Last week the government announced plans to reinstate what they’ve spent a decade dismantling: early years’ support. New Family Hubs across England will offer early support to families and young children. That the Conservatives seem to be waking up to the mistakes they made overseeing the closure of nearly 1,500 Sure Start centres is welcome. But when I read that these so-called “one-stop shops for parenting” would focus on – among other things – support with breastfeeding, I couldn’t help but get angry.
At a time when parents, and mothers in particular, are struggling with the rising cost of living and the absence of affordable childcare, why on earth are we adding to the pressure they already face to breastfeed?
Before my son, now nine months old, was born I attended a breastfeeding advice session at my local hospital, in which I made the unforgivable mistake of asking about expressing, bottle feeding and – heaven forbid – formula. I quietly explained that I’d like my partner to be able to help with night feeds, which was met with disdain from the midwife. “He can help in other ways, like unloading the dishwasher,” she replied. “You won’t be able to sleep anyway, because your maternal instinct will wake you up.” I left the session with angry tears running down my cheeks.
I wish this was a one off, but it’s not. For one friend the pressure to breastfeed a tongue-tied baby almost certainly contributed to a severe bout of post-natal depression. Another battled her way through an undiagnosed and agonising infection while she was told that pain is normal. I’ve seen women go through hell breastfeeding because of the supposed benefits which, though they certainly exist, simply do not justify this level of pain and suffering (something referenced in Emily Oster’s excellent book Cribsheet).
And ultimately, isn’t dictating what women should do with their bodies and for how long just a little bit regressive? When the NHS is telling mothers they should breastfeed exclusively for six months, and continue until 12 months, is it any wonder shared parental leave has an uptake of merely 2 per cent?
If women want to breastfeed they should be supported to do so. I’m sure that support is in better supply in some areas than others. Where I live it’s already plentiful. My hospital forgot to give me pain relief after my C-section and left me unable to urinate for so long I got an infection, but I was repeatedly shown how to get my baby to latch on. In the weeks afterwards I received multiple phone calls from (helpful and well-meaning) breastfeeding experts and lactation consultants. Despite their help, the pain didn’t decrease with time so eventually I switched to formula.
The reality is that parents in England are not facing a breastfeeding crisis, they’re facing a childcare crisis. In January our nursery fees went up by 14 per cent. I have a friend who, as an NHS doctor, worked out she’d be just £200 a month worse off if she gave up work altogether to look after her kids.
If only the government focused on how to take that pain away.