Thinking about the wider breastfeeding environment
Many of the people we spoke to talked about the wider environment in which breastfeeding takes place and the influences that affected their experiences including the historical, social, cultural, political, legal, economic and medical aspects. Societal attitudes to what we consider appropriate roles and behaviours for men and women were also influential. Several pointed out the importance of community attitudes towards the breast and breastfeeding, not just breastfeeding in public places but attitudes and learned behaviours passed down from generation to generation and how these varied according to the community or area in which they lived and the people with whom they socialised. There was a strong feeling that in order to move on it is time to stop repeating the breast versus bottle controversy that presents breastfeeding as difficult and bottle feeding as easy, establishes feelings of failure, guilt and inadequacy in women, and sets them up in opposition to each other according to how they feed their babies.
The irony of being asked to move to a changing room when she was breastfeeding next to a super...
The, one person in a well known shop's lingerie department came up to me and said that I should be doing it in a changing room and I was sat right next to this super cleavage push-up bra, and I was thinking, 'how bizarre that I shouldn't be feeding my baby here because you don't take your clothes off to breastfeed, you just like discreetly attach them', if you've got a hungry baby that wants feeding it's so easy, that just, it makes it ridiculous to have to go somewhere to feed your baby the whole point of breastfeeding is it's easy, it's quick, and it's natural.
And you do it wherever?
I do it wherever, if it would be acceptable to bottle feed a baby then I'd breastfeed a baby so, if it was somewhere like toilets I'd think it was pretty disgusting to bottle feed a baby in toilets so I wouldn't breastfeed Grace in there unless she really, really needed just a little bit of comfort, but yeah I'll feed her wherever.
Her breastfeeding experience changed her attitude towards her breasts which she no longer sees as...
How did that make you feel?
It's a bit odd, it is a bit odd having someone look at you, giving you like sort of grin as if to say, 'Well done', you know, but I don't care it is, your first instinct's, 'Oh he's looking at me', but then I look at her and it's like, 'Well she comes first' so you can look at me all you like because they ain't very sexy at the moment and I don't see them as sexual, like before feeding her my concern was that there'd be, it would feel sexual feeding her because obviously they are like sexual toys, aren't they before making new baby and that was my concern and that's what I found a lot of people's concerns are is that it would feel sexual but it really doesn't, you know, so I'm like, I don't see them as sexual toys any more they are just udders I suppose they feed her [laughs] they're hers and until I stop breastfeeding her they are hers so it just doesn't bother me any more, and you can stare all you like, covered in stretch marks go for it.
So that's a big change in attitude, then?
Yeah, yeah, really big but I find that's the main concern for a lot of my friends I mean, one of my friends is pregnant and that was her concern and, you know I sort of said to her it doesn't feel anything like that but because you do and because your body changes so much after having a baby as well, and nobody sort of says about that do they? It's all sort of, 'Oh its hunky dory and no pain no nothing everything's it's easy" and it's so not.
What about your friends? What do they think? Because often young women don't breastfeed.
None of them have really said anything, I just do to be honest with you if they have something negative to say, I just ignore them anyway [laughs] it's my right as a mum you know everyone has got their own opinions and I'm not saying bottle feeding is wrong and that you should breastfeed but I think you should give it a go and if it works then brilliant and if it doesn't work for you then don't do it, you know, that's just my view though but I wouldn't give her a bottle now she's so attached to it that I just wouldn't bother the only bottle she has is a bit of water.
Why do you think a lot of young women don't breastfeed?
The problem again it's sexual, you know they see them as toys and they are concerned that feeding your baby will feel sexual and that you'll feel like a bit of a pervert I suppose because it's a young child, isn't it so a lot of, I think that's a concern for a lot of people is that you'll feel a bit like a pervert or you know it or that it won't feel natural but I'd say give it a go, you know.
He thinks that bottle feeding became so ingrained that people forgot how to breastfeed and the...
What was your response to that?
My response to this was of course back in the medieval time when knights were bold then obviously the young maidens used to go into the field and get their, you know, their [disinfectant] and put it on their nipples, no I don't think that actually happened, you know, we've been doing it as, as a species for thousands of years, why would it now be fatal? Don't think it would be. So [laughs] I was kind of '
You were going to give me another example.
What was the other example I was going to give you?
People's short term memory?
