In Australia, roughly 90 per cent of mothers will initiate breastfeeding in hospital. But many will struggle in the early days and by week 12 that number drops to 64 per cent. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for two years, with exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, but at this age only half of Australian babies are on the breast. Whether it’s due to the system letting us down or our 21st century lifestyle and our right to choose, we have arrived at a point where breastfeeding is considered just one of the methods of baby nourishment rather than the next essential step in the reproductive cycle.
As much as we acknowledge that breastfeeding is best, Australians don’t make a habit of sitting around the campfire with our kindred women and children, learning how to do it. “It’s not socially acceptable to mosey over and have a good, close look,” says Robyn Noble, lactation consultant in a Brisbane private practice. “I see women who really have very little idea at all about how to hold a baby for a breastfeed.” She says the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) and its group meetings provide a protected, tribal environment for breastfeeding women, helping to making this “visually learned art” more accessible.
Our tribal ancestors would tell us it’s an art that is handed down through the generations. “Women who breastfeed are more likely to have been breastfed themselves,” says Professor Yvonne Hauck from the School of Population Health at the University of Western Australia. “They’re getting support from their mothers and they can see that they had the benefit and they want to pass that on to their child.” However, in reality, today’s parent faces many social, economic and emotional challenges that are not conducive to a breastfeeding or tribal culture, such as the need for some mothers to return to work quickly after birth, being separated from the support of extended family and geographical isolation.
The physical breast itself represents a societal and emotional challenge for some. The ABA’s handbook, Breastfeeding…Naturally, explains: “In Western culture, the breast is an erotic symbol rather than a symbol of nurture. This can create quite a mental hurdle for some women who are considering breastfeeding or trying to breastfeed.” It continues, “The symbol of the feeding bottle to represent a baby is as pervasive in our culture as the golden arches.”
The same can’t be said for other developed cultures. In Scandinavia, government policies of long, paid parental leave have fostered an environment that is totally supportive of breastfeeding. “It’s basically putting out the message that we see this as really important as a public health issue,” says Hauck. “So not only do they have incredibly fantastic initiation rates, but they have got these great prevalence rates.”