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Breastfeeding: Still a mother’s right to choose?

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New findings suggest that increasing rates of breastfeeding among new mothers could save the NHS millions. But at what cost?

The Unicef UK report states that whilst 81% of new mothers in the UK start to breastfeed, the rate drops to less than 50% by the time the infant is 6 weeks old. This rapid discontinuation of breastfeeding has seen only marginal statistical increase since national surveys of breastfeeding began in the 1970s.

Researchers claim that this significant drop is evidence of the problems encountered by mothers, although they fail to account for whether these problems are socio-economic or clinical in nature.

By analysing research data for four acute diseases in infants thought to be dramatically reduced by breastfeeding, researchers estimated annual savings of over £17 million. We are told that if three-quarters of newborns were breastfed at discharge and just under half continued to be breastfed at 4 months, there would be 9,562 fewer babies hospitalised and 53,930 fewer GP consultations annually.

According to research, there are also maternal health benefits associated with breastfeeding, and the report suggests that if those mothers that elected not to breastfeed did so for 18 months of their lifetime then there would be 865 fewer cases of breast cancer, making an annual saving to the NHS of over £21 million.

The findings of this report, which suggest a welcome congruence between health benefits born out of health savings, are described as ‘refreshing reading’ by Professor Mike Kelly, Director of the Centre for Public Health Excellence at NICE.

However, these findings will likely be received with mixed feelings by new and expectant mothers.

Advisory literature has long extolled the health benefits of breastfeeding, and the pressure to do so often filters into the stereotype of the altruistic mother, not to mention her willingness to sacrifice herself for the benefit of her family. We are not only told that breastfeeding offers our baby greater protection from infection and disease, but also that mothers who breastfeed will develop a stronger emotional and physical bond with their infant. So, why stop?

Mastitis, cracked nipples and difficulties getting newborns to latch on properly are all painful problems which can become overwhelming when you have a hungry child demanding food every few hours. Similarly, caring for older children, doing school runs, not to mention returning to work all make prolonged breastfeeding a challenge.

And even though UK law protects women who breastfeed in public, 2 out of 3 women feel that the general public are opposed to it and who can blame them?

A woman was verbally abused for breastfeeding in a café in Bristol earlier this year, another mother was banned from council offices in Oldham, not to mention Facebook taking down photos of breastfeeding mothers from the site, the like of which would be done for pornographic images.

Despite this kind of testimony, however, a woman’s right to choose to breastfeed is becoming increasingly restricted.

Unicef UK, responsible for last week’s report, have fully accredited 89 healthcare establishments in the UK as part of their Baby Friendly Initiative, which demands that formula milk is no longer dispensed free of charge for women that give birth there – unless it is medically necessary.

Blogger Lorrie Hearts responded to this anti-choice initiative on feminist website The F-Word:

‘In an era when many feminists are (in my opinion rightly) dismayed by the suggestion that a woman’s right to an abortion should be subject to conditions, I have been shocked by the high level of acceptance when it comes to the notion that women who formula feed should be forced to justify their choice, not only to medical staff, but to pro-breastfeeding women. While I have never seen anyone claim that formula is better than – or even equal to – breast milk, a large number of women are vociferous and uncompromisingly against a woman’s right to choose formula milk.’

For many then, it’s not the judgements from healthcare professionals which leave them damned if they don’t, or the scorn from the public which leaves them damned if they do – but the judgement and condemnation from other mothers which causes the most upset.

Jessica Valenti, US blogger and author of Why Have Kids, wrote of her intention to breastfeed prior to the birth of her daughter and her harsh judgement of mothers that elected not to.

However, when circumstances made it nigh impossible for her to do so, she was left feeling depressed, as though she were a failure as a mother. Instead of attacking one another, she urges that: ‘We should reserve our motherly disdain for systemic issues that make parenting harder – workplace inequities and the maternal wage gap, the lack of paid maternity leave and affordable child-care options – not other women’s personal decisions about how to feed their babies.’

The findings of this report will be welcome reading to a government in the midst of unpopular austerity cutbacks. However, with a Health Secretary who has already expressed a personal desire to restrict a woman’s right to choose abortion beyond 12 weeks, these findings and their extrapolation into policy should, perhaps, be viewed with caution.

As a generation of children that were nursed on formula, the anti-choice rhetoric which permeates the media and equates formula milk with poison is a feminist issue whether we are parents or not.

  1. The study that you discuss is not about ‘choice.’
    It’s about science.
    Mothers should choose to feed their children however they please.
    But science cannot be blamed if they feel guilty because the evidence showed they made the less healthy choice.
    Oh and see that -
    ‘the Baby Friendly Initiative, which demands that formula milk is no longer dispensed free of charge for women’ -
    absolutely not true.
    Some NHS organisations have stopped providing free formula, but that’s nothing to do with Unicef.

    • it certainly seems to have a lot to do with UNICEF when you read its ‘No promotion of bottle feeding guidance’ which forms part of the initiative. Either way, those guidelines are terrifying.

  2. One should know that the 81% of new mother’s, mentioned in this report, did not necessarily start breastfeeding. To be counted as a ‘breastfeeding new mother’ in the NHS tables it is enough to attempt offering the breast once. Whether or not there’s a second time is irrelevant.
    So the drop isn’t necessarily so sharp. It is the original intake that is surprisingly low. Especially if account of ‘breastfeeding nazis’ are to be believed.

  3. ‘accounts’ ;)

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