Is Breast always Best?

Being a new mother is stressful at the best of times; but for those also juggling further education, bringing up a baby can be a daunting and scary prospect. With the endless streams of conflicting information and advice, one area that seems especially confusing to first time mothers is breastfeeding.

Official advice from the World Health Organisation and backed by the NHS and Royal College of Midwives is that mothers should breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months.

Gail Johnson from the Royal College of Midwives told Student Parents that “all the research suggests that the best start for a baby is from breast-milk. Breast milk contains immunoglobulins that protect babies against infections. Statistically, there are fewer admissions of breast-fed babies to hospital with gastro-infections.”

No doubt the benefits of breastfeeding are well documented; research has shown that breastfeeding boosts the baby’s immune system, reduces the risk of asthma and eczema in childhood, and of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes later in life. Some studies have also linked breast-feeding with infant behaviour, suggesting breastfed babies are better behaved and more intelligent than formula fed babies.

New research from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex in conjunction with Oxford University suggests that babies who are fed on demand do better academically later in life than those who are fed on schedule. Babies who are fed when they are hungry, either with breast milk or formula, achieve better grades at school. “The IQ scores of eight-year-old children who had been demand-fed as babies were between four and five points higher than the scores of schedule-fed children”, says the study published in the European Journal of Public Health.

Conclusions drawn from the study were that “feeding infants to a schedule is associated with higher levels of maternal wellbeing, but with poorer cognitive and academic outcomes for children.” Whilst the benefits were obvious for the baby, the study found that mothers who fed on demand opposed to those who fed to a schedule, were more likely to suffer depression.

So how are studying mothers expected to correlate this conflicting advice? Do you try and breast-feed your baby, but fitting time in around your lectures and seminars means you have to stick to rigid feeding timetable? Or do you try and feed on demand, with perhaps a mixture of breast-milk and formula? What if you can’t do both? Is it better to feed on demand or breast-feed?  And shouldn’t mothers also be thinking about what is best for them and not just their baby? How is a new mother able to navigate this mine-field of conflicting advice?

With information overload, its understandable that new mothers will be confused. A study by the University of Aberdeen conducted interviews with mothers and their partners and found that the ‘all or nothing’  guidance given to new mothers on breast-feeding is setting mothers up to fail. Some mothers end up feeling pressured into breastfeeding, and then feel guilty when they are unable to, or if they find breastfeeding is no longer feasible within their daily routine. “The principal theme to emerge [from the study] was the mismatch between the represented ideal of six months of exclusive breastfeeding; timely and appropriate support from partner, family, and fully trained healthcare professionals, and the reality experienced.”

Britain has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the developed world. In fact, in the UK, only 1% of babies are exclusively fed at six months. Whereas 82% of mothers start breastfeeding,  two-thirds stop within 6 weeks.

To improve these statistics, the government are hoping to implement a new trail to give extra funds to councils who get more mothers breastfeeding. But with fewer midwives, are new mothers getting enough help to make an informed decision?

Gail Johnson told Student Parents, “It is important that advice is given throughout pregnancy, to talk to new mothers early on about the benefits of breastfeeding and put them in touch with support groups so they can have the best possible start. All we can do is support women and give them as much advice as possible, but ultimately it is up to them to make their own decisions. Advice I would give to new mothers is to prioritise. Women feel that they have to do everything, but  having a busy schedule you have to find out what you can let go, and what comes first. You have to find a balance. But breastfeeding isn’t always a baby-on-breast experience, so new mothers should look into expressing milk too. It is a big commitment but we urge mothers to remember that 6 months is not forever and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Case Study: Sophie Mason

Sophie struggled to breast feed her son Joshua as a newborn and turned to formula. She shared her views on the pressure she felt to breast feed with Student Parents:-

Sophie Mason & JoshuaCase study: Sophie Mason

“Breast feeding was the bain of my life. I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about trying it but I was open to the idea.  The amount of pressure that women face to breast feed is disgraceful. Being told as early as 10 weeks pregnant that if you don’t breast feed you won’t lose the baby weight and that your child will be obese is not the way in which to encourage mothers to make an informed decision about how to feed their child that makes them happy and comfortable. That was about the extent of the breast feeding information available to me. Of course being told that you will have an obese baby who will be  ill as their immune system will not be boosted by breast milk makes you want to breast feed. There’s no choice involved, merely a feeling of failure for those mothers who may struggle to breast feed. So many mothers beat themselves up because they have been badgered in to breast feeding, as otherwise they would be considered a  bad parent, without being fully supported during this daunting stage.

“When I was going through this I thought I wasn’t a good mother because I forced myself to breastfeed when I didn’t want to and it made me severely unhappy. It made me feel like a failure to my son. Breast feeding isn’t the only option and more time and effort needs to be spent supporting women through this; for someone to be there to offer advice when it does get hard but if a mother chooses to feed her child with formula, to support her not chastising her because formula isn’t as good as breast-milk.”

Breastfeeding on Campus

Breastfeeding can be especially hard for studying mothers who may not have access to facilities on campus to enable them to regularly feed their child.

Ezinwanyi  Udechukwu from Nigeria, came to the UK to study Environmental Engineering and Project Management at Leeds University. Her son was born in January. She spoke to Student Parents about the difficulties she has faced  juggling her studies whilst trying to breastfeed a newborn.

Whilst most universities are still have a long way to come, some are going to lengths to improve the situation for new mothers. Both Sussex University Union and Leeds Student Union have been working to provide baby changing facilities across campus and to see their unions fully facilitated to help breast-feeding mothers. Lets hope that the trend will be followed across the board.

Check out your student unions to see what advice and support they can offer you. Alternatively, for more information, follow the link for breast-feeding support groups


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