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.

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').

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.


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