Thoughts on World Breastfeeding Week 2014

I have been on a bit of a blog hiatus; in November last year I gave birth to a beautiful baby and I have been experiencing the roller-coaster of parenthood ever since. I am still on maternity leave and hadn’t particularly intended on blogging while off work, but a couple of things have appeared in the media over the last week or so which started to get the rusty braincells stretching again. For this post I want to concentrate on World Breastfeeding Week 2014, which is this week.

I hadn’t particularly given awareness days/weeks/months any critical thought up till a couple of years ago, probably because I have not been particularly affected by the issues demanding awareness. However, I remember reading a blog piece (I think on Feministing although I can’t find the exact post now) one October about the onslaught of pink that Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings each year. This piece, from the perspective of a woman who (if I recall correctly) had had breast cancer herself, pointed out that for people like her, and her loved ones, they were all more than aware of breast cancer, that merely giving something a pink wrapper will change nothing, that buying pink products may make people feel they have ‘done their bit’ even though they don’t know where their money is being donated, or what proportion of their money is being donated, or whether the charities receiving the funds from the pink goods are focused on research, treatment and/or ‘awareness’. Not to mention the infantilising and gender-dubious nature of a lot of the pink products themselves. I also saw comments from a friend (now cancer-free) who talked about hating the annual promotion of ‘Race for Life’ as it was a constant reminder of the cancer she had experienced and could potentially face again. In addition I think that Dr Margaret McCartney’s concerns in the BMJ about the annual Movember campaign are a useful contribution to the debate about ‘awareness’ and what it is trying to achieve, as well as potentially unintended consequences: BMJ.

As a health visitor I was (and am) always totally committed to supporting breastfeeding. This year though I have the extra experience of being a mother, and not only that, but a mother who has had real struggles with breastfeeding. Without getting into too many personal details, I had poor milk supply from the beginning (I suspect a combination of medication I had to take antenatally till about 8 weeks postnatal, recovery from Caesarian section, stress and who knows what else) meaning that from day 2 I had to start mixed feeding. I have never ever felt guilty about this, as I know that it was the right thing to do for my daughter (watching your baby not thrive is not an experience I’d wish anybody). I have though, always felt so very disappointed – breastfeeding was the one thing I so so wanted to do and for it to go well, and it not going well still makes me really upset. It didn’t help that I beat myself up for it – as a health visitor I have supported I don’t know how many people with breastfeeding, including having mothers telling me they would have given up without my help; I have done the UNICEF Baby-Friendly training; I know what to do, and yet it just wasn’t happening for me. I had a ton of help and support from health professionals (and have to say that the staff at Forth Valley, both in the hospital and community, are an absolute credit to the NHS, I was so impressed with them) and also a breastfeeding support group which was, and remains, a lifeline. It seemed like the whole world had observed me feeding and thought that the positioning and attachment was fine, but even despite the supplementation with formula it took a few months before my daughter started putting on decent amounts of weight, which was a real worry. Although I never experienced problems like mastitis or thrush I did experience awful pain for the first few weeks, and all in all it has to be said that it was nothing like the beautiful Zen-like experience that I had hoped for and (if I’m honest) expected.

Eight and a half months later, against the odds, I am still doing some breastfeeding at each feed. I am also topping up with formula milk at each feed, but I am really proud of myself for getting this far and still giving some breastmilk (most of the people I have talked to have said that they would have given up long ago). I have though been doing a lot of thinking about the messages we send as health professionals about breastfeeding, and I hope that this experience will make me a better and more thoughtful (and critical) practitioner.

Checking out the World Breastfeeding Week tweets on twitter has been a bit depressing, I’ve thought. I appreciate that a 140-character medium isn’t going to be the best for subtle and nuanced consideration of the issues and the message is distilled down in the most part to ‘it’s wonderful, with the right support and correct positioning anyone can do it, breast is best’. But I had tons of support, from both health professionals and certified lactation consultants, got positioning and attachment right (bad habits crept in later, not least thanks to De Quervain’s tenosynovitis which meant that I had trouble bringing the baby to the breast and it is infinitely less painful to do it the other way round), I knew all the tricks in the book (having studied the damn book enough!) but it still just didn’t work the way it is always presented. I never had the sensation of my milk ‘coming in’ on day 3 (or at any point after that), I have never felt any sensation of milk ‘let-down’ at the start of a feed, I never managed to express more than a few mls at any one time (yet another disaster to make me feel even crappier!). In the worst first few weeks I looked up all I could about breastfeeding problems, and found a research paper on breastfeeding idealism which was basically the research project I would have loved to do if someone hadn’t already done it: Hoddinott et al 2012. This research talks about the gap between education messages about breastfeeding and the messy reality. More recently I read Burns et al 2012 which is about how midwives talk about breastfeeding and the effects of the language used. Both have got me thinking about how I could best as a practitioner support women who want to breastfeed without resorting to one-size-fits-all messages or trite soundbites. I think we do parents a great disservice by presenting breastfeeding as easy, natural and ‘best’ while denying that many women find it difficult, heartbreaking, painful and stressful. If nothing else, I really hope that my less-than-ideal experience with breastfeeding leads to me being more use to families I may work with in the future.

