Entering my second decade as a breastfeeding counsellor, I’ve read perhaps tens of thousands of social media posts from struggling mothers with about every kind of issue under the sun. I’ve probably commented on thousands, and yet it was the one screen shot sent to me by a mother I was supporting that made my heart ache the most. The mother I was supporting sent it because she found the thought behind the post to be tragic, and so did I.
It was from a mother who had struggled for five weeks. FIVE WEEKS. Five weeks of agonizing feed after feed, day and night where baby displayed signs of frustration at a lack of flow, or a lack of being able to access the flow of milk. Baby’s head shook back and forth (unclear if this was while on the breast or near the breast) and the mother also complained that baby wouldn’t latch on. Then there was the cluster feeding which left her exhausted. In most sessions, mother and baby cried in frustration. Sadly, there was no mention of tapping into support at any time or being offered any suggestions or solutions. Instead, the post went on to explain that she called it quits and, after feeling guilty for about a week, was convinced that everyone was happier and better off.
One of the reasons she was convinced of this fact was because she had accessed the UNICEF statistics. She reasoned that everything was ok because only 24% are still exclusively breastfeeding at six weeks and 1% at six months (2010 stats). Appalling as these statistics might appear to most people, reading these stats strangely comforted her in the knowledge that she is not alone, and others like herself found that breastfeeding didn’t work and gave up. This got me wondering why is it that we, as women, feel comforted just because we know that others tried and failed and gave up just as she did? A collective of breastfeeding traumatized mamas, missing out on the enjoyment, the bonding and ultimately the health benefits (as we know since formula use increases in developing countries, so do many female cancers). And please note, I use the word ‘failed’ loosely here, because was it the mum who ‘failed’ or the system who failed her?
I also have to wonder if she knew cluster feeding was a normal occurrence that increased milk supply to meet a baby’s new need as s/he grows? Did baby possibly have a restrictive frenulum (tongue tie)? Did mum simply need a pair of trained and experienced eyes to tweak the latch and the way baby was being held? There are so just many questions. And there continues to be, for thousands and thousands of women in the UK who struggle alone and then give up.
The lack of support and knowledge keeps us at the bottom of the barrel — continuing to be the country with some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. But perhaps you knew that because it’s also posted on the UNICEF website, and if we really consider the consequences, is it acceptable? Is it acceptable that new mothers are left with battered bodies and a newborn baby and expected to care for not only themselves, but also this precious new human, as well as perhaps a house, garden, car, career, and the list can go on and on…? More than 80% of mothers want to breastfeed their babies, yet only 1% gets to the six-month exclusive breastfeeding recommendation set out by the WHO. This is a pity. This lack of breastfeeding causes postnatal grief, postnatal trauma, postnatal depression.
It was bad before covid, and now matters have only become worse with a lack of reinstituting maternity services. In fact, in my own town, the baby weigh-in clinics with a breastfeeding volunteer on site for free access to support have all but disappeared, without a word about whether they will ever reopen their doors.
The lack of care for new mothers is profound; if we accept this as the norm, and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that it’s ok to stop nursing before a mother is ready, then nothing will ever change. This is not the way forward, and, although anger is seen as a negative emotion (especially in British culture), perhaps it’s time to stop being placated and get angry.