Today the media reported that a small trial area in Britain is to offer shopping vouchers to women to encourage them to breastfeed. The trial is, I think, a well intentioned but short term fix to what is a wider problem. We have some of the lowest breastfeeding rates of the developed world. This is especially low among working class women and these are the women that this trial wishes to target.
As I said, I think is well intentioned but I don’t think it will work. I read two reports of the trial – in The Guardian and in The Telegraph (the Telegraph hilariously focussing on their concerns that the women would spend the vouchers on alcohol and cigarettes while lying about feeding the baby – in Torygraph land we are all characters in Shameless…) and I think I have decided that my problem with this lies with the assumptions about breastfeeding.
I’m sure the people who conducted the study and made their recommendations did some research but the comments about women not breastfeeding because they were afraid of being shouted at in public, or that their boyfriends would go off them are not the causes of a low breastfeeding rate but symptoms of something deeper.
I had a lot of expectations about what it would be like being a mum and many of them came from media. One of the most prevalent was that breastfeeding in public would attract disapproval and angry confrontations. This never happened to me. Most of the time I doubt people even noticed. To start with I covered myself with a large muslin cloth which was a technique someone recommended but after a while I didn’t care about that and anyway, it got in the way of seeing if she was still drinking or if she’d fallen asleep. No one bothered me. Yet The Guardian seems to run a piece practically every week about parenting or breastfeeding and the assumption that people will hassle you is mentioned in every one. Are we actively putting women off with this attitude?
When I was in the labour ward, I only really interacted with the other mums at mealtimes and I was shocked at how many of them were not prepared to breastfeed or persevere with it after they left hospital. It was as if they were back at school but once the ‘teachers’ were gone, they’d be back to their old ways, smoking behind the bike sheds and flicking bits of paper around. There was a big cross section of women at the hospital too, not just working class women. For myself, I asked about going home later on the day E was born to be (eventually) told that they were concerned about how little she’d drunk and that if I went home I couldn’t come back for help if she didn’t latch. They scared me a little, if I’m honest. Yet when we did go home and needed breastfeeding support we phoned the community midwife who talked to us on the phone and then came round and she couldn’t have been more helpful. She was brisk and businesslike but I found that about a lot of midwives. It wasn’t intimidating. Or not that intimidating. And my concern for feeding E correctly was the most important thing. However, if I’d grown up in a culture that didn’t rate breastfeeding, where my mother hadn’t breastfed me, where none of my friends and people I know breastfed, would I have found them intimidating? It seems likely. And that’s one of the main reasons women don’t breastfeed – the culture they’ve come from.
I’m no sociologist but I’d guess that the above, plus the fact that working class women just can’t afford to take as much time off work to look after the baby, would be the underlying causes of our low breastfeeding rates.
I didn’t enjoy breastfeeding for much of the time. I found it hard, I found it to be demanding and nothing like the overwhelming bonding experience I was led to expect. Yet, E was breastfed exclusively for 6 weeks, combination fed till 6 months and I continued feeding her at bedtime until she was 10 months old and drew blood with her new teeth. At some point in there I did find it something we could do together, just her and me, no one else. At other times it infuriated me that I was so stubborn to go through another hour before I could relax again. My sister, who bottle fed early on, thought the time spent on breastfeeding was ridiculous, with me having no idea how much E had drunk and having only a short time between feeds. For her, it was nothing but inconvenience. (For me, inconvenience is bothering with a bottle, carting water and powder around in a bag and having to ask for heating facilities rather than just whacking your baps out but there you go.)
When it comes to it, the NHS also has to compete with aggressive yet insidious marketing campaigns by formula companies. I’ve talked about this in relation to weaning but there is very little the NHS can give you that can compete with the resources that Aptamil and co can throw at you.
So do I think giving women shopping vouchers will help? Not really. Aside from the bloody awful patronising attitude that all women care about is shopping and buying stuff, the vouchers don’t address the long term causes. It’s a cultural shift we need, education and a change to make this society more equal. And I think that’s something we’re unlikely to see.