When I woke up this morning I was full of emotion for many reasons. It was a year ago today that I went into labour before the birth of my first child. It took 45 hours of agony and complications before he arrived and after that I was exhausted, emotionally and physically and, having contracted an infection during the eventual emergency caesarean, I was away with the fairies on intravenous morphine. But when the nurse asked if I wanted to hold my baby, and try to feed him, despite all that had happened, I immediately said yes.
Maybe it was the caesarean. Nobody can describe how it feels for a woman to be denied the right to give birth naturally. I felt like a failure. I felt I had let myself, my husband, and my baby down. I had the choice taken away from me. So I was determined I would do this, the most natural of all things, and breastfeed my child.
But as any mother knows, it’s not that easy. Those videos they show you in the ante-natal classes of newborns nuzzling their mother and suckling like piglets? I don’t know where they find them but that’s not how it was for me, or anyone I know. Having done a straw poll of almost every mum I know I can safely say nobody found it that easy.
For days I tried. I tried with baby on my chest, then on my side. Sitting up and lying down. Friends brought me feeding pillows, nipple cream, breast pads and porridge (yep, we tried everything). After three or four days I was ready to give up. I was in tears as I egged on this tiny being, desperately pleading for him to ‘latch on’ properly. We were still in hospital so had nurses and midwives around us all the time. Most encouraged breastfeeding but some, mainly the younger ones, suggested formula milk. ‘It’ll get you some rest’ one said. ‘It won’t make any difference to him,’ said another. But I persevered, and I’m glad I did. A few days later my milk ‘came in’ and things, gradually, got easier.
“all point in one direction for me – women need support, and they need information”
Now, as my baby fast approaches his first birthday, I’m coming to terms with soon weaning him off the breast. After a year it’s no longer nutritionally beneficial, but breastfeeding isn’t all about nutrition. It’s about bonding, and it’s about health. Breastfeeding protects babies from gut problems, respiratory problems, ear infections, and the life-threatening condition necrotising enterocolitis – according to a UNICEF report last year. It can also build up a woman’s defences against diseases like breast and cervical cancer, by the nature of the hormones produced in the process.
So this morning, when I picked up the paper and saw that researchers from Sheffield University are planning on offering cash incentives to mothers in deprived areas with low rates of breastfeeding, it struck a chord with me immediately. It didn’t, however, fill me with glee. Rather confusion.
The team at Sheffield plan to offer £200 in vouchers to 130 women who would otherwise have bottle fed their babies. And if the scheme is successful there are plans to roll it out nationally. But how are they going to measure the success? How are they going to know that the baby is being breastfed and not just put back on the bottle as soon as Mum has received her Booby Bonus? The whole point is that the women they are targeting come from deprived areas, so they will likely do or say what they think the researchers want to hear if it means a cash reward. Dr Clare Relton, who is leading the project, herself admitted that verification will be an issue, but explained that her team will ask the mother to sign a declaration that she is breastfeeding and then ask either her health visitor, midwife or breastfeeding counsellor to sign another stating they have discussed it. Call me cynical but it doesn’t sound too foolproof to me.
And shouldn’t a woman choose to breastfeed through enlightenment, because she believes in the physical and emotional benefits, rather than because she is being bribed to. If you are offered money to do something you do it for that reason – to gain financially. When the scheme stops, these women won’t be encouraging others to breastfeed, because they won’t receive the rewards. Yes, some of them may grow to love this bond and feel sad at eventually having to break it off, like I do, but many of my friends just didn’t take to it. They did it, be it for a couple of weeks, or months, out of a sense of duty, but not out of enjoyment. The fact is they did do it though, because they knew it was in the best interests of their child. This is something a mother has to feel for herself, and no amount of money is going to change the way a woman thinks about this, the most personal and delicate of issues.
The planned study has received a lukewarm reception from official bodies, too. Professor Mitch Blair at The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said that “offering financial incentives proposed by this scheme may not necessarily be the right way to go about it”. He added: “It is more important that those mothers who wish to breastfeed are appropriately and fully supported to do so prior to, and following the birth and know the best techniques to feed their baby and keep themselves comfortable at the same time.”
Rosemary Dodds, senior policy advisor of the National Childbirth Trust, emphasised that women should not feel pressurised to breastfeed. She said: “Many women stop breastfeeding because they don’t get the information and the support they need. Four out of five women who stop in the first six weeks would have liked to continue for longer. This is why we offer breastfeeding services such as baby cafes, peer supporters and run a helpline with breastfeeding counsellors – all provide information and support for women and their families.”
On the one hand you could say that anything that encourages just one more woman to breastfeed has to be a good thing. After all, only 35 per cent of British mothers still breastfeeds up to six months, as recommended by the World Health Organisation. But research, experience and hindsight, all point in one direction for me – women need support, and they need information. The more information they get, the more they will be driven to do what is proven to be best for their child. But they also need the support. Not just in the first few days, but in the weeks and months that follow. A recent study calculated that the NHS could save more than £40m a year if more women were helped to breastfeed for longer. In order to start saving that £40 million somebody has to ensure that money is first invested in midwives and health visitors so they can get this information across on the frontline.
Unfortunately I think I can safely say that Health Minister Jeremy Hunt is not going to be the man to do that. The NHS is nearing breaking point as it is, and maternity matters are way down on the Government’s list of priorities. Care to prove me wrong, Mr Hunt?