Why the breastfeeding issue is important to us all and why the Government's maternity cuts are so short-sighted.
Health care costs money: a lot of money. In the UK, we are lucky enough to have a National Health Service (NHS), which means that the money for the treatment of most conditions comes from tax-payers' pockets.
Of course, the system also relies on the Government doing their bit and diverting the right amount of money towards the NHS. As we are repeatedly told at the moment, there is very little money to divert anywhere at all at the moment, so cuts are being made, and that includes cuts to the NHS.
That means less money to treat many different long-term conditions that nearly all of us will have come across either directly or indirectly in our lives - cancer, coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, Crohn's disease.
The Department of Health (DoH) has, thankfully, long ago cottoned onto the fact that preventing some of these conditions from developing in the first place would save them a great deal of money. So they embarked on various paternalistic schemes to try and persuade people to change their lifestyles, such as Change4Life, whose patronising literature encourages us to get active and eat a healthy diet.
The other area that the DoH has realised is vitally important when it comes to improving the health of the nation (and therefore saving money) is breastfeeding. Along with regular exercise and eating healthily, the one thing that will decrease your risk of developing all of the above conditions is starting out your life on a diet of nothing but your mother's milk. Breastfeeding also protects the mother against breast and ovarian cancer.
The DoH has known this for a long time, as has the World Health Organisation, hence the big pressure expectant parents experience to breastfeed their babies when they are born. However, they have, in my opinion, not only gone about their healthy living campaigns in all the wrong way, but also their breastfeeding campaigns. Telling parents to breastfeed their babies because it's healthier doesn't work very well.
Breastfeeding rates are creeping up slowly, but the number of women disempowered, hurt and angered by the incessant 'Breast is Best' message is also growing. It is incredibly short-sighted to tell women to breastfeed, but not to offer them enough support to enable them to do so. Even the National Institute for Clinical Evidence (NICE) recognises this fact, recommending that expectant parents are prepared and supported to breastfeed during the ante-natal period, as well as once their babies are born.
It has long been known that ante-natal breastfeeding education significantly improves the likelihood that breastfeeding will be successful for a new mother and her baby, and good ante-natal education doesn't cost very much. For example, the NCT quotes a price of £14.80 per hour per couple as their highest price (and they do offer discounted rates and some free places if couples can't afford to pay, by the way!). This is far, far less than it would cost the NHS to treat most of the conditions I mentioned above.
Which brings me to the point of this article. The Government have cut, and continue to cut maternity budgets, which means fewer midwives and less time available per mother. This has led to the shocking statistic that almost three quarters of parents living in poverty are having no access at all to ante-natal education. The impact of this is that labour and birth is likely to require more interventions, because an unprepared mother is less likely to use active birthing techniques and listen to her body.
More interventions usually means a more medicated birth and a higher risk that mother and baby will need to be separated for some time after the birth. More interventions also, to continue the financial focus of this article, cost more money and require more trained midwives and more clinical hours.
Medicated births, high-intervention births, and maternal-infant separation soon after the birth can all impact on a mother's perceived and actual ability to breastfeed her baby. Additionally, as well as increasing the risk of a breastfeeding-unfriendly birth, a lack of ante-natal education will in itself make breastfeeding less likely to succeed.
This is why the Government's decision to cut maternity funds is so incredibly short-sighted. Not only would more money diverted to maternity services ultimately save money in the short term, with lower-cost births and neonatal periods, it would also save money in the long term. It could potentially reduce the rates of many different conditions for the life-times of those babies whose mothers were fully supported to be able to breastfeed in the early days and weeks of motherhood.
I'd like to see money in the NHS being moved around and spent more judiciously instead of being cut, because they'd save a whole heap of cash if they stopped spending money on all the wrong things in all the wrong ways, and cutting funding to vital services now is going to cost far more money in the long run.
Guestfrother Clare Kirkpatrick
Author of FreeYourParenting