Actually, Nick, there might be something in the vouchers for breastfeeding idea…

Nick Clegg was asked yesterday, on his LBC phone in, what he thought about the plan to give women in deprived areas £200 in High Street shopping vouchers. This was one of these questions which he had to answer by instinct because he didn’t know the detail and to give him credit, he said a lot of the right things. He talked about how no mum should feel pressured to breastfeed, but those who do should get the support they need. Whether he knows on a practical level what that actually means, though, is not clear.

He was unambiguous about one thing, though

Needless to say, it’s not going to be Government policy to pay mothers to breastfeed.

I actually think that the benefits of breastfeeding, particularly in deprived areas, are so clear that it is worth trying anything that works.  Given Nick Clegg’s commitment to tackling inequality, too, he might be very interested to find that research shows that a poor breastfed baby has better long term health chances than an affluent formula fed baby. If I had to pick just one of my many ramblings on various subjects for him to read, it would be this from last year following the UNICEF report that showed that the NHS could save £40 million a year by supporting breastfeeding and in particular this quote from research:

Breast fed children from lower socio-economic groups had better outcomes than formula fed children from more affluent families.

However, when resources are tight, I think that there are three very practical things  that come ahead of the vouchers scheme. I was on Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye on Wednesday talking about them, and you can listen here to “Caron from Bathgate” at about 45 minutes in.

Good quality support

When I hit trouble early in my breastfeeding career, it was the specific support I received from La Leche League that sorted me out. I could so easily have given up because my local midwife and health visitor, lovely though they were, just didn’t have the detailed information I needed to get through. Nor could they come out and sit in my house like LLL’s Louise did. When I started supporting women myself, I found that some health professionals didn’t know things I considered to be basic. Things are better now, but women often still can’t access the help that they need.

Groups

Guilt seems to go and in hand with motherhood. When you’re tired and upset and things aren’t going well, you can blame yourself and think that you are the only one in the world who’s going through it. You worry constantly that you are failing your baby. Attending a support group means that you meet others who are going through the same thing. Some will still be struggling with it. That group dynamic, led by someone who has some good evidence based solutions to offer in an informal and friendly environment, can do wonders.

Classes

Ante-matal breastfeeding classes are extremely useful in informing and preparing parents for what they might expect. Like all problems, the sooner you recognise it and intervene, the easier it is to resolve. If you can give people an idea of how to know if the baby is getting enough milk – and there are some very graphic leaflets around showing you exactly the size and colour of the emissions necessary to indicate that – they are more likely to call you in earlier.

I’d take it further, though. I’ve come across so many women whose families have undermined their breastfeeding. If their baby doesn’t sleep, or cries a lot, breastfeeding gets the blame. They are told, often with the best of intentions,  that their milk isn’t good enough or that the baby is hungry. I think there needs to be an ad campaign, or a class targeted at grannies to update them on current research, evidence and effective ways to support the new mother in their family.

Culture

Our culture has some very strange ideas about what breasts are for and how they should be portrayed. It equally has some very strange ideas about how babies behave and what they need. The baby that sleeps for four hours and only wakes up to be fed exists only between the wishful thinking pages of a text book. It’s going to take a long time to achieve that and it will take getting many more mothers to breastfeed before we accept it as normal. That’s why the vouchers scheme might be worth a shot. I’m looking forward to seeing how the pilot turns out. There is a very strong argument for putting as much money into encouraging breastfeeding as it takes to transform the health of our most disadvantaged babies.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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11 Comments

  • As a mother of 2 ,I felt immense pressure to breastfeed. There was no education on bottle feeding as an alternative and these vouchers would just pile on the pressure even more. Guilt does come with the package and the breastfeeding brigade used guilt ruthlessly with young mothers struggling to breastfeed. The ghastly middle-class, self-reverential smug NCT was unsupportive of any woman who couldn’t do this , be under no illusion the ‘support network’ offered to women who can’t /struggle to breastfeed has an agenda. Breastfeeding or nothing and our support will only be geared to forcing you to breastfeed whatever the consequences to you and your probably by now starving, querelous baby. Feminism is choice, to work, to stay at home, to balance both. It is a woman’s right to choose what she does for her and her baby, not government,pressure groups or anyone else. And before you mention the formula companies and their evil advertising I felt no pressure from them at all. Never approached or influenced or frankly bullied as I was by midwives and healthworkers. My children are young adults, hale and hearty, university educated and successful and happy. To any new/about to become young mothers, do it your way. your sanity and happiness counts and your babies will be happier and settled too. I can guarantee it.

