This is part of a series on the resources and services needed by young parents to improve opportunities, job prospects and outcomes. For the rest of the series, click here.
The UK’s breastfeeding rates are the worst in the world. Approximately 81% of UK mums initiate breastfeeding, but mothers under the age of 20 are the least likely to do so. Even more worryingly, only 7% of UK mums under 20 breastfeed to six months (Infant Feeding Survey 2005), compared to 34% of all UK mums. The Unicef Baby Friendly Initiative has helped to boost breastfeeding rates in recent years, but rates still remain low across the whole UK, particularly for young parents.
The links between breastfeeding and positive outcomes are well-documented; I don’t need to run through them here. In fact, studies have found that most young mums are very much aware of the health and social benefits of breastmilk for their baby – which leads me onto why young parents are less likely to breastfeed.
Why are young mums less likely to breastfeed?
So we’ve established that it’s not a lack of understanding about the health benefits. I’ve written in the Huffington Post about leaflets and posters advertising the benefits of breastfeeding to be largely obsolete in favour of good quality antenatal education and postnatal support, and I stand by that. However, I do think that promotion has to play a part in encouraging breastfeeding in young parents; but that perhaps leaflets aren’t the right way to do it.
First, let’s look at the social factors influencing breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is more likely to a) be attempted and b) continue successfully, if the mother has seen people around her breastfeeding. Say we’re classifying young mums as mothers under 20; today’s young mums will largely have been born in the late 1990s or early 2000s. Breastfeeding rates were at an even lower level in the 1990s; breastfeeding only started to enjoy a resurgence towards 2005, thanks in part to the Unicef Baby Friendly initiative.
So if young mums were formula fed themselves, and presumably any siblings were formula fed too, formula has been established as the norm. It’s easy to think “Formula feeding is what we do in this family – I can’t break the norm”. Practical breastfeeding support is vital to continued success; the new mum won’t have that 24/7 breastfeeding expertise, as there is no-one in the family to provide it.
Social attitudes of HCPs also plays a part. It’s so important that midwives, HCAs, lactation consultants and the like are as supportive of young mums trying to foster a breastfeeding relationship as they are of any other mother. I know I’m not the only person who noticed a significant disparity in the breastfeeding support I received at 19 compared to a mum almost twice my age in hospital.
Much of the knowledge mums-to-be receive about breastfeeding comes from antenatal classes. With young mums the least likely group to attend these classes, it stands to reason that lack of information about technique and what to expect plays a large part in our bad breastfeeding rates for mums under 20.
We also need to consider the lives young women live outside of parenting. If mums feel under pressure to return to school, college or university as quickly as possible, it’s not conducive to long-term breastfeeding. Young mums working in zero-hours contract jobs, or those who haven’t been working long enough to qualify for paid maternity leave, may also feel the need to rush back to work as soon as possible, so unsupportive work/education arrangements also hamper positive breastfeeding relationships.
What can we do to change that?
The positive news is that, the way I see it, we can change all of this. Hope is not lost, and it’s always worth fighting to help young mums achieve the positive breastfeeding experiences they want.
Social attitudes are the first area for improvement, and this can be achieved in a number of ways. In almost all media representation of young parents, we see bottle-feeding – in fictional representations as well as factual. By having young parents on soaps and similar fictional TV shows and movies breastfeeding, we take steps towards normalising it. I remember the midwife at my booking-in being surprised that I wanted to breastfeed – I think we take it as read that the automatic choice for young mums will be formula.
The language we use is so loaded, so it’s important for HCPs to approach breastfeeding from a position of normality. “Will you be breastfeeding?” is only a tiny change from “Will you try to breastfeed?”, but the connotations are huge. The former doesn’t load the concept of breastfeeding with any notions of potential failure. Better postnatal practical support is needed for all mums who want to breastfeed, but particularly young mums who probably don’t have friends around them who have breastfed their own babies.
Encouraging young mums to attend antenatal classes will help, but I’ve got a post entirely dedicated to that coming soon – I’ll pop a link here when it goes live.
Making life more breastfeeding-friendly could be the difficult one, but I think that ties into changing the way our culture sees motherhood – particularly young motherhood – entirely. Not to say it’s a pointless exercise, but I think there are things we can do in the short-term that will achieve quicker results. For now, it would be a start for all places of education to have creche facilities on-site or nearby, and for teachers, lecturers and auxiliary staff to be aware and supportive of a breastfeeding relationship between a young mother and her child.
Of course, this is simplistic. It’s hard to fit a full theoretical action plan into 1000 words without boring everyone to sleep (and I think half of you will already be dozing off by now!). It’s something I care deeply about – partly because of my own experience and partly because of what I’ve read of others’ experiences, proving that right now, breastfeeding support for young parents simply isn’t good enough.
Some people are confident and secure in their choice that they don’t want to breastfeed, and that’s fine.
What’s not fine is that there are some young mums out there who would try it, if they weren’t put off by negative language and social stigma. It’s not fine that there are some young mums who want to do it, but don’t get the practical or emotional support to maintain it. It’s not fine that the young mums who do manage to establish a successful breastfeeding relationship, feel forced into ending it early because of what other people will say.
We can’t criticise young mums for poor breastfeeding rates. Having read about all of the obstacles placed in their way, can you blame them?