So, following his recent win on the sugar tax, Jamie Oliver has turned his attention to breastfeeding – see here.
What has breastfeeding got to do with him, you might ask? It seems that’s what everyone is thinking. But why shouldn’t it have something to do with him? Is he not a fellow mammal, human and parent? And one with a keen interest in infant nutrition at that? You might as well say what have school meals got to do with him, if you want to look at it from the point of view that they’re our children and our business… But he achieved something wonderful for the health of our nation’s children, and it was about time that someone did that.
I’ve seen several people arguing against what he said. I couldn’t at all understand the argument that as a man, he has no business to speak out like that about breastfeeding. One only has to look around for a short while in the world of breastfeeding before coming across one of the most knowledgeable on the topic, Dr. Jack Newman. Dr. Newman established the first hospital-based breastfeeding clinic in Canada, is a consultant for UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Initiative, is a popular speaker at breastfeeding conferences, and has written a range of books and online reference material. You don’t get much more knowledgeable on breastfeeding than this man – but we don’t challenge him based on his gender! Look a bit further and you’ll find that, within the world of breastfeeding, several of the key advocates are men – Dr. Bobby Ghaheri (Ear, Nose and Throat doctor specialising in lip and tongue tie), Dr. William Sears, Dr. Jay Gordon (the first male to pass the International Board of Lactation Certification Exam) and, more recently, midwife Mark Harris. And why not? Do we say that female doctors are not capable of dealing with certain ‘male’ issues? Of course we don’t!
there are plenty other male celebrities have also showed themselves to be pro-breastfeeding without being the target of hate filled messages and articles. Comedian Mark Thomas ranted about the evils of nestle and their violation of the WHO code without a national backlash. Comedians Russell Howard and Adam Hills have also spoken out in favour of breastfeeding without being widely criticised.
Firstly, that very firmly places men on the map when it comes to interest in breastfeeding. And secondly, it raises a question as to why Jamie Oliver has come in for such criticism. And the thing that sets Jamie apart is that he talked about increasing breastfeeding rates. It seems that anyone who does that is prone to attack from anyone who didn’t breastfeed, or anyone who struggled to breastfeed.
The most ironic thing is that that is precisely what a campaign to increase breastfeeding would pick up and support. All those thousands of women who are hurting that things didn’t turn out the way they planned – we support you. We don’t judge you, we don’t think you failed. We think the nation let you down by failing in its duty to support you as a mother.
How do we tackle that? I can guarantee that no one promoting breastfeeding, including Jamie Oliver, thinks that we should force mums to breastfeed. If you choose not to breastfeed, then this isn’t really about you – you’ve made your choice, and presumably you’re comfortable with it. This is about the mums who wanted to breastfeed but couldn’t. Those that were depressed when they couldn’t do it. Those feeling guilt about their decision to stop. Because the truth is, with better support systems in place, maybe some of those mums could still be breastfeeding. But we, as a nation, let them down.
We don’t promote breastfeeding out of fear of upsetting people, yet formula is promoted everywhere. Even though we have laws in place to prevent advertising, our country has implemented the bare minimum of the WHO code (see here for more details) instead of going for the full implementation that could make a difference to infant feeding.
Funding for breastfeeding support has been slashed, with many NHS funded support groups closing. Midwives, health visitors and GPs are left to deal with problems they do not have the training to deal with (see this article here).
All this leaves mums alone, with no knowledge and experience, and no village of support around them (see this blog about the loss of our village). The country is reliant on volunteers from breastfeeding charities to run phone lines, online support groups and local drop-in sessions. Mums give up their own precious and limited free time to help other mums, and not only are there not enough of them, but they are criticised for doing so. Often, they are branded as pushy and bullying for offering support, even though they get nothing in return except a smile and a heartfelt thank you from the mum and baby who they’ve made a difference to.
So I feel Jamie’s pain at being criticised for recognising a problem and wanting to do something about it. I give every free second of my day to help others. I write blogs and admin a support group, and I do it on my bus journeys to and from work, on my lunchbreak, while I’m in the bath, and late into the night when I should be sleeping. But I do it because I believe it matters.
Breastfeeding used to be something simpler and easy and natural, but sadly, it isn’t like that here anymore. And so many mums suffer for that, but some are so damaged by their experiences that they are unable to recognise a genuine offer of a helping hand, and mistake it for further criticism of their choices.
Do I judge a mum who is using formula because her milk didn’t come in, or she was told to top up and her supply dropped, or the NHS wouldn’t cut her babies tongue tie? No, I stand firmly by her side and tell her I support her because she, like so many others, has been let down by a nation that doesn’t care.
I would be incredibly proud to stand by Jamie’s side and support him to support that mum too. I believe that every mum should be supported and empowered to make a free choice to breastfeed if she wishes – not be forced to use formula because we can’t be bothered to help her.
What a difference a figurehead like Jamie Oliver could make for us. His drive to improve the nutrition of school meals makes some think he could make a difference for breastfeeding – a difference that is desperately needed in this country.
I hope that he has not been put off by the backlash and venom directed towards him. I, for one, would like to show him my support, and urge you to do the same. It just takes one person, male or female, to be brave and take a stand for breastfeeding support, and that person could turn this country around, and change the lives of future mums everywhere. As a mum who already gives every second of her free time to support others, I, for one, hope Jamie is that person.
By Ali Thomas