Why Now?

By Lucila Newell, 2017

Breastfeeding has become an issue of public concern and a target of policy at international, national and local levels. Breastfeeding is held as best practice by organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations (UN).

The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and UNICEF shows how making this happen has

‘the single greatest potential impact on child survival, with the potential to prevent 1.4 million under-5 deaths in the developing world’

(Black et al., 2008).

The short term and long term benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and babies are immense. Studies have shown a link between breastfeeding and a reduced likelihood of babies suffering from gastroenteritis, respiratory and ear infections and of developing asthma and eczema (León-Cava, 2002). Adults who were breastfed as babies are said to be less likely to develop risk factors for heart disease such as obesity and high blood pressure, and mothers who breastfeed also benefit by having a decreased chance of postpartum bleeding and a reduced risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer and hip fractures and osteoporosis in later life (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2005). And there are many other, less quantifiable physical and emotional benefits of breastfeeding, let alone that it secured our survival for millions of years!

In the UK, breastfeeding has been recognised as having a major role to play in public health and in reducing health inequalities, and has been translated into policy programmes such as the Baby Friendly Initiative that accredits health care facilities that adopt recognised best practice standards for breastfeeding. However, less than 1% of babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life (Bolling et al., 2007). Not only that, a comprehensive review series on breastfeeding in The Lancet, published on 30 January this year, gave a clear signal of what is needed to be done and pointed at Britain as having “the worst breastfeeding rates in the world”. Even if this is maybe not a fair picture, as rates of starting breastfeeding are relatively high, they do point to a rapid drop-off rate, and most mothers state they stop breastfeeding earlier that they would have wanted to. As others have mentioned, and as this importantopen letterstates, the breastfeeding crisis in the UK is a crisis of lack of support. This crisis comes at a time when the UK is going through a moment of profound cuts to breastfeeding support services.

“The success or failure of breastfeeding should not be seen solely as the responsibility of the woman. Her ability to breastfeed is very much shaped by the support and the environment in which she lives. There is a broader responsibility of governments and society to support women through policies and programmes in the community.”

Dr Nigel Rollins, one of the co-authors of The Lancet report

We firmly believe we need to move away for thinking about breastfeeding solely as a women’s individual choice, to thinking about it in terms of a collective responsibility. This project originated with this aim in mind, to contribute by creating spaces where breastfeeding women can find cultural, social and emotional support, and thus, to plant seeds for cultural change. 

Addressing Inequality

This project grew out of conversations we had as breastfeeding mothers in Brighton. In Brighton, breastfeeding rates are higher than the national average, but these statistics hide inequalities. In the UK, mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to breastfeed than women that higher socioeconomic status, which increases inequalities.

Currently young women from disadvantaged backgrounds have breastfeeding rates of less than 29%, whereas richer areas the percentage of women breastfeeding to be at 80% [1]

There are approximately sixty newborn babies born at Sussex County hospital each week. Of these, a high proportion will be new mothers with no experience or understanding of breastfeeding. Much funding for Health Visitor run baby groups and drop ins throughout the city has been cut in the past two years due to budget constraints. This has lead to increasing social isolation of new mothers. There is a wide disparity between the emphasis on breastfeeding in culture and the support for mothers attempting to breastfeed for the first time. Young mothers in particular may not have ever encountered another breastfeeding mother, given that the last generation was largely encouraged to bottle-feed. One of the greatest challenges new mothers face is overcoming the dominant negative attitude towards breastfeeding in public [2, 3]. Until cultural attitudes towards breastfeeding change, it is unlikely that this will be improved.

Bringing About Change

Holding Time is a project that continues to grow. Beginning with conversations with breastfeeding mothers, it now includes a set of twenty three portraits, an animated film which can be shown as a single screen or multi-screen installation, a series of podcasts with breastfeeding mothers and the professionals who work within the field of breastfeeding and a series of blog posts written by Lucila Newell. Through our YouTube channel, exhibitions and events, a community of people worldwide is growing commited to making a positive change in the cultural perception of breastfeeding.

[1]https://www.jfhc.co.uk/Who_wants_to_eat_in_a_toilet_20947.aspx: “The prevalence of initiation of breast-feeding varies between neighbourhoods from 28% to 80.6%.”

[2]45% of mothers reported that they felt uncomfortable breastfeeding in front of other people, and this was most acute in public places (43%) http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB08694/Infant-Feeding-Survey-2010-Consolidated-Report.pdf