Rightly or wrongly I have always found the stance of the more militant advocates of breast feeding to be a little extreme for my tastes. I've breast fed all three of my boys until they were old enough to drink cows milk (about 12 months). I didn't really think too much about it, I was lucky enough not to have too much trouble breast feeding, although the odd case of ductal thrush has meant it wasn't always easy.
I've never felt any pressure not to breast feed when out and about and have fed children various in numerous cafes, buses, parks and any other number of public spaces. I've fed them whilst walking down the road and whilst in pursuit of my other children. I've even fed during meetings with kitchen consultants, they took it in their stride. So I've never really seen the need to rush about demanding breast feeding women should be made to feel more welcome. In my experience the only time I've ever thought twice about feeding in public was in a rather chic bar. It wasn't the bar that made me feel uneasy about feeding, but the clientel; I just knew a certain type of glamorous geriatric man just wasn't going to appreciate it. I fed Sam anyway and noone gave me a second glance.
I appreciate that I have been enormously lucky in my breast feeding experience. Being well educated, middle class and in my 30s has meant that I'm surrounded by other breast feeding mothers. In these circles it is the sight of a bottle most likely to lead to a raised eyebrow.
Although never believing this to be the case across all sectors of society, I did wonder whether the constant pushing of the 'breast is best' message was a bit excessive. There are many women who would like to breast feed but for many reasons can't who don't appreciate the inferral that they are somehow depriving their baby, which during the hormanal mayhem of new motherhood can easily become yet another issue to beat yourself up about.
Then I watched the BBC3 documentary 'Is Breast Best?' last night. The actual documentary itself I found to be rather annoying, but one statistic made me sit up and pay attention.
At 5 months (which to the day is the age that Sam is now) the percentage of women still exclusively breast feeding their baby is 3%. THREE PERCENT! I couldn't believe it was that low so I checked it, UNICEF have the same figure, as do the National Office of Statistics.
Now I would expect the number of people exclusively breast feeding to be in a minority at this age. After all on top of the women who have not been able to or who have chosen not to breast feed many women are starting to think about returning to work and having to take on board the practicalities of whether they can manage to breast feeding whilst working. If I'd been asked to guess I'd have said the number would be 15% or so. But 3%? Even given the tight definition of exclusively breast feeding, I didn't think I'd be in that tiny minority of 3%. And I find that figure shockingly low. The comparable global figure is 40%.
I appreciate that the environment I'm in, the support I've been given and the education I have had have all contributed towards the decision to breast feed my babies. I know that those from more disadvantaged backgrounds (and teenagers in particular) are very unlikely to choose to breastfeed. Often they are not aware of the benefits of breast feeding and lack support in those crucial early days when breast feeding is hard. Those people campaigning to help provide information to women in order that they can make an informed decision about whether to breast feed need support, if only so that abysmal figure of 3% can grow to something vaguely acceptable.