Life out of lockdown has been a long time coming. For many, this new sense of freedom and return to normality has been a dream since the pandemic began. However, for new parents who have spent pregnancy and the first few weeks and months of their baby’s life isolated inside, the prospect is more than a little bit daunting. Caregivers often find that there are societal barriers in place that imply they should feel uncomfortable, especially when it comes to feeding babies outside of the home.
Scottish Parliament’s perinatal mental health debate on Tuesday 29 March explored the current issues that mothers have experienced prior to, during and after the lockdowns. During the debate, deteriorating mental health in mothers and feelings of isolation were explored and how health boards can address this in their work. Perinatal mental health has become a significant public health concern. Urgent action is needed to address indirect causes of maternal deaths, both medical and psychiatric. For our clients at the British Psychological Society, this debate was particularly important as its members work to support and advocate for the mental health and wellbeing of mothers and their families across the UK.
The debate also discussed the need to support mothers who are breastfeeding their babies, as this can come with a whole host of new issues, which exacerbate the stress of recovering from the birth and managing a new life. Breastfeeding can bring numerous benefits for both mother and child, like bonding, a reduction in health issues over the child’s life, such as heart disease and diabetes, and a reduction in postpartum depression for mothers. Yet, breastfeeding itself can bring feelings of loneliness and depression if mothers don’t receive enough support in the early days, if the process has been difficult for both mother and child, or if breastfeeding has to be stopped earlier than planned. Although there are many issues that make breastfeeding difficult, such as problems with lactation or lack of support, there are also wider societal issues that create barriers to breastfeeding. A trip to a public library, a café, or a train station comes with a new set of obstacles that those who don’t have children may not realise. These barriers are often the reason mothers stop breastfeeding earlier than planned.
Breastfeeding rates are a prime concern for healthcare professionals in the UK. Almost 68% of parents in the UK start breastfeeding, but only 48% continue beyond 6-8 weeks. UNICFEF Baby Friendly found states that globally, 80% of women stopped breastfeeding before they wanted to. Research shows that Covid-19 didn’t cause a drop in breast milk as first feed for babies in the UK. But, there is an ongoing concern that post lockdown the barriers to breastfeeding will be felt more keenly and that more mothers will stop breastfeeding sooner than they want to.
At Wednesday’s debate, Convener of the Committee Gillian Martin stated that isolation at birth and the crucial following months caused by the lockdown had been detrimental to the wellbeing of parents. Following on from this, Martin suggested that addressing this isolation should spawn a positive legacy that successfully tackles issues that were present for mothers before, during, and after the lockdowns. There was also continued reflection upon the importance of breastfeeding. This is a key area of significance for the Scottish Government, especially with the introduction of its Breastfeeding Friendly Scotland (BFS) initiative.
In Scotland, all babies are protected by law and it is an offence to prevent a baby from being fed in a public place. Sadly, many parents still feel embarrassment about feeding in public, and feel concerned they may be asked by others to stop feeding, cover their child or even to leave the premises. Mothers also worry that they may be asked to feed in an unsanitary location such as a toilet or a baby changing area, as was previously the case. These anxieties create the barriers that reduce breastfeeding and work must be done to inform families about changing attitudes to feeding.
Over the past two years, Pagoda PR has been working with NHS Lanarkshire, the third largest health board in Scotland, to promote breastfeeding initiatives in the area. With a 65,500 strong population, Lanarkshire has traditionally low rates of breastfeeding. Pagoda has worked with the health board to promote continued breastfeeding in the area by highlighting the benefits of breastfeeding through case studies and real experiences, and by promoting local businesses participating in BFS.
The BFS initiative is a key step to removing the societal barriers that discourage continued breastfeeding by encouraging businesses in Scotland to show support for infants and caregivers. Businesses who sign up to BFS demonstrate that they understand and are able to accommodate the needs of breastfeeding families by ensuring that they provide the appropriate environment for breastfeeding and that staff are aware of breastfeeding rights. Meanwhile, whenever families see the logo and signage, they know they can be presented with an extra warm welcome from the business. All businesses on the scheme are added to their local health board’s list of breastfeeding friendly locations, opening up businesses to new clientele.
As the debate on Tuesday shows, there is no one way to support mothers as we enter the new normal. Parents’ autonomy to make choices regarding how and where they feed infants should be respected in correspondence to the law in Scotland. And, by bringing communities together to show support for caregivers and their infants on these decisions, we can begin a positive legacy to support perinatal mental health following what has been a difficult time for young families.
Businesses across Scotland can find out more about BFS here.
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