Where do we learn about breastfeeding?
If you’re like most mothers, you learned by trial and error, once your baby was born.
You might have taken a breastfeeding class while you were pregnant.
Perhaps you read articles on breastfeeding or even watched a video from your local breastfeeding association.
But chances are, you didn’t learn about it in school.
That could be set to change, if the latest recommendations from the United Kingdom are implemented.
Doctors Call For Children To Be Taught About Breastfeeding In Schools
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) has put forward recommendations aimed at reversing the low rate of breastfeeding in the United Kingdom.
One of these recommendations is that schools include breastfeeding as part of the compulsory Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) program.
PSHE lessons are taught at secondary schools to students from the age of 11.
The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world; only 40% of babies are breastfeeding at six to eight weeks.
Only 0.5% of mothers are still breastfeeding after one year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, with continued breastfeeding into and beyond the second year.
How Do We Learn Breastfeeding?
You’re a new mother.
You now have a tiny human being who is dependent on you for survival.
The pressure to be able to nourish your baby successfully starts from the very first hour of your baby’s life.
Care providers check your baby’s input and output, weight, sugar levels, health and wellbeing in the first few days and weeks after birth. If something doesn’t seem right, one of the first things under scrutiny is your ability to breastfeed successfully.
Most mothers have some basic support from their hospital midwives, who help them establish breastfeeding. Advice can be inconsistent or unhelpful, however, especially if there is a functional problem needing specialist attention, such as tongue tie.
Local breastfeeding support might be hard to access, or virtually non-existent, depending on where you live.
Many care providers have little to no breastfeeding education and aren’t able to help mothers when breastfeeding is a challenge.
And women still face negative social attitudes towards breastfeeding – from the view that breastfeeding a child beyond a certain age is abnormal, to the idea that breastfeeding outside the home is disgusting.
Even though breastfeeding in public is protected by law, women still report feeling shamed or uncomfortable in public spaces.
Children who were breastfed and see others being breastfed are more supportive of breastfeeding when they are older. We’ve all seen the adorable images of little children ‘feeding’ their teddies or even attempting to pop a nipple in their baby sibling’s mouth.
This mimicking of what we see our mothers do is the biological norm for our species. And it’s how we learn about breastfeeding.
How Can Teaching About Breastfeeding Help Improve Rates?
Women aren’t well informed or widely exposed to breastfeeding before they become mothers.
Unfortunately, most children also have very limited exposure to breastfeeding. What they do know might be inaccurate – learned through the media or even from the attitudes of adults around them.
Unless they have a younger sibling at home, they might not see a real baby being nursed very often. Stories and movies don’t help; they often choose to depict babies being fed with a bottle.
Most baby dolls also come with the obligatory feeding bottle, which promotes the idea that a baby cannot be fed any other way. For many children, bottle feeding is normalised from a very young age.
Exposure to breastfeeding helps form different attitudes in children.
Research in the US shows that high school aged girls who were breastfed themselves or had been exposed to breastfeeding, were more likely to know about its benefits for babies and mothers. These teenagers were also interested in breastfeeding education.
Teaching students to become familiar with breastfeeding places the emphasis where it should be – on the normal biological way to feed a newborn.
Some years ago, a story surfaced of a gorilla, who was born and raised in captivity in a zoo, and was unable to nurse her newborn infant. She had never seen other gorillas nursing their young and she had no idea how to feed her own baby. Sadly, the baby gorilla died.
When the gorilla became pregnant again, the zoo contacted La Leche League and asked if nursing mothers could come to the zoo and breastfeed their babies in front of the pregnant gorilla. After ignoring the mothers for a while, the gorilla started to take an interest. When her baby was born, mama gorilla was able to nurse her little one, with support.
When We Know Better, We Do Better
There are plenty of voices out there telling mothers why they should breastfeed. There are slogans, and logos and initiatives in most hospitals and early parenting centres about the importance of breastfeeding.
But the pressure to push through the pain of cracked nipples, the sleep deprivation and a crying baby… it can all be incredibly overwhelming. Concerns about whether a baby is getting enough milk can lead to pressure from family, friends or care providers to supplement with formula.
There is less emphasis on raising awareness – how to breastfeed and how to support it. If children learn about this important skill early on, it will make sure future generations of women are equipped with the knowledge and resources to breastfeed successfully.
This recommendation has the potential to change social attitudes, to normalise breastfeeding and improve health outcomes for mothers and babies.