The generational shift in outlook towards breastfeeding

From: Jayne Murdoch, Charity Trustee and East Locality Head Host

Breastfeeding must be one of the most natural experiences a mother can share with her child and yet in some cultures, unfortunately including ours, it is often frowned upon and feeding your child in public is a big “no-no”. I’ve interviewed some women in my family of all ages, to try and understand where we went wrong in our society and what we can do to make it better.
Hilda Mann is my 103-year-old Great-Grandmother. She had her first born in 1934 when she was just 19. When asked if she planned to breastfeed, she had the most confused look on her face. “You never thought about it in those days. You just breastfed and that was it”. There was such thing as powdered milk but that was only for very serious issues or complications and it wasn’t considered an option. Hilda’s neighbour had twin’s shorty after Hilda had given birth herself, but the mothers milk hadn’t come in when they were born. The doctor didn’t suggest the powdered milk, but instead asked Hilda if she could express her milk to feed the twins. Incredibly she happily did this for a few weeks until the mother’s milk was in. There weren’t fridges then either, so the milk that was pumped had to be drank that day. It was a draining (pun intended) experience, but my Great- Grandmother was so pleased to have helped give the babies what they needed. Hilda went on to have 3 more children. She led a busy life, looking after her children, husband and home. What was her secret to juggling it all? “I had my mother to help me”! Someone we can all take for granted sometimes!
Following this, I interviewed my Nan-in-law, Judy Harvey. She had her children in the late 60’s/ early 70’s. By then formula feeding was much more available to the public, therefore mothers did have the choice to either breast or formula feed. Judy was 21 when she had her first son. She wasn’t sure how she would feed him but was put off breastfeeding when her sister had a very painful abscess whilst breastfeeding which ultimately caused her to stop. Whilst Judy was in labour her whole labour experience was awful. She was abandoned in a dark room with no staff or family and was left with a hand-held bell to ring when she thought the baby was coming. And when her baby did arrive, he was taken at night to sleep in the hallway with the other newborn babies and Judy  as told to not pick him up. She remembers the staff presuming she would formula feed and they took the lead with feeding her son. They also advised on a strict routine of “nappy, feed, burp, sleep (for 4 hours)”. Despite the discipline Judy had been advised on she still bonded with her son during the bottle feeds and she loved their precious cuddles. Judy and her sister remained close when they had their children. Together they would attend their weekly local clinic to get their vouchers for food, orange juice and even formula. Apart from this there wasn’t much else for mothers to do with their babies. Judy remembers the loneliness she felt becoming a mother and balancing that with being a wife too. She feels blessed for the closeness she had with her sister, to laugh and moan with: “I don’t know what I’d have done without her”.

My mother, Jo Foster-Murdoch gave birth to me in 1992 when she was 21. Her mother didn’t breastfeed her but she was one of the few who supported my mum’s choice to breastfeed. Jo knew no other mums that were her age, so she read baby books and magazines to retrieve information! Once I was born, we could only leave the hospital when breastfeeding was established; “there was loads of breastfeeding support in the hospital”. Jo was a single parent and worked 2 jobs when she was still breastfeeding. Her situation was unique because her bosses would let her take me to work and feed me when the shop was quiet or when she was on a break. Jo and I lived with her mother from when I was born. Obviously, I can’t remember those days but my mum recalls, “My mum let me do it all myself but, I knew she was always there in the background, giving me lots of moral support and telling me what a good mummy I was”.
In 2012 I was 19 and I gave birth to my twin sons. I somehow knew I wanted to breastfeed from early in the pregnancy. They were born prematurely, therefore I was encouraged to pump to get my milk supply up. One of my sons was in intensive care and had to be fed my milk through a tube in his nose. All members of staff at the hospital were so supportive of me expressing my milk for him whilst also feeding my other son; it really encouraged me to
continue to breastfeed them. We were all home within two weeks, and I don’t remember, ever having a negative comment or look when I was breastfeeding, whether it was in public or at home. I’d occasionally have people say,
“if you had a bottle, we could help to feed them” but it would soon be followed by “but you’re doing so well feeding them both”.

I do feel blessed to have such supportive family and friends and I understand that isn’t the case for all mothers that want to breastfeed. But from what I can gather from my findings is that, people just need one person to encourage them to make them feel supported and loved. Also, currently, we have so many more opportunities to leave the house, for baby groups, coffee mornings etc. than what our previous generations had. So even though it was the norm to breastfeed your child back in the 30’s, it wasn’t normal to leave your house, other than to get food from the shop or visit family in their homes. So, the reason we can be scrutinised for breastfeeding in public, is that we are one of the first generations do to it so often publicly. Therefore, the more we do it, the more normal it will become.

Raise you children, knowing they were breastfed. When you see a mother breastfeeding, give her a smile or even an encouraging comment. Offer support to friends that are new to motherhood. Meet up with mum’s in play areas or baby groups and breastfeed your baby with pride. Be that supportive person we all need and deserve.

Your breastfeeding journey should NEVER be a lonely one.