Oh people's short term memories, basically people's short term memories is they forget the times where people, because everyone is so, basically what's happened is they had this big thing back in long where bottlefed was best, bottlefed was best, bottlefed was best, then, that's got so ingrained into people's knowledge and people's memory that now you've got a situation where people are, it's the, it's unusual to have breastfeeding people, it's more usual to have bottle feeding, and people can't get their heads around it, you know, I mean I'll go back to my medieval times, they weren't, obviously they'd say people that used to go down the local chemist on horseback to get the cans of SMA from their own use it, they'd have no knowledge of it's history of what it, you know, how long it's been around and it just makes, it just, defies belief a little bit and these are also the same people though that criticise breastfeeding, that turn round to say it's not right, that it is a taboo subject, and yeah there are some extremes in it, there's been, on local, on television recently there's been extremes where, you know, you've got women breastfeeding children six, seven years, I'm not saying I advocate that, but, breastfeeding for as long as you want is your choice, if they want to do that, that's their choice but it gives them the best start in life that they can have, so yeah that's basically my kind of take on the history of breastfeeding.
What about your attitude to the breast as a sex symbol?
I think, my attitude towards it, it's like a switch, in my opinion, in respect of myself anyway I don't see it as, when she's breastfeeding, I don't see it as a sexual affair, it's a tool, it's there, it's to do a job. If you're in a sexual situation, yes I do see it as a sexual object, but I don't, but then I'm very mindful of it, because obviously if she hasn't fed, it's going to be very tender, it's going to be hurting, it's going to be sore, you know, nipples are going to be cracked, sore, painful, so you very, you have to be mindful of what it is. You know, kind of a look, don't touch situation, in that some respects, because it's pretty sore. But it's, you have to kind of get your mind into that switch on and off, which most people can do, I suppose, but you need to just basically consider it that you need to be, it's not seen as, you don't see it as a permanent sexual object, and then you just don't get embarrassed about it. It's just one of these thi
People spoke about the loss of knowledge about breastfeeding in some communities; the lack of role models; the impact of infant formula manufacturer's advertising and sponsorship of things like leaflets about weaning; and the difficulties in encouraging women to breastfeed their babies when they live in communities where breastfeeding is not common (see 'Cultural aspects of breastfeeding - Interview 14').
Few people in her area breastfeed because the knowledge has been lost. Support groups help but...
So it becomes a taboo subject when you're with a group that doesn't do what you do you just don't discuss it?
I just don't discuss it because I have been in situations where I've bit my tongue and someone's said something, like, 'Well I weaned my baby at three months I was putting rusk in their bottle and they slept through the night' and it made me, quite aggressively to me, as if to say I'm doing wrong by not doing that, and I've thought 'should I speak up and say, 'Well that's really damaging to your baby's health and I care more about my baby than to do that', or do I just let it pass and we'll carry on talking about toys and nappie's and various other things' and so it's easier to just let it pass. Which isn't very socially responsible, because if people keep doing that then breastfeeding will still, will always be the underdog.
Why do you think people in this area don't breastfeed?
I don't know why people don't breastfeed in this area, it's really difficult that, it's not just my generation, lots of these are like third generation women that have been bottle fed and I read on the internet somewhere that if monkeys don't see other monkeys breastfeeding they forget how to do it, they don't know how to do it, and I think that, that's something that people try but they don't have much success and there's no one there to say, 'Well this is how to do it' or, 'you're doing well' or, 'it is difficult to start with' and alright there are easier options, if you want you can give your baby a bottle and go away for the weekend or go to Lanzarote for a week, and that's always there, people are quite willing to say that, but very few people are brave enough to say, 'But women are meant to breastfeed their baby, and babies want to be breastfed and breastmilk's the best thing for your baby' so and, it becomes ingrained in the community that every one of us sees people bottle feeding and so it's just become acceptable and the norm and then anything else is strange.
How do you think that might be overcome?
I don't think we'll overcome it in this country as things stand. Things, breast, people breastfeeding and every person that someone sees breastfeeding may inspire someone and encourage someone and like breastfeeding support groups I go to and the promotion they're trying to do is really good, and breastfeeding awareness weeks are really good. But until there's some, more kind of unpleasant changes for the formula milk industry there's no, I don't think that the trend will be reversed. If all of a sudden no formula milk could be advertised and you had to ask for it over the counter, and every supermarket and every petrol
She discussed unhelpful attitudes towards breastfeeding and some ways of encouraging and...
'and how there are a lot of areas where this is quite common, why do you think... Why do you think it is that some areas are not very, that not many women feed in some areas?
