How women in Scotland are giving up breastfeeding without the right level of support
Breastfeeding can be a taboo subject, especially if a woman is doing it in public. Thankfully, in 2005, Scottish law allowed women to breastfeed in a public place or licenced premise peacefully if the child is two years old or under.
Despite this, rates of breastfeeding are still relatively low since the Breastfeeding etc. (Scotland) Act 2005 was passed 11 years ago. The Information Service Division Scotland found that the rates stayed on a broadly similar level over the past decade.
From birth, initial breastfeeding rates in Scotland are 74%, according to the 2010 Infant Baby Survey. But by the time it comes to six weeks post-natal, exclusive rates drop to 22%. Why are women not continuing breastfeeding?
There is theoretically plenty of support out there for women pre-natal and post-natal. In the UK, the NHS will support a woman through her pregnancy and after birth with the aid of midwives and health visitors. Every mum has to have a primary visit and the health visitors make it at the mum’s home, where they support mums with whatever feeding method she may choose.
However, some mums feel as though they aren’t supported enough by the NHS. Belinda Galbraith, 26, of Glasgow had bad experiences in breastfeeding both her children, Eilidh, seven, and Ronnie, one. She felt that although her health visitors did give her some information, she had to find out the rest herself.
Belinda and her children, Eilidh and Ronnie
“It depends on your doctors, your GP and your health visitors, what they’re like,” she says. “I just don’t remember getting much help with Eilidh at all. I didn’t know what I was doing and how to do it. But with Ronnie I went to a class but that was only because I found it myself.
“When I tried to phone though, I was calling for weeks with the only the answer machine. It was at about 36 weeks I got an answer and I’m pretty sure that was the cut-off date but they said I could come along.
“You’re handed leaflets and a book for breastfeeding but it’s not good for latching. I just remember looking at this book and being so confused. I had to phone the health visitor to show me. But I had to chase them to help me. It’s not like they check in all the time.
“I don’t feel like the support groups were put in my face. No one told me there were any. I found out for myself. There is one at the hospital but I didn’t know about this till after the first few weeks. I found out because I was Googling it myself.”
For Belinda, she feels as though the NHS don’t tell you the unpleasant facts of breastfeeding and that this is something that should be warned beforehand so mums are prepared and can get through the first few hard going weeks.
“They don’t tell you it’s going to be sore. You get pictures of mums lying on beds with their babies and it looks beautiful but it’s not like that. It’s sore. I just sat there red raw trying and trying. They don’t tell you that part. That you’ll be waking up every 1:30hrs.”
Not all breastfeeding mums have bad experiences though. Emma McLeod of Glasgow says that although it was difficult to begin with, with her two sons, Ruddy, two, and Archie, five months, she had plenty of support.
Emma and her two sons, Ruddy and Archie
“My first baby, he wasn’t putting on his weight. I was having all sorts of problems myself and I was quite sad and tearful about it all. It’s your hormones going. So I ended up going to an NHS support group at the New Victoria Hospital. My health visitor suggested I go to that. I went along and there were other people with babies of similar age and were going through similar issues. It was good to speak to them.
“I was referred to the Royal Alexandra Hospital because they have a feeding specialist unit there because Ruddy hadn’t put his weight on in four weeks of his birth. So he had to go on formula top ups for a little while. Then he gradually came of them. With Archie he’s been a brilliant feeder. He’s taken to it like a duck to water.”
With Ruddy, Emma found breastfeeding quite intimidating. She had a difficult time with him to begin with due to having cystitis and blocked ducts.
However, that all turned around with the support she received from the NHS. “I had all sorts of things happening so I didn’t have it easy. I ended up going along to a breastfeeding support group and there I started breastfeeding better.
“I think I was lucky with the peer support groups. There was a lady in the group who was head of infant feeding for Glasgow and she took one look at me and saw that I had cystitis and got me the antibiotics and referred to the feeding clinic to help out with everything. But not all mums get that.”
