Mother knows best
by Rachel Phillips, Associate Director, Health

It ought to be one of the most natural things in the world, and yet how your baby gets its milk during the first six months of life is often incredibly contentious, rife with emotion and expectation.

There are official World Health Organization recommendations, advice from midwives and health visitors, expectations of family and friends, and perspectives from society at large. Very often the voices of actual mothers get drowned out, and new mothers can find it hard to know what to think when bombarded with the colossal weight of expectation and advice from these different sources.

So it is vital to hear from mothers and Savanta ComRes has recently polled them on behalf of BBC Radio Sheffield and BBC Woman’s Hour. I have reflected on these results in light of my own experience (full disclosure: I exclusively breastfed both of my children to six months, and continued breastfeeding at least once a day until they were one) and offer this analysis in the hope of illuminating this often difficult area to navigate.

  1. Breastfeeding is seen as best for health benefits. Almost six in ten women prioritised the health benefits for their baby from breastfeeding in their top three considerations when deciding how to feed their baby (56%). However, it is much more complex than that because, even if you want to breastfeed, you may not end up doing so for a variety of reasons.
  2. Some mothers struggle to breastfeed. A significant minority (42%) of mothers who formula fed their baby exclusively or in part would like to have breastfed their baby but their baby struggled to latch. There are ongoing debates about how mothers are best supported and, in my experience, support and care can be patchy. Seven in ten (68%) mothers said support or advice they received in helping them to feed their baby in the way they had planned was helpful, but 12% said it was unhelpful and 6% received no support or advice.
  3. Some mothers choose not to breastfeed… and there can be benefits to this! Of women who formula-fed (exclusively or in combination), three quarters say they enjoyed involving their partner/others in feeding their baby (76%), while only one in ten disagree (9%). Indeed, approaching two thirds of women who formula-fed agree that they and their baby were happier using formula (64%).
  4. Breastfeeding can be both easy and hard. Our survey reveals that four in ten women found it easier than expected (38%) but the same proportion found it harder (39%). I completely understand this. Before giving birth, I knew that some people really struggled with breastfeeding. When my daughter latched easily then yes, it was easier than expected. At the same time, it is very difficult to prepare for the intensity of cluster feeding and so I would also agree that it was harder than I expected! In the same vein, two thirds of women who breastfed their baby say it is one of the best parts of being a mother (66%), while half say it is one of the toughest parts (49%).
  5. Everyone has an opinion so be careful how you share it. Returning to my starting point, I want to encourage everyone to think before they speak and to listen to the mother. We found that one in five (19%) mothers who fed their baby formula felt or feel pressure from family/friends to do so. More concerning is the judgement some mothers feel: four in ten women who formula-fed felt judged for feeding their baby using formula (41%), and one in three (34%) who did breastfeed either exclusively or in part then felt judged for giving up breastfeeding. This has to change.

Methodology: Savanta ComRes surveyed 1,162 women in the UK, aged 18-40 who had a baby in the last 10 years, online between 13th and 18th December 2018