I think there's a range of reasons, I know a lot of people if they've never met anybody or never known anybody else that breastfeeds then they wouldn't really be inclined to, to even try it. And I think as well my mother told me something a while back, she said in her day it was only very, very poor people that breastfed because there was this, you know, powdered milk that you could buy and there's the whole thing about having the money to buy the powdered milk and if you were seen breastfeeding you couldn't afford to buy the powdered milk, now I know that's not how it works now but, I think that might be something that's been passed down.
These things become quite entrenched don't they?
People never re-visit the beliefs.
Yeah and there's a whole lot of, 'Well I was formula fed didn't do me any harm' and so it goes on.
Do you have any ideas of how health professionals or voluntary workers or anybody else like that might break this cycle, and help these women who perhaps are not aware of all the choices that there are for them?
I think there does need to be more support for women who are, who are planning to breastfeed, I don't know the numbers but I think there probably are quite a lot of woman that try it and then they run into problems and who do they turn to? And, there are a lot of very good health visitors but I believe there are some as well that are, are maybe not quite so clued up on breastfeeding. And it just needs these mothers maybe a referral to one of the breastfeeding groups and a breastfeeding counsellor, or in fact for there to be breastfeeding counsellors available in the hospitals at the very beginning and for people to be able to be educated about it. All the information is out there if you look for it, but it's a case of the information is no use if people don't understand it and know how to apply it to their own circumstances. So I think maybe, more information for pregnant women and I don't know what I'm trying to say, more information for pregnant women and possibly sort of newer mums who are maybe two and three months down the line coming talking to pregnant women, and just to show them that, you know, well, maybe, oh I thought I would try it and here I am still three months later, that sort of thing I think would be good to, to encourage, to encourage people.
Now I'm aware that you accessed the web'
'and quite, quite a lot'
'that's not always available to other people is it? And as you said'
'they may not know how to apply what they find on the web to their own situations.
Oh I don't know what I'm trying to say [laughs].
Yeah because I mean I think, you know, leaflets and things about breastfeeding, they sort of tell you how the perfect breastfeeding would go and then there's maybe a little bit saying problems yo
The role of the media in promoting the way that the community responds to infant feeding, especially in television dramas, soap operas and magazines, and including the marketing and advertising of infant formula, came in for a great deal of criticism (see 'Previous awareness of breastfeeding'). Several women made comparisons between what happens in the UK and other countries (see for example 'Cultural aspects of breastfeeding'). One woman said that her mother came from a village in India where all of the women breastfed. Her mother was concerned that her daughters would not breastfeed in the UK because of the infant formula advertising and ease of access to bottles.
She thought that the best environment for breastfeeding was in a supportive community and was...
For me the best environment for a woman to breastfeed would be, in a way I just realised how much it would have been helpful to be in a village, in a community, where you could really call on people around you. So a total like, sort of, if I was God [laughs] and changed things, I would probably go back to village life where you have people you love and respect and people of different ages around you so that you can really call upon them. It's a time where you need to have friends and you need to have family, it doesn't need to be family maybe but just people around you, you really do need to hear about other people's experience. So perhaps a closer community, a closer sort of, perhaps a more informal, you get a lot of formal advice in books and you know, on the internet and, but in fact the delivery of it would be so much better if it was from a neighbour, a friend. I think it would be more human and that would be more desirable and perhaps that would be best problem but perhaps that's a fantasy as well, it's very difficult to say.
What about in society, attitude towards the breast and breastfeeding?
I have never come across somebody that was against it or shocked by it personally, I think everybody knows it happens but it's kind of not talked about and in a way I am not sure whether that's actually to, to care for the mothers by respecting this intimacy, or whether it's just an embarrassment, or, it's an interesting subject, I don't know why it's so little talked about, in a way, but then would I like to shout about it to everyone, perhaps not, it's an intimate experience as well, so I think it's important that those groups happen, you know, that you can, you can ring the NCT and find a group of women doing it, that's very, very important.
What about the way breastfeeding or infant feeding is portrayed in the media?
