Celebrating the 20th World Breastfeeding Week - the first coincidentally the same year I qualified as a Breastfeeding Counsellor, everybody is talking about breastfeeding online: my Google Reader is full of news stories and blog posts about breastfeeding - mostly positive, a few beating the tired, old drum about making formula-feeding mothers feel guilty. But let's not let them rain on the parade that has a sole purpose of improving support for women who do breastfeed and helping those who so wish to meet their own breastfeeding goals.
It would be lovely to be able to say that problems with breastfeeding only prevail in the western world and that mothers in what we consider to be traditional cultures are not exposed to the barriers that we see constantly threatening a mother's ability to easily meet the WHO recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, with continued breastfeeding until two years or beyond.
But it wouldn't be called WORLD Breastfeeding Week, if that was so. In fact, many countries which have traditionally practiced full-term breastfeeding are sadly following the pathways that led to its decline in modern cultures in the last century, which induces many heads banging against walls for those of us trying to return to that wisdom!
As a new mother in the 1980s, passionate about breastfeeding and active in the Nursing Mothers' Association of Australia (now the Australian Breastfeeding Association), I optimistically - perhaps naively - imagined my own children would become parents in a world where such support groups were no longer needed and where breastfeeding was considered every babies birthright. Nearly 30 years later, it is shocking that not only do mothers still face many of the barriers that we tried to break down in the 1980s, but new ones have been erected and mothers face even more risk of not meeting their own - and every health authority's - breastfeeding goals.
Sometimes it is disheartening to trawl through my blog roll and see story after story of negative news about breastfeeding, seemingly only broken up by well-intentioned but divisive articles promoting more "benefits" of breastfeeding and reinforcing the "breast is best" message long-dropped by those working to support all mothers. Breast isn't best, it is normal and there are no benefits to do what nature intended, only risks when humans try to replicate the default infant for for mammals.
There are sparks of hope in those posts - our neighbours across the Ditch, those Kiwis we love to taunt, have seen New Zealand breastfeeding rates reach their highest in 19 years. No wonder, given the amazing promotional and education programs funded by their government in recent years, including not only parent education, but also community education of what mothers need to help them breastfeed. Breastfeeding naturally videos
My own glimmer of hope occurred last week, when a journalist from the local paper contacted me about a story they were doing about WBW (a shock, as we normally do the chasing!) as she had seen the latest figures showing breastfeeding rates are "soaring" in the City of Greater Dandenong, where the Breastfeeding Centre I work at is located and I am the volunteer group leader of the ABA breastfeeding support group.
Article in the Dandenong Leader
One thing I do wish we could change, when talking about breastfeeding rates, is the term "exclusive breastfeeding" - meaning no food or drink other than breastmilk until 6 months of age. While this terminology is understood when referring to the introduction of solids, it gives a very poor result when comparing breastfeeding initiation rates with those still having only breastmilk at 6 months - simply because, despite the recommendations, many/most babies are starting solids between 4 and 6 months (sometimes earlier) and therefore, though they may still only have breastmilk as the primary part of their diet and have no formula at all, they are included alongside those babies who regularly are supplemented with formula. It would be far more beneficial for us to know what percentage of babies are fully breastfed at six months, excluding solid foods. Or - perhaps more useful - how many babies are fully or partly formula-fed at that or other ages. Perhaps it is time to flip those figures, so we can better use them to encourage continued breastfeeding, rather than as a marker for ending breastfeeding. In the case of CGD, using the figures quoted in the above article, we should be asking: why are 29.5% of babies being formula-fed on hospital discharge (2-3 days postnatal) and why are 69.3% of babies no longer fully breastfeeding at six months? Because the goal is really not about breastfeeding, it is about REDUCING the rates of formula-feeding.
I urge everyone to take the time to read a little more about World Breastfeeding Week - regardless of your own infant feeding experience or current life-stage. Because it takes a community to breastfeed a baby - it is society which creates the barriers to women meeting those goals and it takes society to demand change so they can.