mother baby

The public health case for breastfeeding is unequivocal. No one today can reasonably argue against its benefits to baby and to society.

The message is clear, but the Department of Health has been less than keen to push it.

In 2011 it axed its support for national breastfeeding week to save a few hundred thousand pounds – just when the message that breastfeeding is by far the easiest way to give your baby a head start was starting to get through:

The benefits are not just physical – fewer chest infections, less likelihood of childhood obesity or of diabetes later on – they are emotional too.

Breastfed babies are less likely to have behavioural problems by the age of five than those given formula milk.

It is not rocket science given the close and continuing contact between mother and child breastfeeding automatically gives, when the breastfed infant is left in control of the feeding.

Breastfed infants also show more body activity at one to two weeks of age, are more alert and have stronger arousal reactions.

The simple truth is that the mother’s breast is best. It is the source of warmth and comfort for the baby who associates his mother with nourishment. He/she interacts with her, rather than with a bottle.

It is not hard to see why, as a general rule, breastfed infants are more secure and will later become more independent than bottle-fed infants and that the longer an infant is breastfed, the more striking developmental differences become.

Breast-feeding is not always an option – and our culture is not supportive of it – which makes these truths doubly hard to tell. More often than not it is, but the conditions, the support and the drive are absent.

Yet it helps protect the mother’s health too, from breast and ovarian cancers. There is no doubt that this ‘no brainer’, as a basic preventative ‘medicine’, could save the health service literally millions if not billions of pounds.

But despite such a catalogue of advantages only 34 per cent of babies are still breastfed by six months – the period official health guidelines recommend – and only one per cent exclusively so.

The majority of new mothers do start but most fail to persist after two weeks – making our breastfeeding rates some of the lowest in the world.

That’s why the expansion of Dr Claire Relton’s breastfeeding “shopping voucher” incentive to a nationwide trial, announced last week, deserved uncompromising support. The vouchers that can be redeemed in supermarkets and high street shops – and are paid for the taxpayer – have proved successful in encouraging mothers to breastfeed.

Targeted at the poorest women who are the least likely to breastfeed it has taken a lot of flack – not least from The Daily Telegraph, whose pages read more and more like Cosmopolitan magazine every day.

This ‘bribe to breastfeed’, sets a “dangerous and insidious precedent for the state” it reports. And – that old argument for doing nothing – it is unfair and insensitive to mothers who can’t, so no to it for the rest who can.

Where was this high moral stance in the Telegraph when it came to nanny state intervention to get mothers back to work – when the far more extravagant £2000 a year childcare tax allowance was announced?

You don’t have to look far for an answer. Breastfeeding fell foul of feminism back in the 1970s and nothing much – despite the best efforts of La Leche League and other similar lobbies – has changed.

Now the Government’s drive to get new mothers back to work is tipping the scales even further against breastfeeding.

Not hard since, historically, it’s something British (indeed western) women have never been hundred per cent in favour of.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century rich women were too posh to feed, and employed lower class wet nurses to do the job for them. In the twentieth century along came formula and their middle class sisters were relieved of this burden too.

Then came feminism and it’s anti-motherhood message brought on the breastfeeding wars, making mothers even more bottled up than ever.

Today it is a minority of – often richer – mums who’ve come understand the benefits (and the joys) for themselves and baby who can afford to be natural and ‘indulge’ in breastfeeding for prolonged periods.

It’s ironic to see how the social tables have reversed.

But across all classes the cultural and the economic scales could not be weighted more heavily against the ‘giving in to motherhood’ type of breastfeeding that babies, their mothers and society all need.

Each and every demand for gender parity, that the Government enacts, is another nail in the breastfeeding coffin, as is the continuation of the cult of individualism and false notions of bodily autonomy.

That’s why Dr Relton is to be commended for her courage in swimming against the cultural tide. Let’s pray that her expanded scheme, will prove, as she hopes, a way to “increase the perceived value of breastfeeding”, to creating a culture where breastfeeding is seen as the norm. Hearing a contented young mum, surprised at her own joy to still be breastfeeding her baby at 6 months, on Today last week, raised my hopes.

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