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It's International Breastfeeding week! Hurrah! I hear you cry!
Except I don't hear this cry very much at all. What I hear a lot of is "Breastfeeding week makes me feel bad because I couldn't breastfeed for xyz reasons".
Now as an ex breastfeeding volunteer for the Breastfeeding Network (I had to give up due to childcare responsibilities) I have a huge amount of empathy for women who have struggled to reach their breastfeeding goals. I understand the challenges women face, breastfeeding if often HARD, that is one of the reasons why only 24% of women are still breastfeeding at 6 weeks post-partum and only 1% of women are still breastfeeding at the WHO recommended minimum of 6 months. This is not because 76% of women didn't care, decided that breastfeeding wasn't for them after all, or didn't try hard enough. Studies reveal that as much as 80% of women wanted to breastfeed. The reason is a lack of support.
This lack of support has myriad facets, here are a few:
- Lack of access to support,
- Lacks of funding for support,
- Lack of support and encouragement from family,
- Lack of breastfeeding role models,
- The sexualisation of breasts in the media,
- Financial power of the formula industry,
- Lack of knowledge and understanding about breastfeeding from medical professionals,
- Pressure to return to work,
And right there is our reason for celebrating those women who did make it. They made it in the face of adversity, they are the minority, and that should be celebrated. Most women didn't breastfeed beyond the first few weeks, formula feeding is the norm, (it's infant formula adverts we see on TV not breastfeeding adverts) just like most people didn't run a marathon and jogging round the park or even sitting on the sofa is the norm. But this doesn't stop us celebrating those who did run the marathon. The same should apply to breastfeeding mothers. (I realise this isn't the best analogy as breastfeeding isn't a race or a competition where there are winners or losers, but it's the best this sleep deprived mama could come up with!)
International Breastfeeding week isn't about shaming women who couldn't, wouldn't, didn't reach their breastfeeding goals for whatever reason, any more than Black Lives Matter is about saying that other lives matter less, It's about acknowledging the massive obstacles women faced and overcame in breastfeeding their child.
And breastfeeding week isn't just about celebrating the amazing achievements of those mothers who reached their breastfeeding goals, it's also about raising awareness about the lack of support, and demanding better, it's about acknowledging that mama who gave her baby colostrum, that mama who managed a week, the mama who sought out donor milk, the mama who pumped for 6 weeks or longer, that mama who used a SNS so her baby could get as much breast milk as possible, and it's about saying we (as a society) should be doing better, we (as a society) should be trying harder. Trying harder to help mothers who are struggling, trying harder to normalise breastfeeding and trying harder to flip the sexualised message the media sends us about breasts.
So if you breastfed, no matter how long for, breastfeeding week is for you (because any amount of breastmilk is a wonderful gift), just as much as it is for those women who did reach their goals. It's not the time to justify personal hang-ups, guilt or grief, it's about supporting, celebrating and educating.
In a society where you are more likely to see a breast in a push up bra than with an infant attached, let us have one week to celebrate our amazing bodies. Now is the time to celebrate our stories, to shout our achievements from the rooftops without worrying about making someone feel guilty. (Should those who finished the marathon not celebrate their achievement for fear of making those who didn't finish, or didn't take part feel guilty?) Do you think men would think twice about celebrating their breastfeeding goals if they could breastfeed? Not a chance, yet we women minimise our achievements to try to prevent others from feeling bad and it has to stop. We have to stop minimising our biology (again, I talk more about this in my " Embrace or Erase" series over on my Patroon HERE).
In International Breastfeeding week I want to celebrate that I have breastfed three children, two through pregnancy, through mastitis, through poor latch, pain and years of sleepless nights, that I pumped milk for a friend's baby and that I am currently still breastfeeding my four year old. I don't want to feel like celebrating my achievements might make my friends who didn't reach their goals feel guilty and resentful, I want to feel like they are standing right beside me, celebrating with me for their own achievements no matter how big or small as well as mine, and fighting for better with me. And I want to fight all of the things I mentioned above that are barriers to breastfeeding so that more women can achieve their breastfeeding goals and feel like International Breastfeeding week is for them too.
If you're interested in reading more about how our society views women's breasts and how this affects breastfeeding, I would encourage you to visit my Patreon page HERE and read my post called "Embrace or Erase part 1".
If you are looking for support to breastfeed you can contact The National Breastfeeding Helpline which is open from 9.30am till 9.30pm daily on 0300 100 0212
If you would like to understand more about breastfeeding, here are some books that I highly recommend: