Feature: Time to bust open breastfeeding taboos

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The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world – and although although locally 84 per cent of mothers in High Peak and the Dales still breastfeeding after six weeks, there is still a need to combat taboos locally, say local mums at Matlock’s Breastmates group.

“In Matlock, here we are quite lucky, you’re more likely to get a little old lady saying “oh how lovely”. But people do stare sometimes and get their nickers in a twist,” says childrens’ volunteer and mum-of-two Catherine Bertenshaw.

Mums gather in Halls Ley Park, Matlock for The Big Feed event

Mums gather in Halls Ley Park, Matlock for The Big Feed event

Catherine joined a group of some 20 mums for a “big feed in the park” last weekend, to demonstrate that breastfeeding is a normal thing to do, and with so many health benefits for mother and baby, it’s crucial that parents don’t get put off by the judgement of others.

Catherine, for one, is shameless. She is still feeding her three-year-old boy Josh intermittently, and she comfortably feeds her newest little boy, Xander, while having her interview.

She adds; “I never thought I’d still be feeding him at three. I breastfed him exclusively for the first six months and then put him on weening foods, and I still feed him once a every few weeks. I can probably only do it because I have milk for Xander.”

So the taboo extends beyond simple feeding, but into judgements about whether mothers are feeding too long.

Mum Catherine Bertenshaw with her son Xander.

Mum Catherine Bertenshaw with her son Xander.

But prolonged feeding is not strange - in fact most of the mothers at Catherine’s Breastmates group are still feeding their toddlers intermittently, she says.

The World Health Organisation recommends mothers continue breastfeeding until kids are at least two, and the international average to stop is at age four.

So it’s a shame a lot of mothers would rather stop too early for fear of what people with think of them, adds Catherine: “In this country with breastfeeding rates being so low it can be a shock to see a mum feeding a three year old.”

And the government is now promoting breast-friendly businesses with an award they can display to customers, and already 170 businesses in North Derbyshire have signed up in the first year.

Breast Feeding Support Worker Andrea Rawson and Karla Mellor voluteer Breast Feeding supporter

Breast Feeding Support Worker Andrea Rawson and Karla Mellor voluteer Breast Feeding supporter

We all know the health benefits from breastfeeding are numerous. It’s proven to help to reduce leukemia, diabetes, childhood obesity. and maternal cancers.

In fact the legendary healing properties for skin conditions, soar throats, eye infections made human breast milk’s name as a protein-rich superfood - cherished by some bodybuilders and foodies, an underground trade has developed around the world, particularly in China where breast milk is known as “liquid gold”.

Even Catherine says she has been propositioned to pump some out for others.

She says: “Some of my friends have come to me asking for milk. One lady said her child had conjunctivitis but the drops weren’t working, so could she have a little... I thought “well that’s quite a weird request, but okay, if it helps”. So yeah, I gave her some.”

But doctors warn that although it may have numerous benefits for children, these do little good for adults and the breast milk trade may be spreading injections diseases as it’s unpasteurised and likely to be contaminated.

Lastly, the group wants to see more mothers breastfeeding simply because of the benefits it has for building strong relationships between mother and child.

Judith Moore of Breastmates said: “It’s important for early brain development and helps build emotional resilience. The act of breastfeeding releases endorphines and oxytocin, the “love chemicals”, which make mothers feel incredibly positive, and babies are very responsive to these emotions so it strongly affects how they are feeling as well.”

A global survey of women found that the UK had the most people who thought breastfeeding would be perfectly natural, compared to less than 20 per cent of women in China, while 47 per cent said it was “embarrassing” and in Turkey 20 per cent said it was “wrong”.

In the UK, the biggest challenge for mothers was learning to breastfeed in the first place, compared to most countries involved in the survey, who said it was too painful.

Thirty-four per cent of UK women said they didn’t like the thought of breastfeeding in public.

A Lansinoh survey found that 86 per cent of people in UK thought two years was too old to still be breastfeeding.

Victoria Cummins from Public Health Matlock says this needs to change: “Breastfeeding is the normal, natural way to feed your baby and we want mums to do it for as long as they feel comfortable,” she adds.