Foreword: I am not anti-bottle or formula feeding. Feeding choices are complex and an individual's decision is their business. I am anti-ignorant health professionals who fail to acknowledge the accepted benefits of breastfeeding and/or fail to fully support women who choose to breastfeed.
Oh, for goodness’ sake, here is something we don’t need – BBC headlines like this: “Breastfed baby risk investigated”.
It appears that doctors have found yet another pointless cause for concern to research. This time, it’s severe hypernatraemic dehydration - a “rare but potentially fatal condition”. Judging by the tone of the report, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a new and terrifying illness that the bastions of our healthcare system would do well to highlight, but no. It’s something that has always existed for as long as babies have been born: severe dehydration in newborns, which results in hospitalisation, and in some cases, death. VERY, VERY RARELY.
But, of course, if a single baby falls desperately ill, we now find ourselves up in arms - SOMEONE must be to blame. Care to guess who? “It has been suggested” (how specific and scientific, BBC) that the number of cases is increasing “because more women are heeding the 'breast is best' message”. The mothers of babies whose babies have been hospitalised tend to be “first time mothers who are highly motivated to breastfeed”. Tut. Silly, suggestible, fallible women.
Am I missing something here? This message exists for good reason; namely that, taking all things into consideration - including, I am sure, the very small risks inherent in breastfeeding - breast is still best, nutritionally and psychologically. So, it is a good thing that more women are heeding that message, rather than being unnecessarily put off breastfeeding by research driven by an assumption that breastfeeding is "risky", no?
Let’s just think about this – in countries where women have no choice but to breastfeed, often countries where one might perhaps expect cases of severe dehydration, there is no such commotion. In those countries, it is highly unusual for women to provide insufficient breast milk for their children – who tend to be allowed unrestricted access to the breast (exactly what is required for optimum milk production). So are we expected to believe that, given similar levels of determination to breastfeed, women across the UK are physiologically so different from their Third World counterparts?
The handful of women whose babies fall ill are hardly likely to be first time mothers who are highly motivated to bottle feed, are they? Or more experienced mothers - once you have been round the system, you begin to realise exactly how backward so many supposed health professionals are, particularly when it comes to issues relating to breastfeeding, weaning and child nutrition. These people are archaic, complacent, ignorant – and utterly, utterly incompetent. By your second child, you have hopefully either found an up-to-date health visitor or GP, or a network of women to help you through the niggles of breastfeeding.
NO-ONE WILL ACTUALLY BENEFIT FROM THIS RESEARCH (apart from perhaps formula manufacturers). Of what use are the actual numbers in combating the problem? We know that this condition can occur, and we know that it’s rare. Regardless of the researchers’ intent, any information that remotely links breastfeeding with malnourished infants will only serve to reinforce the unshakeable mindset of uneducated health visitors and GPs, who use frenzied guilt trips to “get that starving baby on the bottle” against vulnerable mothers’ wishes.
WE NEED EDUCATION TO MAKE POSITIVE CHOICES. The researchers themselves already state that education is the answer here, not an increase in formula feeding (which will absolutely be one of the unintended outcomes of this research). So let’s get on with the education, and skip the research:
- Let’s continue to support women, especially first-time mothers, who are highly motivated to breastfeed, rather than questioning their ability to sustain their babies.
- Let’s ensure they know how to latch their baby on, how lactation works, and the importance of breastfeeding on demand.
- Let’s ensure they know the signs of dehydration in babies* – and learn to trust their instincts, rather than consistently being told that someone else knows better.
- Let’s ensure they know how to access timely and accurate information and support for breastfeeding wherever they live. (Note to women: you may have to do your own research here).
- Let’s recognise that many health professionals don’t just fail to provide this information and support, but actively do harm through misinformation.
WE DO NOT NEED ADDITIONAL NHS STAFF TO ACHIEVE THIS. Why aren’t the existing midwives, health visitors and doctors who deal with postnatal women and their babies actually competent in this crucial area? Why aren’t more professionals acknowledging community support networks, rather than assuming that without medical qualifications, expertise is impossible?
I am truly cynical that cases of severe dehydration are on the increase; I suspect that we are seeing just another over-reactive, interventionist approach that is now all too common whenever child welfare issues arise. Is it too much to accept that even in the 21st century, despite our best efforts, people – sometimes babies – will very occasionally get sick, or even die? If we actually want to minimise harm, then easily accessible, quality education is the answer, so let’s focus on getting that right before turning to unnecessary, number-crunching research that will have damaging and far-reaching consequences.
*Off the top of my head: very few wet or soiled nappies, sunken fontanelle, skin that does not return when pinched gently, general lack of alertness, super-significant weight loss (some is normal).