On Monday, BBC Woman’s Hour had what they described before the programme as a “ding dong” about breastfeeding. Ironically I missed the first fifteen minutes because I answered the phone, just as the programme started, to a mother who was concerned about her milk supply. Then I tuned in and cringed to hear the brusque tones of Clare Byam-Cook, a self-appointed “expert” on breastfeeding, telling listeners all about her magic techniques for getting babies to feed, and explaining where we, the trained breastfeeding supporters, are going wrong.
I have issues with the BBC allowing this person to promote her book and simultaneously undermine the work of the breastfeeding counsellors who criticise it. I’ve read her book and it’s hard to see how anyone could have much chance of breastfeeding for long, following its guidance. Callers to the show spoke of pressure, conflicting advice, and not being listened to. Byam-Cook dismissed the issue of tongue tie as “just a trend,” thus dismissing the experiences of thousands of mothers who have struggled to feed their babies precisely because of this. Estimates vary, but it seems that tongue tie affects 5-10% of babies, many of whom will be able to breastfeed, and some of whom are so badly tongue tied that they cannot drink from a bottle. Because it can be hard to identify a tongue tie, and midwives are not universally trained to do so, many mothers struggle with long or painful feeds, and many give up in despair. This is not a positive decision for them, and to hear that it’s a non-issue that doesn’t need to be resolved must hurt in so many ways.
Her fundamental lack of understanding of the way breastmilk is produced is shocking (“it is absolutely not true” that the more you feed, the more milk you produce). The well-established, basic principle is that milk removal creates milk production, therefore the more effectively a baby feeds (that is, on cue, for as long as he/she wants to, without discomfort for the mother), the more effectively the mother produces milk to meet that baby’s needs. Yes it is true that sometimes a baby feeds more (for longer, or more frequently) because the feeding is not effective; breastfeeding is complex, and breastfeeding counsellors are trained to listen to mothers and try to understand the situation so that they can offer appropriate support.
Listeners were also treated to her description of how to get a baby to latch on and feed (“mouth to nipple and squeeze the breast.”) Breastfeeding counsellors all over the country must have been banging their heads on the desk at this point; how many painful feeding experiences have we witnessed, where a woman has been told to squeeze her breast and force the baby on to it? No one-size-fits-all approach can ever be appropriate when we’re talking about human bodies, but there are strategies involving comfort, closeness, and biological reflexes that can make things much easier for both mother and baby.
I understand exactly why BBC Woman’s Hour invited Byam-Cook on to the show: a discussion between two International Board Certified Lactation Consultants about the shocking lack of support for new mothers would not have made such exciting radio. Or would it? As Dr Pat Hoddinott pointed out, the media has to share responsibility for the low breastfeeding rates in the UK, and shows like this are very much part of the problem, not part of the solution.
If you are a new parent and need some support with breastfeeding, there are several helplines run by women trained in listening, and with evidence-based knowledge about how breastfeeding works, including the NCT Breastfeeding Line 0300 330 0700 open 365 days a year, 8am-midnight. We talked about breastfeeding support in our very first episode of Sprogcast, which you can find here.