My son was born almost five years ago at the time of writing, and I found breastfeeding very, very hard indeed. At that time, the nearest support groups were in nearby towns, and the thought of having to get myself together and drive in either direction was just too much. I was really lucky to have a supportive partner and a friend with a baby the same age, who kept me going through the first few months. She and I often thought it would be nice to have a supportive group in our own town, where we could just drop in to talk about our latest issues, whether they be sleep or weight or crying (the babies as well as us). In fact, if there had been such a group, we would probably have learned from the other mums and babies there, that what we thought were issues were actually normal phases that we and our babies were going through.
Fast-forward to the end of my training as an NCT Breastfeeding Counsellor, when a local Health Visitor approached me with the suggestion that we start a group, in conjunction with another organisation (Breastfeeding Network), at the local Children’s Centre. The CC were happy to provide a room on a Friday afternoon, and Breastfeeding Network trained some peer supporters, to help run the group.
For weeks and weeks, nobody came. There were usually more helpers than mums and babies, and it was disheartening, but we understood that it usually takes a while to establish groups like this.
Gradually it started to pick up. After about a year, we started a group on Monday mornings, at the same time as the Health Visitors’ Well Baby Clinic. This resulted in a huge increase in the numbers of mums and babies coming in, as the Health Visitors began to refer mums who were worried about things like weight gain and milk supply, or who were finding feeding painful. We often had mothers come back week after week, just for the company and ongoing support they received from us and from the other mothers at the group. This was the group we had always envisioned.
For two years, the group was run voluntarily by a student breastfeeding counsellor and myself, for some of that time running two sessions a week. When it was well-established, we approached the CC to ask if they were prepared to pay for the sessions. The fee that NCT would charge covered the provision of leaflets and resources, and paid for a qualified breastfeeding counsellor to be there every week. We had several meetings with the management at the CC, and initially they were positive about having a formal, paid arrangement with us. They agreed that the work we do is valuable, as were our specialist qualifications and our experience.
So we were sad and surprised when the final decision from the Borough Council was that not only did they not want to pay for the service (and never at any point did they tell us they did not have the money); but that they wanted us to stop running the group while they undertook a review of breastfeeding support across the borough.
Many of the people who have been to the group in the past have contacted us to tell us how important it was for them. Some told us that they would have given up breastfeeding if it wasn’t for the support of the group. So we are absolutely convinced that it is a valuable and important service. When I approached the local NCT branch’s committee to ask if they would be interested in paying for the service, they agreed without hesitation. The fact that most people on the committee have used the service at some point might tell you why.
The council behaved very badly towards us. We were so very professional when they told us to cancel the service, and asked service users not to make a fuss or go to the papers complaining about it. And then while I was away on holiday, a press release went out saying that they had had to close the Friday group because they couldn’t afford to pay NCT’s charges. The press release went on to state that the Monday breastfeeding support session would continue to run at the usual time. When I queried this, at our meeting, I was patronisingly dismissed as wanting to argue over mere semantics.
We asked them to explain the nature of the group, and they replied that they hadn’t said there was a group; they provide support by giving out the details of the other local groups (in other towns), and national helplines. When I asked how this sat with them having identified the need to reach out to parents who might be less likely to access the service, they just stuttered, and again told me not to be so silly.
Through hard fundraising work and a local grant, the NCT branch is now able to fund two groups a week, keeping me nice and busy, and paying me to do the work. I’ve come in for some criticism from certain other breastfeeding support organisations, who believe that this should be done voluntarily. I disagree. I’m a qualified and experienced specialist, and I have demonstrable results. I make a commitment to be there at the group, and I work hard outside the sessions providing ongoing voluntary support. Time and time again I have had to unravel messes contributed to by the uninformed advice of unsupervised volunteers and people who are not trained in breastfeeding support, including midwives, health visitors, and children’s centre workers.
What is so frustrating is that it seems you have to be on the inside, where I am, to understand why this job needs to be a valued, paid role. You have to see the mothers who come to us for help, who want so badly to breastfeed, to understand what is happening to them, and to get some support and empathy, to ask how this can be such a low priority?