Posted Thursday 5th August 2021
Ciara Close, PhD
Newly Qualified Midwife
As a newly qualified Midwife I thoroughly love supporting women through all aspects of pregnancy, birth and postnatal period but especially supporting women to breastfeed. In my experience most women ‘do’ want to breastfeed but there are barriers to them breastfeeding. One of the most common barriers I would find is limited support from family and support networks. Often family members think that they are helping the mother by suggesting a baby is formula fed, so that the mother can rest while the baby is fed by another family member. This suggestion is usually coming from a good place but this suggestion, in my experience, contributes to a mothers lack of confidence about breastfeeding, when everyone around her is telling her to bottle feed.
In my experience it really helps to include the women’s support network (family/ friends) in any education around breastfeeding. So, for example in my current role as a midwife on the postnatal ward when visiting is allowed, I often use a few minutes to educate the other family members about the principles of good attachment and positioning. I find family members really engage in learning more about breastfeeding, especially given that many grown adults have never seen or known a woman to breastfeed, so education is critical. Although, midwives and other health professionals can provide excellent support to encourage the maintenance of breastfeeding, ultimately without a supportive family or friend network breastfeeding is unlikely to be sustained longer term. Emmott et al. (2017) highlighted the significance of three different levels of breastfeeding support. Extensive support where mothers were supported by family, friends and professionals, family support where mothers were supported by family and less so by professionals and low support where mothers received limited support from all potential supporters. Unsurprisingly, the mothers who received the extensive support (94%) were more likely to breastfeed for greater than two months compared to 48% in the family support group and 13% in the low support group.
In my own midwifery practice I always endeavour to ensure that women are getting support for breastfeeding from all potential supporters, as the research clearly highlights this enhances success in maintaining breastfeeding. While some may assume that midwives teach and educate mothers about breastfeeding, many like myself try to include the whole family where possible. I personally use opportunities where I come into contact with young siblings to educate them about breastfeeding, in the hope that the new generation will see breastfeeding for what it is: ‘a perfectly normal way to feed a baby’.
In terms of teaching mothers to breastfeed I think it is important to give women realistic expectations of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is often promoted as natural, and this leads to misconceptions that breastfeeding is easy, and this may be the case for some women but not for all. Midwives like myself have an important role to educate women in a timely manner about the challenges of breastfeeding and this may help in the maintenance of this behaviour. In my experience so many women give up breastfeeding when they encounter challenges and they doubt their ability to breastfeed. For some, had they known before their baby was born that these issues are common and can be rectified, more women may continue to breastfeed. In my practice, I aim to use antenatal opportunities to discuss breastfeeding challenges to mothers to help them feel more equipped to deal with any challenges they may encounter and allow them time to do more reading and ask more questions. No new mother should be surfing the internet looking for breastfeeding solutions at 2am, with a distressed, hungry baby who won’t latch on as the mother is engorged. Mothers should know these common challenges well in advance and at a time when they are not tired, sore and emotional. In my opinion educating mothers in the antenatal period about breastfeeding challenges could make all the difference in increasing the duration of breastfeeding.
1. Emmott, E.H., Page, A.E. and Myers, S., 2020. Typologies of postnatal support and breastfeeding at two months in the UK. Social Science & Medicine, 246, p.112791.
2. Fox, R., McMullen, S. and Newburn, M., 2015. UK women’s experiences of breastfeeding and additional breastfeeding support: a qualitative study of Baby Café services. BMC pregnancy and childbirth, 15(1), pp.1-12.