But what about breastfeeding awareness and World Breastfeeding Week? This piece by Hollie McNish is a reflection for World Breastfeeding Week on some of the reactions she got to her poem on breastfeeding going viral online earlier this year. I am lucky that I have never (to my knowledge) faced any disapproval for breastfeeding in public, but know that negative attitudes are still common. And while anyone thinks that it is acceptable to compare breastfeeding with sex or urination/defecation, or that breastfeeding will turn baby girls gay and baby boys sex-crazed, then yes absolutely we need breastfeeding awareness, and not just for one week a year. There is work to be done on so many fronts. Let’s just think about how we can do it in a way that doesn’t trivialise, or infantilise, or fetishize, this complex, beautiful, difficult, wonderful process.

On being paid to breastfeed

There’s been a fair bit of coverage today of this story that a trial is beginning in a couple of deprived areas of Yorkshire of paying new mothers up to £200 in shopping vouchers to try and encourage them to breastfeed for 6 months, with a view to extending the scheme if it proves successful. Breastfeeding is a subject currently high up in my consciousness, as I have just started maternity leave (no baby as yet though! :) ) and do intend if possible to breastfeed if I can. I have really mixed feelings about this initiative.

In my last post I ranted about people constantly referring to breastfeeding as “free”. As I said there, it is only “free” in the sense that money doesn’t change hands the way it would if milk was bought and sold. The demands on a woman’s (and wider family’s) time, work, health, etc are not to be sniffed at, and there are plenty of economic implications. Breastfeeding doesn’t always work out quickly, sometimes it can take several weeks to get properly established, and in that time the woman might experience pain, stress, and complications requiring help from health staff and/or medication – all of which cost money (OK not to the woman directly, but they have to be paid for somehow and it is the health services that pick up the tab). Even if it does work out, for someone exclusively breastfeeding the physical costs of feeding every few hours day and night are not to be taken lightly. And on return to work, if you are still feeding whilst the baby is in childcare, there is a cost to the employer of providing facilities for expressing breastmilk (a private room and a fridge, as well as time).

So part of me kind of welcomes the monetary aspect of this – I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing that the financial aspects of breastfeeding are explored and discussed. Having said that, I suspect that would be an unintentional outcome of the initiative – I don’t think the vouchers are there to extend the debate, just to simply act as an incentive. Incentives in themselves aren’t necessarily a bad thing – it would be great if breastfeeding rates could improve, and nationwide they appear to be quite stubbornly not growing currently. However, I am not convinced at all that this is the way to go.

I have a number of concerns. One particular red flag in the BBC article linked to above was the sentence “Midwives and health visitors will be asked to verify whether the women are breastfeeding.” It reminded me of the concerns that lecturers had/have in higher education about having to verify whether foreign students are attending lectures and reporting back; if we had wanted a police role we would have trained to be police officers, not nurses/lecturers. As it is, health visitors are often already seen as the breastfeeding police (and not in a good way! – I think a common perception is that we will bang on about breastfeeding regardless of whether the woman wants to continue or not, and are unsupportive to families who choose to formula feed), and I don’t think that this will particularly help the therapeutic relationship that we all strive to build with families. I want to offer support to families to feed in the way they choose, not police whether they are meeting the criteria for a particular benefit/incentive. Also, this scheme does nothing to address the gaps in service which might lead to women not being supported – yes by all means give vouchers, but if there are not enough appropriately trained health professionals to offer support when the going is tough, the vouchers aren’t going to solve breastfeeding issues.

There is also the class issue to consider – this initiative is currently aimed at a more deprived, lower socio-economic area, with the assumption appearing to be that money is therefore an appropriate incentive to offer. There are plenty of so-called working-class women who breastfeed, and plenty of affluent women who choose not to, and I worry that the use of monetary incentives in deprived areas could act in a way to stereotype further the people who live there. I think that it would be better to provide more funding to train more health professionals to high standards in the full range of infant feeding, for all families who want/need that support, and provide the ongoing support needed instead of simply being the Breastfeeding Police monitoring who’s claiming the money.

