Breastfeeding community building

A guest blog today from Lucy Sangster, who’s been reading up on the latest breastfeeding research for us.

New research shows how peer support for breastfeeding helps strengthen local communities. While existing research on breastfeeding support shows that it is effective and valued, work on how it fits into social cohesion has been missing, according to the authors of a new study: Gill Thomson, Marie-Clare Balaam and Kirsty Hymers.

Reading their work on Blackpool’s breastfeeding peer support, the value of the research is that, at a time when provision is at risk, proving wider benefits for breastfeeding support may well help groups argue for funding and gather more allies for breastfeeding support in their own areas.

The full report is packed with stories, quotes and evidence of what is working in Blackpool, here’s a summary of some of their findings.

There are really determined efforts to remove barriers to breastfeeding in Blackpool:

  • A crèche is provided at meetings
  • A peer will meet someone new before a meeting so there is a familiar face for them
  • They get to know women before the birth
  • They involve peers from some of their minority communities
  • They go out to people who are less likely to get in contact: at young parent groups and at a supported accommodation centre for homeless families
  • They involve partners, families and grandparents, so that they understand and can support breastfeeding
  • They raise the profile of breastfeeding in Blackpool with events, local media, work in schools, and wearing their ‘uniform’ t-shirts around town
  • They’ve made breastfeeding feel more normal through local businesses displaying a sticker ‘breastfeeding friendly business’ so a less confident woman doesn’t need to worry about whether it’s ok to breastfeed.
  • They work hard to get the support of health professionals in the area with communication, feedback when a referral takes place, concentrating on shared goals and support.

Because the study has used an existing model for social cohesion (made popular by Ted Cantle nearly 15 years ago) they are able to look at several different impacts of peer support. They show that peer support breastfeeding can help women create bonds with other similar women that last beyond breastfeeding; it can also create bridges between people with little else in common and form links between mothers and people with more power.

The inherent tensions between professionals and volunteers are given space within the report and anyone who has worked in a system including both professionals and volunteers would recognise that when working well, everyone wins… but it can be hard to keep it working.

The study shows that clear communication with professionals and proving how peers support them helps the peers maintain good relations with health professionals.

‘“I think at first the health visitors were the hardest but now they’re great. Because it’s showing them how you can help them as well, that you’re there to support them, that’s what it’s about.”’

The main sources of tension were when there was a lack of communication, conflicting advice, feeling there was no common agenda or negotiating hard cases such as a baby losing weight.

Previous research suggests that peer support for breastfeeding can do harm as well as good, particularly by inducing guilt or imposing pressure, so the feedback that the peers in Blackpool were non-judgemental and approachable is valuable, to indicate that they’re avoiding some of the pitfalls.

In the full report you can read more about how the service was set up, how they changed it and how they made the peer role flexible so that people with caring responsibilities are included. There are also details in the references to the recent Cochrane review on the effectiveness of skilled support on increasing the duration of breastfeeding and other research on the subject.