Is breast best?


The charity Save the Children has just published shocking research that shows that the lives of 830,000 babies a year would be saved if they were breastfed rather than fed on commercial baby milk (Breastfeeding: a key tool to beat hunger).

Bottle-feeding babies is not a problem if you have access to clean water, fridges, kettles to sterilize everything and can read the instructions on the tin. But if you haven’t got access to even running water, then choosing formula over breastfeeding can be a death sentence to your baby. But that hasn’t stopped mothers in East Asia and Africa switching to formula.

Save the Children’s chief executive, Justin Forsyth, blames a severe shortage of health workers as well as “inappropriate marketing techniques by some baby milk substitute companies” for contributing to the decline in breastfeeding in East Asia and parts of Africa.

Justin Forsyth says, “Despite the benefits of breastfeeding being widely known in the developed world, and it being a free, natural way to protect a new born baby, too little attention is being paid to help mums breastfeed in poorer countries.”

Save the Children want tins of formula milk to be labelled explaining to mothers that breast is best, but already there is a backlash brewing in the UK as headlines scream that baby milk should be issued with “health warnings like cigarettes” and will create even more guilt for exhausted British mothers struggling to breastfeed.

That is so not the point! No one is arguing that an exhausted British mum shouldn’t reach for the bottle when all else fails. Save the Children don’t want to force Western mums to breastfeed their babies, they want to save lives in parts of the world where aspiration is rising faster than infrastructure.

I am very much the opposite of an Earth mother – I have too much to be thankful to technology for, so I would never argue that anything ‘natural’ is, by definition, the superior choice. But I would always argue in favour of breastfeeding where possible because it’s free, helps you lose weight and saves on the washing up.

But I was lucky – 19 years ago I had Elizabeth, a lovely no-nonsense, slightly bossy midwife, who helped get us started the day Ella was born. It was the middle of the night, everyone else had gone home and my ridiculously swollen boobs dwarfed her head but couldn’t seem to connect with her tiny mouth. We were both in tears and thirsty. “Has no one shown you how to feed this baby?” she said, swooping in and picking up Ella with one hand while she swaddled her with a cot sheet with the other. Then she popped the now chrysalis-shaped Ella in the crook of my arm at right angles to me and went off to organise a cup of tea. Voila – a happy snuffly mother and baby combo just waiting for David Attenborough to pop in.

Mothers in Ethiopia don’t have the luxury of a midwife who dispenses a well-placed pillow and an encouraging smile along with your post-natal cuppa and a slice of toast. And somehow I doubt they get a daily visit from a health visitor who keeps up the encouragement for the first few days while both mum and baby get the hang of latching on.

Instead, they see photographs of happy bouncing bottle-fed babies and, not surprisingly, aspire to the same for their children. Except without access to running water, kettles and fridges, they might as well be ladling poison into their babies’ mouths.

If someone had handed me a bottle then rather than a bit of kind practical advice on that first night, I’d have taken it. And if I’d been sent home the next day to an overcrowded shack with no power and no water rather than to our lovely flat with a combi boiler and microwave, what would have happened to Ella and me?

I doubt whether Ella would be emailing me photos of lizard-shaped cakes from uni rather than getting down to her geology studies.

Let me know whether we should be telling the rest of the world that breast is best.

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