And that, that is one thing that I am really shocked about and in fact it's both in France, I think possibly more in France, the magazines are covered by advice, advertisement, advertising sorry, for formula milk and powder milk and those companies have got a lot of funding so they can really go for it, they send you things through the post, in fact, when you're in hospital you fill a little sort of pamphlet with your address and your name, and you're too tired or too involved with your baby to tick the boxes that you don't want to receive all this advertising through your letterbox but, you know, they send you a little, like samples of milk powder and they send you a sort of teat and they send you things, and in a way it would be so easy at that low point when you have mastitis to say, 'Oo I've got that pump oh I might as well try it' and you're a customer for life [laughs] or, you know, you're a customer for a long time, so I think the advertising's, which in fact, is covering magazines is too much. I know they have to put a little line saying, 'Breastfeeding is better for babies' but, you know, when you have that colourful page with that absolutely gorgeous looking mother and the gorgeous looking baby you think, 'Oh I'd like to be this', you know, when you tired and you have your eyes like [laughs], you know, grey eyes and you feel absolutely awful, you think, 'Oh is that what I would get with that powder' then perhaps you might be tempted and I think that that's a bit, you know, undesirable because at some weak point where, I think it's the tiredness that really makes you so weak in taking decisions and you could so easily opt for that option, whilst really I think it's more important to breastfee
A few women talked about being active in breastfeeding lobby groups, such as Baby Milk Action (a non-profit organisation that aims to save lives and to end the avoidable suffering caused by inappropriate infant feeding and marketing of infant formula), and taking part in the Nestlé Boycott (a consumer-led boycott of Nestlé products for unethical promotion of breast milk substitutes, including infant formula) co-ordinated in the UK by Baby Milk Action.
She worked as a volunteer for a breastfeeding lobby group before having her children and did not...
And what did you know about breastfeeding at that stage?
Nothing, to be quite honest my mother hadn't sort of breastfed me, she'd wanted to but couldn't, and I hadn't known anybody who'd had, so 'cause I was very small when my cousins had children, so I didn't really know anyone who'd done it at all, but it just seemed like the right thing to do, and the easy thing to do as well so.
So you had no background in it really'
'no family background?
No not at all.
But it was what you wanted to do?
Yeah, it just seemed like the right thing to do.
Where do you think that inclination came from?
Well I've always liked to do things the natural way sort of thing I don't like taking lots of medicines and everything else anyway, so really it's just part of that, that, and also I think well why get up in the middle of the night to make a bottle up and why spend all this money on formula milk when it's there? And I've done voluntary work for an organisation who don't particularly like formula milk and the way it's marketed, so of course from that made me think about it.
So what organisation was that?
They're called Baby Milk Action and they campaign against a company and their marketing of formula milk in the developing world so.
And what work are you doing for them?
Well I don't any more but I used to do voluntary work for them, just helping out with anything that needed doing, 'cause we happen to live in the same place and it was an issue that interested me so.
How did you get involved in something like that before you were ever a breastfeeder?
Well I've heard of them and I can't remember how I'd heard of them, but then found out they were in the same town as me, so I thought well, you know, it seems like an issue that was important and I didn't like what the company concerned were doing so when I found they were campaigning against them because I'd boycotted the company's products anyway before, thought, 'Right let's see what I can do' and to help them out so.
So how long ago was this that you were involved with them?
It would have been in the early nineteen nineties.
About six years before I had my daughter, six or seven years.
So six or seven years before you even had your own children?
Yes, yes, that's right.
Oh that's pretty amazing yeah. so do you feel as though you went into your pregnancy then pretty well clued up on breastfeeding?
Well I didn't know anything about it at all but I was determined that's what I was going to do, it never occurred to me that I would do anything else, it just seemed like the right thing and...
...I certainly wouldn't want to spend money on formula milk and give money to the company whose things I'd been boycotting anyway, I mean there'
She and her family supported the Nestl' Boycott and later campaigns a) against infant formula...
Why, what's that all about?
It's all to do with bad marketing of breastmilk substitutes especially in the developing world but also over, over here and mothers thinking that, a real mother gives a formula substitute and therefore children, especially in the developing world, they're dying from diarrhoea and infection and all these sort of things and Nestle are not the only bad player in this market but they are by far and away the worst and the World Health Organization implemented a boycott against them many years ago and my family have followed that from time immemorial as far as I can tell so I grew up knowing that, 'Breast is best' and that formula milk just isn't the same and yeah it's, it's there if it should become necessary but one should do absolutely everything possible to avoid having to use it. I was already a member of Baby Milk Action so I got information from them as well.
How did you get involved with them?
The Nestle Boycott thing and I just thought well if I really support it then let's support publicising it which is joining the charity so, I did.
And did you go online to get that sort of information?
No I can't remember.
They may have been around at University, that's quite possible, or I may have gone online, either is an option, a possibility, I really can't remember.
Are you still a member of'
'Baby Milk Action?
And what do they do, what sort of things do you get from them?
