When it comes to breastfeeding, Becky Dickinson believes it’s time to stop arguing and start focusing on the real issues.
If ever there was a way to cause division and derision among mums, then three little words have succeeded in hitting the nipple on the head. Breast is best.
The mantra that was once bandied about like Bounty packs, has fuelled a litany of insults against anyone who dares whisper allegiance. These days, promoting breastfeeding is about as popular as knocking on doors trying to sell God or double glazing.
There has been a deluge of national newspaper articles, blog posts and twitter rants all slating the ‘breastfeeding nazis’ and the so-called ‘breastapo.’ It’s hard to imagine such staggeringly offensive and bad taste insults being levelled at any other group without sparking an almighty lawsuit. Yet it’s apparently okay to liken nursing mothers to one of the most evil regimes in history. Yes, that’s right, women who just want the best for their babies, compared to a humanity-hating dictator and his followers.
Little surprise then, that the scheme introduced to reward mothers for breastfeeding was met with a chorus of controversy. The plans to give women up to £200 in shopping vouchers – depending on how long they breastfeed for – attracted accusations of ‘bullying,’ ‘bribery’ and ‘unfairness.’
Well, I have a confession. At risk of being unfriended and unfollowed, I’m prepared to stick up for my breasts (let’s face it, they can no longer stick up for themselves) and admit that I’m a lactivist and proud. And as a mum of three exclusively breastfed children, I’m in favour of anything which endorses breastfeeding – even if it is just a token gesture.
I breastfed my first two children until they were both two and a half and am now breastfeeding my third child. The rewards of breastfeeding are immense, and it saddens me that so many women and babies miss out, because they don’t have the help they need to make it past those first difficult hurdles.
Being a new mum is hard enough as it is. Add to that painful, cracked nipples, a lack of support, and no wonder so many resort to formula. For some mums, these vouchers could make the difference between giving up, or carrying on – especially in deprived areas. They could also encourage mums who may not have considered breastfeeding, to give it a go. In privileged areas, it’s easy to forget that for some people, £200 goes a long way.
What’s more, if this scheme succeeds in getting more mums to breastfeed, the long term savings to the NHS could far outweigh the cost of the vouchers, making them not such a ‘waste of taxpayers’ money’ after all. Because when it comes to health, breast is best. Fact.
Breast milk contains antibodies passed from the mother, as well as other immunological and nutritional factors. Exclusive breastfeeding helps prevent infections and chronic diseases in babies, including ear and respiratory infections, diarrhoea and pneumonia, as well as lessening the frequency and severity of infections. Breast milk has also been linked to higher IQs and a reduced rate of obesity in children. Breastfeeding is beneficial for mums too, as it lowers the risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers and also protects against osteoporosis – a claim formula companies will never be able to make.
According to UnicefUK, the NHS could save £40m a year if more women were given help to breastfeed for longer. Of course, these vouchers are just baby steps in the right direction. It’ll take much more than a few shopping sprees to transform the UK’s breastfeeding rates (more than half of mums have given up completely by the time their baby reaches its week check.) A great deal more support and education is also needed, not to mention a shift in attitude.
But thanks to the backlash against the breastfeeding lobby, those who do offer support have been characterised as interfering ‘nipple witches’ or unwelcome ‘do-gooders.’ It seems like a no-win situation.
Meanwhile, mums who are able to breastfeed have been accused of making a statement if they dare to do so outside their own four walls. Women have been lambasted as ‘gross’ or ‘disgusting’ simply for feeding their babies wherever they happen to be. And when those accusations come from women who are mothers themselves, it’s even more depressing. Not only does it pit women against women, mum against mum, but it exacerbates the stigma that already surrounds public breastfeeding.
I shouldn’t need to apologise for feeding my baby in a library, coffee shop, or shopping centre, just like I would never expect a bottle feeding mum to apologise for doing the same. Nor should I have to feed my baby under a blanket or worse still, in a toilet. I don’t get my boobs out to make a point, or to make other mums feel bad. I get them out (discreetly) because my baby is hungry and that is how I feed her. I would never dream of denigrating public bottle feeding, so why is public breastfeeding a source of such bitter debate? It’s not about ‘success’ or ‘failure.’ Being a good parent is about the love that comes from our hearts – that unquenchable, unconditional love; not the milk that flows from our breasts.
Formula is fine (as long as you live in a country where the water isn’t awash with disease) and for mums who are unable to breastfeed, it’s a lifesaver.
Millions of us were raised on formula and made it to adulthood without so much as a tonsillectomy. But for women who want to breastfeed and struggle, it’s help, not bickering, that’s needed. Because whatever the milk manufacturers try to imply, no amount of ‘latest research’ will ever surpass the stuff in our mammary glands.
Not only is breast milk the healthiest option for mother and child, it also happens to be free, available on tap, and comes with zero cost to the environment – no packaging, no sterilising, no cows required. In this battle of breast versus bottle, it’s time we stopped the in-fighting and started focussing on the positives. A few shopping vouchers may be a welcome bonus for nursing mothers, but the long term beneficiaries will be our children.