No support: calls to breastfeeding helpline skyrocket during COVID-19

Monica Spillman, husband Daniel and their new son. Photos: Supplied
Monica Spillman, husband Daniel and their new son. Photos: Supplied 

Monica Spillman was extremely anxious about the arrival of her second child in mid-April, as COVID-19 began to grip the world.

The 36-year-old Perth mum checked out of the hospital six hours after giving birth to her son, but quickly found she was experiencing the same breastfeeding attachment issues she had with her daughter.

With visits from early childhood nurses limited due to coronavirus restrictions - Ms Spillman reached out to the Australian Breastfeeding Association for help and new research shows she is not alone.

Figures, released this week, show the ABA's National Breastfeeding Helpline received 6103 calls in April – a 1000 call increase compared to the usual monthly average.  The average call length also increased from 12 to 16 minutes.

The research conducted by the ABA and analysed by Western Sydney University Associate Professor, Karleen Gribble, also found concern about the virus is leading some women to breastfeed longer than they would ordinarily, and some are even trying to relactate once their babies have already weaned.

"Mums are concerned about contracting the virus and are considering breastfeeding as a means of boosting their overall health and immunity," Associate Professor Gribble said.

"They are concerned about the availability of formula and are considering the practical value of breastfeeding while they are in lockdown."

The research found the most common concern of callers to the helpline, cited by 38 per cent of respondents, was insufficient milk or inadequate weight gain for their baby. Many mothers concerned about their inability to see a midwife or child and family health nurse to have their baby weighed.

Associate Professor Gribble said it was clear from the data that new mums found lockdown tough.

Advertisement

"You're meant to have people around you to provide support when you have a baby, but women are being deprived of contact with health professionals, friends and family, and even their own mothers after they give birth," she said.

In Ms Spillman's case, a nurse from the hospital visited her the day after and again on day three, but due to COVID-19, the visits were only for 15 minutes.

"You could only get in so much and it was easy to forget all the questions I wanted to ask as a tired mum," she said.

"It was really stressful with no family or friend support.  You want to do the best you can and without the face to face support it is really quite challenging and really worrying.  The hormones were going crazy."

Unable to access the face-to-face support she'd relied on with her daughter, Ms Spillman contacted the ABA's national helpline.

"It was nice because there was no time limit.  To talk through everything and get that reassurance was good and they referred me to articles and videos on their website," she said.

Ms Spillman continued to receive support from a local ABA counsellor and attended their Zoom meetings regularly.

Associate Professor Gribble, who specialises in infant feeding during emergencies said infants are very vulnerable in emergencies and they need specific planning to ensure that their mothers and caregivers are well supported to protect them.

"The ABA is not mentioned in any of Australia's emergency planning, but it is clear that their services have provided a safety net in the pandemic," she said. 

"It is also clear that national planning for infants in emergencies must be urgently developed, funded and implemented."

The ABA National Breastfeeding Helpline is 1800 686 268