I get regular mailings about the campaigns against formula marketing and advertising. Baby Milk Action recognises there is sometimes a need for artificial breastmilk substitutes but that it, that it shouldn't be advertised in such a way to try and persuade mothers to use it, and we get regular updates on various campaigns, campaigns against Nestle, campaigns against other companies there's been a big push in the U.K. to get the British Government to change the way they help poor mothers because it's always been milk tokens that poor mothers could then change in for baby milk and I believe fairly recently Baby Milk Action were successful in changing the Government's views on this so they now give them tokens which can be used either for formula milk or for cow's milk or, and vegetables for the mother to eat which is great, so the mother no longer feels that the only way to feed their baby if they're poor is formula milk, so it's all that sort of thing.
Other than joining Baby Milk Action and knowing what they're doing is there anything else you do politically along these lines?
Well apart from boring all my friends to tears about breastfeeding I don't think so, they all groan when I start to mention it if I'm not careful because I can go on a bit, I don't think I do anything politically. I always intended to write to [name] my MP, when she campaigned for breastfeeding to be allowed in the Houses of Parliament, I'm afraid I'm guilty of not writing that letter but'
But you were behind her [laughs] in spirit.
'I was behind her in spirit and I didn't, but I didn't, yeah I didn't put pen to paper but I was quite interested in that and followed that
One woman mentioned the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, a global programme run by UNICEF and supported by the World Health Organization to promote breastfeeding and to work with a country's health system to ensure that hospitals meet a minimum standard of care with appropriately trained staff.
She suggested that all health professionals should do 'Baby Friendly' training and that all women...
Several women talked about the role of government in the breastfeeding environment. One woman spoke proudly of the Scottish Law, of 2005, which makes it an offence to stop anyone feeding their infant in public. Several talked about employment law in terms of provision for maternity leave and facilities for expressing breast milk in the workplace. A few framed their comments in terms of rights - the right of a woman to breastfeed and the right of a baby to receive her/his mother's breast milk. A few women commented on government policy with regard to subsidies such as the provision of welfare food tokens (Healthy Start) for infant formula or foodstuffs available to women living on low incomes (see Interviews 14 & 27 above).
She exercised her right to express breast milk and work and then attempted to change company...
Right, I want to just look at the company's perspective on this for a little bit, the workplace…
…and the breastfeeding mother, what have you got to say about that?
I'm lucky, I think, I have a female boss, who failed to breastfeed her son and her daughter, but knows how important it is to try and succeed. Also because I work in a large company we have an Occupational Health Department who have rooms, who have fridge's, all the rest. So it was kind of, I said I wanted to do it, and you know I'd read up on it, I knew the, I knew my rights [laughs] and I asked them and they just said, “Oo are you allowed to do that?” and I said, “yes I am” they said, “oo okay then”, and I taught them, and in fact after I did that one of the nurses, after having a baby and going back after maternity leave also expressed at work and told me that she didn't know, she wouldn't have known she could do that unless I had done it.
Has it spread any further, it's a large company you're talking about?
No, one of my things at the moment is I'm trying to persuade them, they send out, when you say you're pregnant they send you out a letter saying, “These are your rights, this is when you, you have to tell us when you're leaving, this is when you have to tell us if you're coming back, this is how long we hold your job open for” that sort of stuff, and I've asked them, and I'm not sure that it's got through to the right person yet, to put a sentence, just one sentence on that, “If you wish to express breast milk for your child when you return to work please contact Occupational Health” that's all it needs, because that then just triggers the thought in the mothers' minds.
They haven't done it [laughs] but I'm pretty sure it hasn't actually got through to the right person yet, because I think it's been the same standard since about nineteen seventy-three so you know, it's just getting through to the right person and then I'll try and get that changed because I think that'll be really good, but yeah we've got a fridge, there are rooms where people go to see nurses and they'd let me have one of those rooms, my boss was very supportive and yeah you need to tell, you take the time.
Finally, although not discussed by the people we talked to because it was not launched at that time, it is relevant to mention the Breastfeeding Coalition, a group of key organisations including breastfeeding charities, professional bodies and research groups that have come together to lobby the UK Government for changes in policy and approach to breastfeeding in order to address the low rates of breastfeeding in the UK. They have produced the Breastfeeding Manifesto, launched in 2007, which people can sign up to and ask their Member of Parliament to support. The manifesto calls for a National Breastfeeding Strategy that addresses all of the issues raised by the women we talked to and some others as well, including postnatal care, health professional training, supportive work environments, breastfeeding in public, breastfeeding education in the school curriculum and adoption of the World Health Organization International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.
Last reviewed November 2018.
Last updated November 2018.