Let’s be clear. Breastfeeding is normal. More than 90% of Australia women who become mothers will do it. Women have been breastfeeding as long as they have been giving birth. Remarkably, even women who have never been pregnant are breastfeeding their adopted children, and with the recent discovery of stem cells in breast milk, and what appears to be HIV fighting properties, it’s fair to say we are still learning about how valuable breastmilk may be for us and for medical science.
The World Health Organization, UNICEF and health practitioners nation-wide recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of life if you are able to, as it is proven as one of the simplest and most effective ways to protect babies from disease. According to WHO, breastfeeding
‘Reduces the incidence and severity of infectious diseases, thereby lowering infant morbidity and mortality, and contributes to women’s health by reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.’
Unfortunately though, only 15% of Australian babies receive the protection of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life – less than half the world average. And though 9 out of 10 Australian women want to breastfeed, the majority quit breastfeeding before they want to, according to the latest Infant Feeding Survey, conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Not all women can breastfeed, but the vast majority of women can and want to. I know I struggled at times, but thankfully I got the right information and support to get me through. Sometimes, as little as a phone call or the right piece of advice is enough to smooth the way to a long and successful breastfeeding relationship.
So what can we do to help mothers who choose to breastfeed?
We can start, as a nation, by making better breastfeeding support and education widely available across the country, so that parents are well prepared when their babies arrive, and have support in place for any problems that may arise, particularly in the early days or weeks. That is the priority of the Baby Friendly Health initiative (BFHI) from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, which works to ensure the best standard of evidence-based care is provided for mothers and babies, with proven success in helping women achieve their goals of breastfeeding their babies successfully, and for longer.
In Australia, returning to work remains a barrier for many mums, but it doesn’t have to.
A great initiative called Breastfeeding Friendly Workplaces is battling against that barrier by encouraging businesses to allow breastfeeding breaks or to have a place to pump and store expressed breast milk at work, all of which makes good ethical sense and good business sense, as studies have shown that progressive workplaces with family friendly policies are more productive.
The third thing we can do to help breastfeeding mums is not a policy at all, but simply an attitude.
Despite the health push to breastfeed and despite the fact that Australian law protects the right to breastfeed anywhere, anytime, some mums are still discouraged from feeding their children naturally, and are made to feel nervous or embarrassed. Breastfeeding in public – and therefore all breastfeeding – remains inexplicably controversial in places like Australia, the UK and America. And that has to stop.
With our ever-increasing exposure to advertising using breasts to sell us everything from bras, to cars and men’s shoes, we have come to view breasts as exclusively sexual, instead of the functional things they are. In many communities breastfeeding has become all but invisible outside birthing classes and the pamphlets in the doctor’s office. Visibility is acceptance. If we don’t see breastfeeding as a normal part of everyday life, if we don’t see it at all, we have little hope of raising our breastfeeding rates and encouraging more women to continue breastfeeding once life inevitably involves leaving the house with a hungry child.
Thankfully women are banding together to support one another and to show that breastfeeding is a normal and healthy part of life. Just look at this beautiful collection of breastfeeding mums below.
Whether or not we are parents, and irrespective of how we choose to feed our children, we can create a more flexible, baby friendly culture together, where women and children get the support they need, and mums can feel confident breastfeeding anywhere, anytime their children need it, for as long as they choose. 22 years after the Innocenti Declaration we’ve come a long way, but we still have some way to go.
We can do it together.
Why not forward this to a friend and let them know it’s World Breastfeeing Week.