World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated around the world from August 1. This year's theme is 'support', and, as Tara Moss writes, it's a fitting focus for modern times.
I never thought I’d say it, but these days I love mornings.
As the sun comes up, my daughter crawls into bed, cuddles me and breastfeeds. Sometimes we play or doze off more than feed, while other times she seems earnestly in need of the sustenance and comfort breast milk brings her. Occasionally we skip a morning, even a weekend, but for two years now, nearly every morning (and many afternoons and evenings, too) we hold each other this way.
We very nearly missed out on this experience. When I was a new mum having trouble breastfeeding, when my daughter was vomiting up the formula she was prescribed in hospital and not putting on weight, I could not have imagined how relaxing and easy breastfeeding would one day be. Now I often wonder what we’d do without it - like when we travel on planes or to unfamiliar places and she needs settling and the reassurance of that connection, or on those days when she seems to take particular comfort in me, and me in her. (It works both ways for us - the comfort of breastfeeding.)
The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, followed by the introduction of solids along with continued breastfeeding ‘to two years of age and beyond’. They cite numerous health benefits, but honestly, if breastfeeding my toddler no longer had a single measurable health benefit, I’d still do it. For us, it’s been a life saver.
I’m lucky that I had the right support to ride through the difficulties and doubts in the early weeks. As a result, we’re still enjoying the benefits two years later.
That fact is on my mind again this week, as World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated in over 170 countries from August 1 to August 7.
The theme this year is ‘support’, and I think it is a fitting focus.
While we have much to celebrate in Australia, with great maternal health outcomes for the majority of mothers and babies, there is still some way to go in providing adequate support for many breastfeeding mums. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Infant Feeding Survey of 2010 found that although 96 per cent of babies were initially introduced to breast milk, 61 per cent were exclusively breastfed for less than one month. This progressively decreased to a low 15 per cent at around six months of age - less than half the world average (38 per cent).
Notably, the majority of mothers reported that they quit breastfeeding before they wanted to. One of the major factors was lack of adequate support.
A mother’s choice about how to feed her child must be respected. She is the one doing the feeding. The rest of us can be supportive of her choice. In my view, there is often not enough support or respect, and it shows in our breastfeeding rates and also in the divisiveness of public discussions of breastfeeding.
Fixing this lack of support is in our best interests. Study after international study continues to show significant health benefits for mothers and babies who can breastfeed, and even a moderate rise in breastfeeding rates would actually ease the burden on the national health system, reduce waste, increase work place productivity, with parents requiring less time off work to care for sick children, and ease the bottom line of individual families who would not need to spend on artificial milk substitutes.
Put simply, if parents want their children to be breastfed, and the vast majority say that they do, we should make sure they have every opportunity to make that happen.
So what can we do?
• Support in the community. It is vital that mothers live in a community where they are never made to feel uncomfortable about feeding their children naturally. Women are legally allowed to breastfeed in all public places (including restaurants, businesses, buses, etc) with or without a cover, regardless of the age of the child or what others think of it. Really, we need to drop the notion that breastfeeding is anything but a normal part of life. (And really, does anyone imagine that a mother can follow the Australian health guidelines of exclusive breastfeeding for six months without leaving the house with her hungry child?)
• Support at work. For some breastfeeding women, returning to work remains a barrier. Workplaces can sign up with the Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace Initiative and reap the rewards of ‘enhanced cost savings’, ‘reduced absenteeism’ and more. And remember, discriminating against a worker for breastfeeding is always against the law.
• Support from health professionals. Good advice and care is vital, and to that end, WHO and UNICEF have developed the Baby Friendly Health Initiative, which I am proud to be patron of since 2011. BFHI accredited hospitals have great success rates with breastfeeding, and implement best-practice care for mothers and babies, whether they choose breastfeed or not. If you want to find out more, head to babyfriendly.org.au. If you plan to breastfeed, learn about what to expect, and tell your health care professional your wishes.
• Support at home. Every mum needs support from loved ones. Research has shown that having a supportive partner can be one of the largest impacts on breastfeeding success, as can supportive family members and friends who understand the benefits and respect the mother’s choice to breastfeed.
Every day of breastfeeding has its benefits, whether for six weeks, six months or six years. Let’s hope more families can enjoy it.
Tara Moss is Australia’s UNICEF Patron for Breastfeeding, and Patron for the Baby Friendly Health Initiative. Visit her at taramoss.com.