The politics of infant feeding

I read a couple of articles about breastfeeding recently which got me thinking about infant feeding more generally, and the messages that society and professionals give about it. This is not a post detailing the benefits of breastfeeding (although I happen to think breastfeeding is great when it works, and would be my personal choice if possible, it’s not always that simple, and there are plenty of other places where that is debated), but is more about the judgment that other people make on women’s choices.

First up, this News Shopper article from Bromley, about a breastfeeding mother who was made by a Job Centre worker to leave the meeting she was in because she was breastfeeding. I don’t have much to say about the actual story – I happen to think that the Job Centre worker was absolutely out of order, and if they found breastfeeding really that disgusting they should have left and found someone (a manager?) who could continue the meeting. What I found more interesting/depressing were the comments that follow the article. There is a lot of class judgment being expressed (the mother is on benefits, and has 5 children), but also a lot of pro/anti-breastfeeding posts – asking if she’s “one of these militant breastfeeders, that whip it out and stick it on, with the aim of shocking as many people as possible”, and referring to her as “a breeding machine” and “an exhibitionist”. One of the comments says that given the circumstances she should have expressed her milk into a bottle in advance (as if it were always that simple), and another asks if those supporting and promoting breastfeeding in public are the same people objecting to the objectification of women and the display of their breasts (for example on Page 3) in the media (as if taking these two stances somehow makes the person hypocritical, as breasts in public – whether for feeding or for titillation – are the same thing).

Quite apart from the obvious sexist and classist judgments being made here, what on earth gives people the right to pass comment on a mother’s choice of how to feed her baby in public? I am aware of people who wanted to breastfeed but for various reasons were unable, who have also faced such judgment and disapproval when they took the bottle out to feed their baby, so it is not just breastfeeding women who deal with this issue. I hope when I was health visiting that I was supportive of people’s choices and not judgmental – whilst there are certain milks on the market that I think are less than optimum, and I wouldn’t have a problem suggesting more appropriate milks for a young child, choices about which milk to feed a child are about so much more than the milk, personal hopes or beliefs about the milk’s effects, or financial issues. Family habits/pressures, societal dis/approval, advertising messages and professional messages all play their part, and I do think that as both a health professional, researcher, woman and member of the general public I need to reflect on the messages I give (verbally and non-verbally) conveying my dis/approval, judgments or opinions, and take real care to be sensitive and non-judgmental.

Secondly, I saw this post retweeted a few times a few weeks ago, in response to this New York Times opinion piece by a columnist called Nick Kristof about a young mother in Mali he introduced to a doctor and who taught her to breastfeed, thus allegedly saving the baby’s life. The blog post critiques Kristof’s column beautifully, and I couldn’t really add much to her points (and of course I am glad that the child in the story appeared to thrive, although the quick recovery does strike me as a bit too Hollywood), but I do want to reiterate what she says about the economics of breastfeeding – it is only free in the sense that money doesn’t (usually) have to change hands in order to get the milk. I’ve worked with enough families in my time where breastfeeding has taken weeks of hard work and a hell of a lot of lost sleep to be established (or not, in some cases) to know that it isn’t a bed of roses, and doesn’t come without cost, whether that be to the mother’s time, relationships, job, ability to plan activities in public (see case above) and all the rest of it. Proclaiming it as “free”, no-cost, easy, and the obvious choice, makes no acknowledgement of all the myriad of factors which can affect whether it happens or not, or that it is the woman that bears the bulk of the burden. Again, whether approving or disapproving of breastfeeding, it is a woman’s choice which is judged by outsiders, and again as a health care professional I need to check myself and make sure that I’m not just adding to the chorus of dis/approval but actually enabling women to make the best choice for them and their baby/ies.

I’m not sure that the professional focus on “breast is best” is always helpful in the debate. As I started to write this post I saw a BBC article on twitter, about a health authority’s bid in England to tender for an infant feeding service. I do think that such services are really helpful, and it’s great if women who want to breastfeed have access to professional support rather than being left to sink or swim on their own. But Dr Ellie Lee’s concerns expressed in that BBC piece need to be heeded – the problem with a lot of health education/professional messages are that they are a list of benefits, regardless of the evidence, and any attempts to find out more about the evidence-base are shouted down or assumed to be dangerous and anti-breastfeeding. I don’t think the health services do themselves any favours by shouting about claims for breastfeeding, some of which have more questionable evidence bases than others, and ultimately the impact will be in increased cynicism and reluctance to try, and increased suspicion of those of us keen to promote breastfeeding where it is possible. Surely it can’t be that difficult for us health professionals to be more nuanced and balanced, more academically critical of the claims of evidence, and less judgmental of women and their choices?

