The full reference for this draft article is Trotter S (2006). Extraordinary Opportunity. RCM Midwives Journal, 9(5):200.
As a midwife and passionate breastfeeder, I was glued to the recent Channel 4 programme, ‘Extraordinary Breastfeeding’, as were many of my colleagues. The trailers showing women breastfeeding their older children had been confrontational to say the least. You could almost hear the cries of distaste from all corners of the United Kingdom.
Press interest was intense and I had been asked on to the LK Today discussion due to air the same day. Sadly in the interests of a balanced debate, it was decided that another professional, less than enthusiastic about breastfeeding should take my place. Far greater than my disappointment was my concern about the damaging effects of negative media coverage.
I am happy to report that my fears were unfounded. Extraordinary Breastfeeding was a balanced representation of why some women choose to breastfeed beyond toddler-hood, and by the closing credits few parents or professionals could doubt the obvious benefits of, and valid reasons behind, full-term breastfeeding. Not for the first time, I regretted having felt coerced into weaning my first two babies before I was ready to do so.
The Department Of Health (2005) recommends at least six months’ breastfeeding and the World Health Organization (2006) states that breastfeeding exclusively for that period is the optimal way to feed infants, and thereafter should be continued for two years and beyond.
It was UNICEF who introduced dried skimmed milk as a breast milk substitute in the late 1950’s to entice women into health clinics but now energetically promotes breastfeeding via its Baby Friendly Initiative, which recognises the many benefits breastfeeding has to offer for mother, baby, and long term public health.
The benefits of breastfeeding are no longer disputed but rates for the initiation and establishment of breastfeeding in the developed world are still low. In the UK only 20 percent of women are still breastfeeding by the age of six months (Baby Friendly Initiative, 2002).
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Life is a series of weanings. A child pushed into one of these is at risk of a less than ideal emotional development (Sears 2000).
Breastfeeding provides the emotional and psychological closeness that a child needs to become an independent, happy, self-confident and secure individual. The process of weaning should never be rushed and if baby or child-led, takes years rather than months to complete.
Anthropological studies (Dettwyler, 1995) suggest that weaning would naturally occur around the age of six to seven years, based on factors including birth weight, dental eruption, period of gestation and the maturity of the immune system.
But opinions will not change overnight and positive role models are vital in reinforcing and celebrating the experience that is breastfeeding.
Bumgarner (2004) says of the nursing child: ‘She’s no longer refilling her tanks; she’s recharging her batteries’.
This captures perfectly my own memory of full-term breastfeeding.
The benefits of full-term breastfeeding far outweigh any reservations a seemingly shocking TV programme may induce. The media have a role, but it is up to the government to invest more in breastfeeding promotion and supporting mothers, especially in the early weeks. Plans to launch a national breastfeeding helpline (Trotter, 2004) remain to be agreed.
Closer links between maternity units and national breastfeeding associations (Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, La Leche League, National Childbirth Trust and The Breastfeeding Network) are the way forward, and midwives must play their part in this process.
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Baby Friendly Initiative (2002). Breastfeeding in the UK – current statistics. Available online at: http://www.babyfriendly.org.uk/ukstats.asp(accessed on 28/01/06).
Bumgarner, Norma-Jane (2004). Mothering your nursing toddler (revised edition). Illinois. La Leche League.
Dettwyler, Katherine A (1995). Beauty and the breast. In Breastfeeding, Biocultural perspectives. Ed. P Start Macadam and K A Dettwyler. New York. Aldine de Gruyter: p167-215.
Department of Health (2005). Breastfeeding: feeding your baby. Available online at: http://www.breastfeeding.nhs.uk/ta_takeaction_2005.asp (accessed on 28/01/06).
Health & Human Services (2004). Public Service Campaign to Promote Breastfeeding Awareness. News Release. Available online at: http://www.hhs.gov/news/press/2004pres/20040604.html (accessed on 05/02/06) No longer mentioned
Palmer, Gabrielle (1993). The Politics of Breastfeeding. London. Pandora. No longer mentioned Sears, Dr William (2000). Some perspectives on natural weaning. In How weaning happens. Diane Bengson. Illinois. La Leche League: p59.
Trotter, Sharon (2004). Breastfeeding: the essential guide. Scotland. TIPS: Troon:88.
Wiessinger, Diane (1996. Watch your language! Journal of Human Lactation, 12(1): No longer mentioned
World Health Organization (2006). Child and Adolescent Health and Development/ Nutrition/Infant and Young Child/Exclusive Breastfeeding. Available online at: http://www.who.int/child-adolescent-health/NUTRITION/infant_exclusive.htm (accessed on 28/01/06).
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