When I received the invitation to speak at the 2nd Philips AVENT Breast Feeding Awareness and Health Forum in Abu Dhabi and Dubai my initial reaction was to decline.
This was partly due to the logistics of the trip: it is much easier for me to attend a UK event than it is to take a seven-hour flight and put all other work on hold for five days. More importantly, I have in the past refused to speak at similar events when they were sponsored by companies whose marketing practices I disapproved of. Such companies manufacture and promote products that I believe to be unsuitable for babies – for example baby milk formulas and baby skincare products. Instead, I regularly take part in UK baby shows in partnership with carefully selected companies. This gives me the opportunity to provide impartial advice and hopefully counteract the commercial bias of multi-national companies.
Being a passionate advocate of breastfeeding, I consider each invitation to speak very carefully. My overwhelming aims are: to promote breastfeeding and safe baby skincare, and to support new parents as they make the transition to parenthood. I hope women who listen to my presentations benefit from my independence and expertise and, as a result, feel empowered to choose breastfeeding first and always! Parents deserve accurate, evidence-based advice from experts who really understand how breastfeeding works.
AVENT events have been criticised. The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) works for better child health and nutrition through the promotion of breastfeeding and the elimination of irresponsible marketing of infant foods, bottles and teats. The International Code Documentation Centre (ICDC) is established by IBFAN to focus on the implementation of the International Code and monitors Code compliance worldwide. An IBFAN-ICDC report published in March 2010 states that: “In Italy, AVENT sponsors conferences for health professionals in exotic venues to cultivate their goodwill and loyalty. Only very strong principled health professionals would be able to resist the temptations offered”.
I would certainly describe myself as a strong and principled health professional but I would like to explain why, on this occasion, I believe that accepting the invitation to speak at this event was the right decision.
I wholeheartedly agree with the aims of the IBFAN, but I also believed that this trip would provide me with a great opportunity to meet new mothers and health professionals while spreading the word about my favourite subject: breastfeeding. I set about preparing my presentations which were purely educational in content. These were checked the day before I travelled. I was not asked to change a word of my presentations, which in no way promoted any product or brand – something I am determined to avoid at all times and in all situations.
Admittedly, attendees at this free event were a captive audience to the subtle marketing practices of the Philips AVENT brand. However, I feel very strongly that being one of the speakers gave me the chance to educate the audience on best practice in the hope that information could be updated as necessary.
I found it easy to resist the aforementioned temptations because I was not offered any! I was not offered a goody bag, although I did ask for samples of Philips AVENT’s educational booklets, so I could check out the advice given to parents. I did stay in two beautiful hotels where the events were taking place. I worked incredibly hard over my four days in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). My trip began in the UK with a long haul flight on a Sunday afternoon, followed by only three hours sleep before my first day of presentations. Lunch was indeed provided, but demand for my advice was so high that I hardly managed a mouthful. I spent most break periods speaking to concerned mothers or interested health professionals. This amount of interest shows that there was indeed a real thirst for information and support on breastfeeding and related baby care issues.
I gave two presentations to pregnant or new mothers and two to health professionals. The focus of these presentations was to highlight the reasons why women give up breastfeeding and most importantly what can be done to help boost confidence so that women can breastfeed their babies for as long as possible. I stressed the importance of baby led feeding which should be on demand with no specific time frame. I also made it abundantly clear that good quality advice and support was the key to success and that I did not support the use of teats, soothers or bottles.
The information I provided is based on my book Breastfeeding: the essential guide (Trotter 2004) and my 2008 article ‘Breastfeeding basics – advice for new mums’ which was published in the UK Nursing in Practice Journal (Trotter 2008). It features my TIPS® Toolkit for Breastfeeding (2010): a one page fact sheet which can be supplied to many health professionals, including midwives, health visitors and breastfeeding peer supporters. It is free for anyone to download from my website (www.tipslimited.com) as I believe it is an important part of the ongoing advice and support parents deserve.
I was determined to make the most of my time in the UAE and was lucky to meet up with Dr Grace Edwards, Research Midwife at Al Wasl Hospital. Before my trip, I read her article: Midwifery Practice in Dubai in the June issue of Midirs Digest (Edwards & Glover 2010). I contacted Grace and we arranged to meet during my stay. I was delighted when she invited me to join her for a short tour of the Al Wasl Maternity unit - this is a state-of-the-art facility (see picture) where 8,000 babies are born every year. This immaculately clean unit has truly impressive low infection rates that would be the envy of a similar unit in the UK. At present, women have no access to post natal care but there are plans to establish a service in the future. Although there is no universal access to breastfeeding support, hospitals such as Al Wasl have established a lactation support service - a model that could be replicated by other hospitals in the UAE. The maternity unit at Al Wasl has just been awarded Baby Friendly Status. This is hugely impressive and a local self help group called Breastfeeding Friends Community Support Group (www.bffriends.org) provides much needed support for new mothers. This is done through monthly peer counsellors education sessions, mothers’ meetings at Sharjah Ladies Club, breast pump hire, over the phone (Breastfeeding Friends Community Support Group runs an advice line in three languages: Arabic, Urdu/Hindi and English) and online (www.bffriends.org).
Despite my initial misgivings, this trip proved extremely worthwhile. I feel honoured to have been given the opportunity to see how other cultures (UAE is a widely cosmopolitan society) approach maternity and breastfeeding issues. I stepped outside my comfort zone and was forced to climb a steep learning curve, but the feeling of achievement was well worth the effort. I was rewarded with audiences eager to learn more about breastfeeding. My 25 years of experience as a midwife, strengthened by seven years breastfeeding my own babies, enabled me to reply to the many questions put to me. I hope my answers inspired and encouraged women to breastfeed for longer.
I was deeply touched and humbled by the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the many hundreds of mothers and health professionals who attended both events in Abu Dhabi and Dubai (see pictures below) and would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to everyone for making me feel so welcome. I sincerely hope I will be back again one day.