Nurses are …

A couple of weeks ago on twitter someone I follow (a historian) tweeted that if you type “historians are” into a google search box you get a brilliant poem:

Historians are
Historians are dangerous people
Historians are past caring
Historians are writers
Historians are prophets in reverse.

I rather liked that, so I thought I’d type in “nurses are” and see what came up.

Nurses are
Nurses are stupid
Nurses are mean
Nurses are great
Nurses are us
Nurses are patient advocates
Nurses are heroes
Nurses are
Nurses are special
Nurses are better than doctors
Nurses are mean to each other.

I have to say, that left me with quite a bittersweet feeling. Along with the stereotypes (heroes/special – though I was amazed “angels” didn’t make an appearance!) there’s plenty to be sad about here, if these reflect the most often-searched phrases.

It’s got me musing on what “nurses are” to me. As someone who is a bit ‘in-between’ nursing-wise at the moment (still registered, not practising although working in health research) Lynne Stobbart‘s recent blog post certainly resonated with me. I can’t quite put my finger one one word or phrase which sums up for me what nursing is and what it means to me and who I am – yet – but without wanting to get too metaphysical about it I do think there’s something ontological there, it’s more than just what I did. It’s something I’ll be musing about for a while I think.

What do you (especially the nurses, although I’m really interested in other views too) think of when confronted with the phrase “nurses are…”?

Book review

Last year I wrote a review essay for Europe-Asia Studies, which is the journal produced by the department where I did my PhD. That review is now (finally) online first (not sure when it’s going to be in a print version). I thoroughly enjoyed both reading the two books and writing the essay – I’d highly recommend both books (“Democracy Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Armenia” by Armine Ishkanian, and “Women’s Social Activism in the New Ukraine: Development and the Politics of Differentiation” by Sarah D. Phillips) if you are interested in development issues particularly as they pertain to civil society – although both set in former Soviet countries, a lot of the issues raised are extremely relevant to development studies more widely.

Although my PhD was not a development studies PhD, and I was not looking specifically (or rather exclusively) at civil society issues, it was something the PhD touched upon as several of my respondents were from civil society organisations and reliant on donor funding in order to provide their services and to carry on functioning. I certainly found myself nodding in recognition at several points in both books. In some senses they were a bit depressing – the findings from both studies seem to be that little has changed or been learnt in how many years of development funding and civil society promotion – but as thorough and thoughtful studies which go into enormous detail of both macro-level (Ishkanian) and micro-level (Phillips) experiences of activists and organisations, they are both welcome additions to the literature. As an extra plus, neither of them are remotely stuffy reads (which let’s face it makes a pleasant change from a lot of academic tomes!).

Reflections on a new article

Last week I was delighted to have an article published in the latest volume of Anthropology of East Europe Review. The material in this article was originally intended as a case study for my recent talk at this year’s BASEES conference, but it ended up being such a big issue that it really merited a more detailed treatment. Recently I replied to a tweet I spotted on twitter where a PhD student was lamenting that she had to relegate some data to a footnote in her thesis – the case on which this article is based was a ‘mere’ footnote in my thesis, and here it is published. So there is hope – the thesis is not the end product, but I’m certainly finding that 2 years on from graduating my thinking has developed and the things I am wanting to write now are very different from what is in the thesis itself.

The article is called “Constructions of childhood, victimhood and abortion in Romania: the ‘little-girl mother'”, and is based on articles I gathered during a 2 month period as part of my (much bigger) media review on sexual and reproductive health issues. This is the article abstract:

In June 2008 in Romania an 11-year-old girl found herself thrust into the media spotlight when it was discovered that she was 17 weeks pregnant after being raped by her uncle. Romanian abortion laws permit abortion only up to 14 weeks gestation. In the weeks that followed, the case was rarely out of the popular media, with debates about both the minutiae of this particular case and more general discussion about the appropriateness of the current legal provision taking place within the context of widespread concern about the phenomenon of fetiţe-mame (‘little girl-mothers’). This article considers the way the extensive media coverage of this case contributed to debates in Romania around abortion, childhood and child protection, but also exposed insecurities around national identity and Romania’s place within a wider Europe. It argues that this case serves as a “critical discourse moment” (Brown and Ferree 2005:10) which highlights concerns about legislative shortcomings around abortion, media and professional roles in child protection, and the construction of childhood more generally in Romania.

