In celebration of National Breastfeeding Week in England, this week’s blog post is all about breastfeeding.
They say ‘breast is best’ and there’s some really good reasons why:
Breast milk protects your baby from infections and diseases, including reducing the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Unicef go as far as to say that ‘increasing the number of babies who are breastfed could cut the incidence of common childhood illnesses such as ear, chest and gut infections and save the NHS up to £50 million each year.’ I’d best add ‘boosting our economy’ to the list of benefits then!
Breastfeeding provides health benefits for mums, including lowering your risk of cancer and obesity. I lost my pregnancy weight really fast after my son was born. Unfortunately after about five or six months I found it again! 😬 I blame the sleep deprivation causing me to reach for the chocolate…
Breast milk is available for your baby whenever your baby needs it. If nothing else, breastfeeding is free and you don’t need to worry about packing anything but nappies and a set of clean clothes when you go out. And maybe the breast pads and nipple cream! (Buy Lansinoh – you won’t regret it!)
Breastfeeding can build a strong emotional bond between you and your baby. I have loved breastfeeding and, at nearly a year old, my son still loves it too. He gets excited at the mere mention (or sign!) of ‘milk’ and can now walk over and help himself! I enjoy our cuddles and he is instantly comforted by the closeness of a feed.
Breastfeeding in the UK
In the UK, more than 73% of mums start out breastfeeding. By the time their babies are 6-8 weeks old, this figure drops to around 44%. NHS guidance is that babies should only be given breast milk for the first six months of their lives, however by six months of age, just 1% of babies in the UK are exclusively breastfed – the lowest rate in the world.
Although these figures seem shocking, they don’t show the whole picture; rates of ‘any breastfeeding’ at six months sit around 34%. That means that many mums who are still breastfeeding at six months are choosing to supplement some of their baby’s feeds with formula. In the early months, a breastfed baby typically feeds every two hours, whereas formula takes longer to digest and so formula-fed babies may go longer at night between feeds. Combination feeding, therefore, seems to me to be a pragmatic solution which ensures that babies are still receiving the benefits of breast milk while allowing the mother to share some of the workload and potentially get some more sleep!
Why do women stop breastfeeding?
With the right support and guidance, the vast majority of women should be able to breastfeed. But although it’s natural, it doesn’t always come naturally. Some mothers cannot, or choose not to, breastfeed and this also needs to be respected. (Prof Modi, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH))
I think all mums know that breast is best and, in my experience, most go into parenthood with the hope that they will be able to breastfeed. But breastfeeding is hard. It is riddled with challenges, pain and worries about latching and supply; 80% cited these kinds of difficulties as their reason for stopping. Worryingly, 40% placed public attitudes as partly to blame with half of those actually embarrassed to breastfeed.
It is clear, as a society, we could be better at breastfeeding, but the great thing about breastfeeding is that any amount is beneficial, and the longer you go, the more benefit there is. So the stigma or guilt surrounding stopping breastfeeding and moving on to other ways of feeding your baby really isn’t necessary. Babies on formula are still getting fed with the nutrients they need to develop healthily.
My experience of breastfeeding
I remember thinking that the first few weeks of parenthood were surprisingly easy. My husband and I made a great team and while I woke and fed our little one multiple times a night, he would get up in the morning and take over while I caught up on some much needed sleep. But what I do remember having difficulties with at the start was breastfeeding. I left hospital thinking that I knew what I was doing, but within a day I had called a breastfeeding support line as I was struggling to get a good latch. And just when I thought we’d got the hang of it, it looked like he’d developed oral thrush as his tongue and the roof of his mouth were permanently white. Cue several stress-filled weeks of giving him drops with every feed, applying cream to my nipples to make sure I was being treated in case he’d passed it on to me, being crazy careful with hygiene (changing breast pads constantly) because one doctor had said so, only to find another later say that none of that had been necessary. It was a long, frustrating time going back and forth to the doctors, waiting around for tests and getting anxious about him not getting any better. They eventually decided that he just had a very milky mouth. 🙄 That wasn’t the end of my worries unfortunately as my baby suffered really badly from trapped wind for over four months; every night he was up in the night unbearably uncomfortable until I could cycle his legs and massage his tummy enough to release his wind for him. Doctors and Googling alike pointed to my fast flow of milk and a potential dairy allergy as the culprit. In the end it just was one of those things. A contradiction in terms uttered by a paediatrician still irritates me now:
He’s just got colic, whatever that is!
Once all of these worries were placated, breastfeeding actually became really easy.
Breastfeeding wasn’t something that I set out with any particular goals or intentions with; in my naivety I knew that you were supposed to breastfeed until six months so that’s when I figured I’d stop. When I did decide at around five and a half months that I would call it a day (nothing to do with enjoying a drink over Christmas, honest!), my little one had other ideas! He just wasn’t used to having a bottle as I had found it too easy just to feed him myself and so by the time Christmas came around, he was far too set in his ways and completely refused the bottle. In the end we carried on until a year old when he happily switched to cow’s milk.
Breastfeeding has been the cause of a lot of anxiety – it’s no wonder that so many women give it up – however, I am really proud that I stuck it out through all of the challenging times and made it through to the other side of breastfeeding, where it finally feels how you expect it to – like the most natural thing in the world.
- Benefits of breastfeeding (NHS)
- Breastfeeding at 6 to 8 weeks after birth: 2017 to 2018 quarterly data (Gov.uk)
- Breastfeeding in the UK (Unicef)
- Breastfeeding Rates In UK Remain Low Due To Social Stigma, A Long-Term Plan Hopes To Change That (Huffington Post)
- Low UK breastfeeding rates down to social pressures over routine and sleep (The Guardian)
- What is the difference between breast milk and formula milk? (NHS)