Breastfeeding, Tyranny and the RCM’s new Breastfeeding Statement

“End of breastfeeding tyranny!” scream the headlines. “Midwives instructed to stop shaming mothers!” they tell us, as though this is a new revelation that they’ve discovered, as though anyone, ever, telling women what to do, is something that any reasonable person should support.

Where has all this hyperbole come from?

The RCM has released a new breastfeeding position statement. It says, “Breastfeeding, more than any other health behaviour, has a broad-spectrum and long-lasting impact on public health.” This phrase itself should be repeated (and repeated and repeated) at every opportunity by every person campaigning to improve support for breastfeeding. Why is it that this isn’t the phrase that was picked up by the media and splashed across its headlines? Instead, they decided to focus on the phrase, “[if] a woman chooses not to do so, or to give formula as well as breastfeeding, her choice must be respected.” It seems that this message, above all others, has been the one chosen to splash across the front covers. It’s a desperately important message, and one that I wholeheartedly support. It is at the root and centre of the training of breastfeeding counsellors, who are required to offer non-judgemental, woman centred support including to women who don’t want to, or who want to stop, breastfeeding. It breaks my heart to read the awful stories that are abounding today from women who have had midwives who are more worried about their BFI status and breastfeeding stats than the people in front of them and I completely agree that any undue pressure must stop, just as women should not be pressured to NOT breastfeed.

But here’s the problem: The media don’t care about breastfeeding support, nor do they give a hoot about the women and babies who are mixed up in the middle of this. All they want to do is to create enormous straw men. In fact, they aim to create a veritable wicker man, with supportive non-judgemental care, and the consequential negative impacts on women and their babies, being the burning sacrifice, all with the aim of kowtowing to the god of the fruit of newspaper sales.

The RCM’s report is packed with hugely valuable and important statements. Let’s just take a look at a few of them:

  • Clinicians should make every effort to support skin to skin for an hour after birth
  • Maternity units should be appropriately staffed, and sufficient investment made In postnatal care to enable each woman to get the support and advice she needs to make informed choices about feeding her baby.
  • UK-wide Infant Feeding surveys (which were discontinued in 2015) should be reinstated

These are just a few examples of some of the really important details that could have been covered by the media, but which have been ignored in favour of the more colourful, but morally vacuous focus on what they are calling “the breastfeeding tyranny”. A reasonable discussion about the removal of qualified support for women where breastfeeding groups have been decommissioned, or a campaign to upskill midwives who are expected to support women to breastfeed with a few days of training (compared to the two year breastfeeding counsellor course), or perhaps an article on why women are still having their babies taken from their bodies and denied skin to skin – these would all be hugely valuable topics for the media to cover. These would all be game changers for mothers and babies.

Let’s not be under any illusions. The media used the component of the report that it did and ignored the rest because it sells newspapers, and it increases the rhetoric that causes even more stress and distress around infant feeding. This was not intended to support women, nor to help those who have had the horrific experiences that we see in the comments section today, and who we must continue to listen to, hear and demand change for,  but to sell newspapers. Nothing more.