The full article is available here (open access). In one sense the choice of journal was a bit of a risk – Anthropology of East Europe Review is a journal produced by Indiana University, and submissions are generally editor-reviewed rather than peer-reviewed so from a career perspective it may not be the best thing in that it is not an article that could be submitted for the REF. However I like to think I was very strategic in my choice – due to my current contract I am not being submitted for the 2014 REF in any case, so the first REF (or whatever it will be that replaces it in 2020) that I need to worry about will be considering my publications from 2014 onwards. Obviously I also have to think about my publication record when applying for new jobs, so do need to also be targetting peer-reviewed outlets, but I did feel I could afford for this one article to think about where I would gain most exposure/impact for this particular piece, which as a case study may not have been considered by higher-impact journals. I also really like AEER’s philosophy of aiming for a fast turnaround of research, and of a commitment to disseminating research from regional and early-career scholars. I also very much admired the editor (although this is her final edition before handing over to a new editor) and many CEES scholars (both early career and senior) whose work I respect immensely have also published in AEER, so I am proud to be part of their number. I’m pleased my work can join their conversation. I’m also hopeful that as well as the area studies conversation, this article can contribute to the ongoing debates worldwide about abortion policy and legislation.

Professional use of social media

Recently there was a very interesting debate on GP and clinical lecturer Anne Marie Cunningham’s blog on the General Medical Council updated guidance on use of social media for doctors. There was quite a lot of concern expressed in the (very many) comments about the seeming requirement to avoid pseudonyms and use real names if identifying as a doctor on social media. The GMC clarified the guidance later, see here.

Following the debate made me return to the Nursing and Midwifery Council social media guidance to see what they had to say. As you will see from the link there isn’t anything in black and white (or even grey, particularly) about the use of pseudonyms, and the guidance is based on using facebook but says it is applicable to other sites too, including blogs and personal websites. This guidance seems relatively straightforward with a healthy dose of stating the obvious at first glance – don’t discuss work-related issues, don’t take and post pictures of patients online, don’t use social networks to pursue friendships with patients. The key it seems to me is to use common sense – don’t do anything in real life that would jeopardise your registration, and don’t do anything online either.

The pseudonym issue, which the NMC guidance doesn’t cover but the GMC guidance has elevated to veritable can-of-worms status, is interesting I think. I choose to use my own name on my blog and twitter (the two main places, along with a vaguely neglected academia.edu profile, that I use for largely professional purposes), and am open about the fact that I am a registered health visitor (although I’m currently working in research rather than clinical practice). Nothing I write here or on twitter should come as any great surprise to anyone who’s worked with me – I like to think that what you see here is pretty much what you get. I have chosen not to talk about things that I’m not happy to have my name associated with; and that’s pretty much it. I can see though that using a pseudonym might be helpful to some people – I’ve known people start off on twitter with a pseudonym because they were just nervous about identifying themselves in this unfamiliar environment and then that name becomes established. Some people feel they can be more open and honest in expressing their opinions using a pseudonym, and are concerned that if patients know that they are expressing opinions in social media that this may affect their relationship. I personally have no beef either way – I have made my choice, and obviously I think that other people should make theirs. This is why I must admit I did raise my eyebrows when I read the GMC guidance that doctors who identify as such online “should” use their real names – the clarification that “should” does not mean “must” still seems quite woolly to me in all honesty. I appreciate the reasoning, that if people are making claims in the name of medicine then identifying who they are will help in discerning whether those claims are credible or not. But it does still seem a bit heavy-handed to me.

I would encourage nurses and other professionals to think about professional tweeting and blogging. As a result of this – hardly prolific – blog, I have been able to be part of conversations recently about evidence-based practice and the future of nursing leadership amongst others, opportunities I’d never have had if I wasn’t involved in these sites. The usual provisos apply (see guidance above) – use your common sense, don’t be defamatory, don’t breach patient confidentiality, etc – but see this as an opportunity to be part of wider significant conversations. You never know who will pick it up – I found out after I started in my current post that my boss and colleagues had read my blog (presumably they had googled me when I was shortlisted) so knew that I could write a bit already. I’m not making any claims to literary or academic magnificence, but it’s certainly not done me any harm. I know that some people are nervous about the professional monitoring of social media use – in my last clinical job we were advised by a senior nursing manager that they receive around weekly requests from the NMC related to people’s social media use – but really, if you use your common sense and don’t do anything silly, I think that social media represents much more of an opportunity than a threat both to personal/professional development and to the chance to contribute to the debates that are shaping practice and services.