Emma sought out classes beyond the NHS to help her breastfeed. “I paid to do National Childbirth Trust (NCT) classes. One of those classes was a breastfeeding class, it was quite good. A lot of people have negative opinions about the NCT and pushing breastfeeding. But I never felt pushed into breastfeeding with them.”
The low breastfeeding rates in Scotland can come down to a number of reasons from a lack of confidence, education, depression, support and so on.
Some mums still won’t breastfeed in public in Scotland despite the laws that are in place. Belinda herself felt as though she never could.
“I went to the Silverburn shopping centre with Ronnie and went into a wee room in there. That was quite nice. But it was away from others. I couldn’t do it openly. I wasn’t myself do it in open public.
“A friend told me it took her a long time before she could go out in public and breastfeed so she told me not to force myself to do it. It’s finding places to do it though.”
Despite this, Belinda is not saying women should hide away from the public eye. Although she had bad experiences she advocates that if you want to breastfeed you should.
Belinda would even try again if she had more children. “I probably would because it’s good for them. My sister is pregnant and I keep telling her about it. The first few days the anti-bodies are so good for them.”
Emma believes there should be more support for women who want to breastfeed in public.
“There’s a lot of funding being cut for breastfeeding peer supporting and supportive roles. I think there needs to be more support for mums. There needs to be more education antenatal because a lot of people don’t know what to expect. I think people need to be aware of the whole process of breastfeeding and how it all works.
“I am fine if you want to formula feed, I’ve not got an issue with it. What my issue is, is when someone wants to breastfeed and they can’t. They don’t get the support they need and they give up. It really affects a lot of people. A lot of them still feel bitter about it 10 years down the line.
“It’s not the mums that are failing, they are being failed by the system. It’s about trying to raise awareness of it.”
The lack of breastfeeding mothers can also come down to the area in which they live and the support and education they receive.
Anne Duncan has been a health visitor for NHS Grampian for the past 20 years. She has run the highly successful peer support group, Aberdeen Breastfeeding Club (ABC) for mums in the area. She has seen women from all walks of life struggle and handle breastfeeding.
“It all depends on many things,” she says. “Most mums want to breastfeed, most initiate it, most know that for health reasons it’s better for mum and baby. But I think that the main reasons for mum giving up would be the discomfort of it, they haven’t realised that it’s a skill. It’s a skill that needs to be learned and it’s two people who need to learn it. And two people who have probably never done it before.
“The breastfeeding rates at my practice are very high but then you’ll go to another area of deprivation. We certainly have those in Aberdeen and without a doubt the areas of deprivation are going to have fewer mums breastfeeding by far for a variety of reasons.
Some have not been educated well enough. Even though we are giving them this information, they’ve maybe got their own mums saying they didn’t breastfeed them and it didn’t do them any harm or they’ll be convinced by family members that they will be able to help them more if they bottle feed them.”
Anne explains that in the first few weeks post-natal that mums are exhausted and if they are under the pressure of their family saying they don’t need to do it they might stop because there is genuine concern from their loved ones who may not have experienced breastfeeding before. She expressed that girls should be educated in schools.
“We go through phases of these things happening but we don’t keep the right kind of records in what makes the difference or not.
“A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a health visitor and I set up a new breastfeeding group (ABC) for mums who needed extra support or didn’t know anyone.
“The health visitor I was speaking to said she would send any of her breastfeeding mums to me but she only had one that year. I couldn’t believe it. It was mindboggling.
“For me it was the other way around, I’d maybe only had to formula feeding mums that year. All the rest were breast feeders. She certainly covered an area of one of Aberdeen’s most deprived areas. But what is it? The school curriculum is the same throughout.”
NHS Scotland has received serious financial cuts in recent years and funding to promote breastfeeding has been affected due to less staff in maternity wards and to run support groups. The women aren’t failing themselves, but the government is failing them. Women like Belinda should feel as though they are better supported and get the help that those like Emma received.