  • “no mum should feel pressured to breastfeed”

    Really? We don’t think it’s a good idea to pressure people to feed their children properly now? So we shouldn’t pressure parents to not bring their children up on crap frozen ready meals and fried turkey twizzlers either? And we shouldn’t pressure parents not to let their kids lead entirely sedentary lifestyles of watching TV all day either? And presumably we shouldn’t pressure teachers to make sure children in schools get decent education either? This is what we’ve come to – it’s now wrong to pressure people to give children a decent start in life? Well I honestly don’t know what the point of politics is then.

    As you point out Caron, the benefits of breastfeeding are so huge their outweigh the difference between being poor vs being rich.

  • Seriously bottle feeding is entirely ok. It is a perfectly good start to life. What my main objection is the pressure to breastfeed is intense it does amount to bullying. There is an alternative which should be taught alongside breastfeeding classes. As I said women should be able to choose guilt-free what to do. There is nothong unhealthy about bottle feeding. G

  • Really? Have you bothered to actually read the scientific evidence, rather than just replay an opinion?

    Try this for starters:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2812877/

    A “perfectly good start to life” in the same sense as growing up in a room constantly choked with cigarette smoke and damp walls maybe. Actually, that’s entirely unfair on cigarette smoke and dampness – the effects of not breastfeeding are more harmful than them.

  • Not breastfeeding causes 1,000 baby deaths per year in the US (and by extrapolation, 200 in the UK – about the same as the entire number of cot deaths).

    http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2010/04/05/peds.2009-1616.abstract

  • peter tyzack 16th Nov '13 - 5:52pm

    ‘some health professionals didn’t know things I consider basic’ is extremely worrying. As a new father, I heard the midwife say to my wife, ‘we’ll give her some water for now, you have a sleep’, which I thought could not be right. Agreed Mum was exhausted after a long labour, but the baby needed contact with her mother and a feed(or have I got it wrong?).. There then ensued many days of struggle to get things to work, and we only succeeded with Mum’s determination. That was 30 yrs ago, I thought the professionals would have learnt by now.. !

  • Ruth Bright 16th Nov '13 - 8:18pm

    Quite right Peter early contact with a newborn is win-win for feeding and bonding. Thank you Caron for making clear the importance of breastfeeding as a mainstream public health issue.

  • Initially breast feeding is more difficult than bottle feeding which is why first time mothers need intensive support and yes, some pressure to do what is best for their babies. In the 70s this support was virtually nil and very few of us managed to keep it up. I know from my daughter’s experience within the last five years, that support levels are better now but even so, she had to seek them out.

  • @MBoy

    You are applying a monolithic approach to all women, as if they are all equal in their ability to breastfeed. You are applying statistics (i.e. averages of a group) to everyone. However,babies also die as a result of a lack of nutrition, sometimes as a result of breastfeeding being pushed when it isn’t working, leaving the baby undernourished and more susceptible to fatal illness. The number that die in this manner is less than the number that die from not being breastfed, however, it is a completely false dichotomy. The monolithic argument you are applying, i.e breastfeeding vs formula, is absurdly simple, and, for women who have real problems being able to breastfeed, leads to unnecessary infant mortality. The third, scientific way, is to treat each case individually. If the risk to the baby’s health through a lack of nourishment from failing breast-feeding is greater than the risk to the babies through a lack of antibodies in the formula (the antibodies are the only advantage to breast milk – nutritionally, formula is the same), then clearly formula should be used, at the very least as a supplement. For such women, who care very deeply about the health of their babies and are in a very vulnerable and anxious position, your comments about turkey twizzlers really are incredibly crass, insensitive, damaging and unscientific. I know plenty of women who have either been unable to breastfeed or have had huge difficulty breastfeeding. These are highly educated women who would do whatever is best for their babies. Would you make your comments about turkey twizzlers to their face?

  • Ruth Bright 20th Nov '13 - 6:58pm

    Steve – how many babies a year are you claiming die because of a lack of nourishment due to failing breastfeeding?

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