Breastfeeding rates in England are at an all-time low, with only 1% of babies exclusively breastfed up to the age of six months. The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines recommend babies should be exclusively breastfed up to this age and that they should continue to breastfeed for up to two years or beyond, as mother and child choose. There is no upper age limit at which breastmilk becomes redundant. In fact, the formulation of breastmilk changes as a child ages, to meet their growing needs.
Multiple health benefits
Breastfeeding offers numerous benefits to both child and mother. Breastfed children gain protection from infections and diseases, are at reduced risk of diabetes, asthma, heart disease and obesity and at a reduced risk of cot death, in addition to better cognitive and economic outcomes.
Breastfeeding mothers’ benefit from decreased risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancer, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Type 2 diabetes to name a few. Breastfeeding also aids in a secure childhood attachment.
Continuation remains low
Despite the benefits, uptake and continuation remain low. Choosing whether to breastfeed is a personal choice yet, for those who choose to do so, societal attitudes can form a barrier to continuation.
Negative attitudes are particularly felt by those who choose to breastfeed for longer, sometimes referred to as ‘extended breastfeeding’ or ‘natural-term weaning’.
Anthropological research indicates that the natural age of weaning falls between the ages of two-and-a-half and seven years, with most natural-term weaning occurring after the age of four. If the idea of a seven-year-old breastfeeding makes you uncomfortable, it would be worth asking yourself why this might be? Breasts are designed to feed babies after all.
Over-sexualisation of women’s bodies
We live in a society where it is deemed more acceptable to consume the milk of another species than it is to provide human milk for human children. A society that celebrates the body-confidence of women who wear revealing clothing and, at the same time, demands a breastfeeding mother ‘cover up’. A society that normalises the use of a pacifier, an artificial substitute, above that of a mothers natural-born comfort.
As a society we have allowed ourselves to become brainwashed through the over-sexualisation of women’s bodies. So much so that many people view a child breastfeeding as strange, because in their minds breasts equal sex, although most would not like to admit this. Whereas, in the minds of breastfeeding mother–child dyads, breasts equal precisely what they were designed for – warmth, comfort, hydration, and food.
All too often, women are asked to cover up, feed their baby in a toilet cubicle, asked why they don’t use formula, or asked when they plan to stop breastfeeding. Attitudes are difficult to change so, if having come this far, you find yourself thinking ‘but it’s still weird’ you will be in the unfortunate majority. Those who go one step further and voice their negative opinions contribute to women hiding away their feeding practices, and so the negative cycle of ignorance and lack of education continues. The less we see it, the more unusual it appears when we do.
Legal protections, but do they work
While the law protects a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, many women continue to face prejudice and stigma over their choice on how to feed their child. So much so that, only last year, a new law was enacted to protect women from being photographed or filmed breastfeeding their child without their prior consent. Breastfeeding Voyeurism is now part of the Sexual Offences Act (2003).
While this is a positive move in the right direction, I suspect that the criteria for prosecution may mean that the burden of proof will fall on the victim. Changes to legislation brought in this year state that, for an offence to have taken place, there must be evidence that the suspect took images for either the purpose of sexual gratification or to humiliate, alarm or distress the breastfeeding mother. This is problematic for two reasons.
First, the taking of non-consensual images is unacceptable, regardless of the purpose. Second, the purpose for images outlined would be difficult to prove, since legislation focuses on the intention of the perpetrator and disregards how a woman was made to feel. The change to legislation is likely to bring little comfort to vulnerable women and their children, who often face this prejudice and stigma.
What started out as a step in the right direction to protect women, appears to have taken a step back with changes that will likely result in perpetrators getting away with abhorrent behaviour.
An investigation of reported cases of breastfeeding voyeurism and subsequent convictions will undoubtedly shed light on the effectiveness of new legislation.