We must promote breastfeeding and support new mums in doing so
Shadow Minister for Public Health Sharon Hodgson writes that she knows breastfeeding can be physically draining and often painful, yet it is one of the most powerful factors in infant health.
Breastfeeding can be so hard at first. I know from my own experience that if you don’t have support and a bit of advice, encouraging a baby to nurse can be physically draining and often painful if not done correctly.
That’s why Breastfeeding Week matters. It’s a reminder that breastfeeding is one of the most powerful factors in infant health – it can prevent disease and reduce health inequalities. But this Week is also a reminder that there is advice out there to support new mums in breastfeeding, if they choose to do so.
We know that the first 1001 days from conception to age 2 are the most developmentally crucial for securing better long-term health outcomes for our children.
However, as a society we fail to focus on the benefits that a good nutritional diet can have on children from an early age – and we don’t promote them enough either.
That’s where Breastfeeding Week comes in, of course.
There has been much greater awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding in this country, but mothers still face pressure to not breastfeed in public, or to not breastfeed at all. And to make matters worse, Mums get stigmatised for choosing not to breastfeed too. We’ve got to encourage a major change in attitudes over the long term, but right now we can do much more to ensure new mothers have the support they need when they do choose to breastfeed.
That is why the Government must prioritise promoting good nutrition for our infants in the earliest years of their lives, particularly through better support for breastfeeding.
The World Health Organisation and numerous government health departments throughout the world recommend that infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their life.
So why is it that in the UK, only 1% of babies are exclusively breastfed by this age?
As any mother reading this will know, breastfeeding doesn’t always just happen as it should. Even when everything is working correctly, it’s still hard. On those exhausting sleepless nights with a newborn who is totally reliant upon you, it’s a battle to remember how beneficial it is to you and your baby.
Some mothers and babies need training and perseverance to get the latch correct – and they shouldn’t feel guilty about getting some help. For me it was a struggle. Without the incredible guidance and literal hands-on help that I received from a good nurse whilst still in hospital – which 25 years ago was for 4/5 days after the birth of your first child - I would not have been able to continue breastfeeding once I left hospital and was on my own. I’m so grateful for that help – it was invaluable.
Because I got that support, I felt empowered to persevere and breastfeed both my children, feeding the first for nine months and the second for sixteen months. I worry now as new mums are sent home within as little as 24 hours sometimes, that that valuable support is not happening which is why Health Visitors and programmes such as Bosom Buddies are so important.
I know breastfeeding can also pose many challenges to new mums trying to go back to work, especially within the first six months. It’s not only the government that’s got to do more – all employers should also provide support to breastfeeding mums so it’s easier to return to work.
Breastfeeding is good for your baby’s health and for the bond between you, but it’s also cheaper.
Replacing breastfeeding with formula milk comes at quite a cost for some families. Depending on the brand of infant formula it could add between £27.90 to £139.50 to the family budget per calendar month.
This is unavoidable for some new mums who struggle to breastfeed or are unable to, but for others I am sure it would be a welcome saving.
The stark reality is that under this Conservative Government, health inequalities are widening, and infant mortality rates have got worse three years in a row.
We must value nourishing our children, from promoting breastfeeding to having good quality free school meals for all.
The next Labour government will fight hard to give all children the best start in life, and that includes a commitment to promoting the benefits of breastfeeding and supporting new mums in breastfeeding.
Labour will do more to support and help expectant mothers and mothers with new-born babies, and promoting breastfeeding is just one part of this.
For instance, we have pledged to reinstate the Infant Feeding Survey. The survey, first established by a Labour Government and then abandoned by the Coalition in 2012, would give professionals greater insights into breastfeeding rates.
We’ve got to do so much more as a society to give our children real support for their health, wellbeing and nutrition from day one. That’s a task for government and employers – and I’ve been inspired to campaign for that public health goal by my personal experience.
Sharon Hodgson is Shadow Minister for Public Health and MP for Washington and Sunderland West.