about these totally acceptable choices. I don’t care (I mean I care, but not in this specific situation) about those mothers in the UK who have the total freedom to decide how to feed their child. I care about those mothers who would have liked to, but couldn’t or didn’t or didn’t feel able, and who are constantly made to feel shit about it because of the whole ‘mother’s choice’ bollocks.
If UK breastfeeding rates were purely a case of random personal choice by each new mother, then, if plotted onto a graph, there would be no correlation between those mothers who ‘choose’ to breastfeed / continue breastfeeding and any specific social, cultural, economic or political factors which affect different people across the UK. The graph would be randomly scattered across graph paper the way my floor is scattered with dirty socks and pants.
This is not the case. There are clear correlations between a number of fairly obvious factors outside any mother’s control . To name a few:
- Fewer women ‘choose’ to breastfeed / continue breastfeeding who live in areas of the country where maternal support services are under-funded.
- Fewer women ‘choose’ to breastfeed / continue breastfeeding who are from working class and / or low income backgrounds, in particular those on zero hour contracts or other insecure employment.
- Fewer women ‘choose’ to breastfeed / continue breastfeeding whose jobs do not offer flexible working patterns or who work for employers they do not feel comfortable talking to about possible options which may allow them to continue breastfeeding or expressing during work hours.
- Fewer women ‘choose’ to breastfed / continue breastfeeding who live in neighbourhoods with higher violent crime rates.
- Fewer women ‘choose’ to breastfeed who have previously suffered or suffer body image issues.
- Fewer women ‘choose’ to breastfeed / continue breastfeeding if their family and friends are not knowledgeable or supportive about breastfeeding
- Fewer women ‘choose’ to breastfeed / continue breastfeeding who have been exposed to little or no examples of breastfeeding in their lives previous to giving birth.
- Fewer women ‘choose’ to breastfeed if they become mothers under the age of 20.
- Fewer women ‘choose’ to breastfeed / continue breastfeeding if they suffer pain while breastfeeding. BUT fewer women suffer pain or complications while breastfeeding in areas where maternity support services are well-funded and local support is available. (Maternity support services are not really ‘well-funded’ anywhere).
- Fewer women ‘choose’ to breastfeed / continue breastfeeding if they feel uncomfortable, nervous or embarrassed breastfeeding in public but want to actually leave their house without worrying about feeding. BUT The reasons mothers might feel uncomfortable, nervous or embarassed breastfeeding in public are correlated highly to points 1,4,5,6,7. Again, it is not a personal choice to feel able and comfortable to have a baby sucking on your breast in public spaces.
There are many more correlations it seems. So, so many correlations that the idea of real and free ‘choice’ in terms of infant feeding ‘choices’ is a mathematical farce. Every time I see articles about a mother’s choice, or articles pointing blame at mothers in the UK for these low rates, or even supposedly positive articles trying to convince mothers to ‘choose’ to breastfeed whilst offering no support regarding any of these outside factors, it makes me want to be sick all over the graph paper.
Finally, what makes me want to be doubly sick is that, in the UK, the lowest ‘choosing to breastfeed’ rates are most often amongst mothers and families on the lowest incomes. This statistic is infuriating because, firstly, as I’ve said five hundred times now, this ‘choice’ is much more difficult for these mothers to make. Secondly, because feeding a baby is not like riding a bike. If you stop breastfeeding, you cannot get back on it with a bit of practice in 6 months time. You have to buy formula for a long time and formula is fucking expense for those mothers and families on the lowest income. Especially compared to the free alternative.
It’s shite I think
To finish up. I think breastfeeding rates are little to do with a mother’s choice. This does not mean that we must not say well done and congratulations to those mothers who have possibly gone through cramps and mastitis and stress and loneliness and all that other jazz to continue feeding. Or to thank the support networks – the partners or grandparents or carers or health practitioners – who may have helped them. It just means that we should not make it too personal. A bit like getting good marks at school. Yes, you worked hard and yes, I’m not saying it isn’t partly because of all your effort. But you also didn’t have to share a room with two siblings, have the electricity cut once a month, have a parent you were caring for, go to a school with no textbooks etc etc. There are always other factors at play in what we can and can’t achieve.
Basically, stop pointing fingers at mothers and point it at those who make the decisions. If we want to ‘encourage’ higher breastfeeding rates in the UK, we have to make it easier for mothers to ‘choose’ to breastfeed and continue breastfeeding and to be happy doing so.
It is a very personal experience to feed a baby. But it is definitely not a purely personal choice.