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Andrea Leadsom Says Her Own "Feeling Of Failure" Over Breastfeeding Sparked Push To Reform Care For Babies

5 min read

A senior Tory behind the government’s proposed overhaul of support for babies and toddlers said her own experiences of breastfeeding and a difficult first labour have inspired her to try and improve the system.

Andrea Leadsom, a former minister and leader of the Commons, was rushed to a hospital after 45 hours in labour and complications during the birth of her first son Fred. She then suffered post-natal depression and went on to have difficulties breast-feeding with her two younger children.

“Like for many mums, it wasn’t the birth I expected. It ended with being ambulanced to hospital. It was both very lengthy and difficult,” she said.  

Despite breast-feeding her first child without any problems, when it didn’t work out with her next son Harry, and daughter Charlotte, she said beyond the pain and tears, there was an overwhelming “feeling of failure”.

“With my first I breast-fed, the next one just would not, and it became so traumatic I had to give up and with the third I just had to use the breast pump. So I get this, very, very personally,” she said.

Leadsom, 57, whose children are now 25, 23 and 17, was asked to chair a review into how to reduce inequalities for the 0 to two-year-olds in her role as the government’s early years health adviser. The Conservative MP's six recommendations, to be adopted by the government, were announced today.

Scientists have found the earliest months of a child's life are the most crucial for brain development, emotional attachment and can have a significant influence on a child’s future.

Yet focus groups, surveys, hundreds of hours of interviews with parents and care givers, showed Leadsom that health visitor, mental health and breast feeding support varies widely across the country, and currently breast-feeding rates in the UK are among the worst in Western Europe.

“It’s very, very, difficult for mums. So I’m not telling anyone what you have to do, I’m just observing that we’re obviously not supporting those who do want to breast-feed and very often you’ll go through a dark period but with the right support you’ll get through it," she said.

Leadsom's Early Years Review – The Best Start for Life – proposes local authorities publish a “Start for Life” universal offer for parents and carers in their area to make them aware of the support they should receive like health visits and intensive parenting support. There will also be an enhanced “Start for Life” offer for families that need more help.  

Existing family hubs will become the place to access the Start for Life services. She would prefer councils to use existing Sure Start centres, though that would be down to each area.

According to Action for Children, there was a 62% reduction in council spending on early years services, between 2010 and 2019, after a series of central grant cuts under David Cameron's government.

Leadsom said there are still 3,000 buildings still operating – more than 650 closed – but admitted that services within them have reduced significantly. 

On the fact she was in government when some of those central cuts were made to local authority grants, she said: "What happened was that the ringfenced funding for Sure Start was un-ringfenced. Local authorities made their own spending decisions and during the course of the review we've seen some excellent practice in local authority areas who really prioritised their offfers to families." 

There are also plans to train more staff and look at new ways of retaining those in key positions like health visitors. Local areas will also have a single leader who is responsible for the work, and there will be inspections.  

One of the first changes to go ahead will be digitising the Personal Child Health Record, often known as the “red book” from April 2023. This contains a baby’s details about growth and development and making it digital should make it easier to share details.

She also wants the family hubs to become the places where babies are registered rather than local town halls to introduce families to a welcoming environment within weeks of their child’s arrival.

Leadsom’s passion for early years in part comes from her mother Judy, who was a trained midwife and later became a cognitive behavioural therapist, working with parents who had undergone trauma to help them bond with their babies.

She had all five of her own children at home, which saw her rail against the strict system of the time which preferred hospital births. Leadsom was there for the delivery of her two half-brothers in the 1970s when she was 16 and then aged 18.

Describing the birth of her youngest sibling, she said: “[Mum] comes down with this lovely new baby and puts the dinner on. It was like ‘cool, who does that?!’. So when I had my first born I was absolutely of the view that this is going to be totally natural, so I had great expectations and it was a completely traumatic birth.”

After several hours in labour at home, then in a local hospital, Leadsom said she was transferred by ambulance to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, given an epidural, an episiotomy, and delivered Fred.

For the first three months as a mum she had post-natal depression, which she has spoken frankly about in the past. After 10 weeks she went back to work in her career in the City after a recent promotion meant she felt she had to return as soon as possible.

Reflecting on that time, she said: “It’s just the feeling of hopelessness. You can’t do anything. Every time Fred would cry, I would cry.”

On the proposed changes, she said: “We’re not going to be nanny state and intervene and start telling people what to do but we’re going to support families and carers to be able to give their own baby the best start.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock, who is backing the proposals, said: “Everybody should have a solid foundation on which to build their health and we are determined to level up the opportunities for children, no matter their background from or where they grow up.” 


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