Breastfeeding in the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Community

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I am half Romani on my mother’s side. My mother’s extended family currently numbers at around 400 people, and when I was growing up we all lived a stone’s throw from one another, on the same estate in the North West of England. The Gypsy, Roma and Travelling community in the UK face enormous health inequalities compared to the general population, including lower life expectancy, and increased rates of infant and maternal mortality (Communities and Local Government Report, 2012). After I trained with the ABM, I become interested in breastfeeding within the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community. Breastfeeding is not something I grew up with. I was the first person in my family to have breastfed since my Grandmother, and she was the only woman of her generation to breastfeed. Consequently I gave birth to my first child having never seen another woman breastfeed, and having no-one around me who knew anything about breastfeeding. This obviously created challenges in my breastfeeding journey. My difficult experience sparked my interest in finding out if my situation was common in the wider Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Community, and if so what could be done to improve things for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller mothers who want to breastfeed.

The first important thing to be aware of is that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community in the UK is made up of a number of different cultures and ethnicities. The largest of these groups are the Romani, which is made up of English and Welsh Gypsies and European Roma communities. There are also Irish and Scottish Travellers, Travelling Entertainers (fairground, and circus workers), Boat Dwellers and New Age Travellers. The term ‘Gypsy’ is something that needs to be used carefully. While English and Welsh Romani communities are generally happy with the term ‘Gypsy’ and use it to self identify, to many European Roma communities it is a racial slur, and it would be deeply inappropriate to use it to describe them.

While many people talk about Gypsies, Roma and Travellers as if they were a single, homogeneous group, cultural practices can vary widely between the different groups, and within the different groups from one community to another. Infant feeding culture is no exception..

So, what are breastfeeding rates like in the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community? Unfortunately the only data we have comes from a number of small scale studies. What these studies show is that breastfeeding rates are extremely low among English and Welsh Gypsies, and Scottish and Irish Travellers, with one study finding a breastfeeding initiation rate of 3%, with none continuing to six weeks (Pinkey 2011). Formula feeding is very much the cultural norm among English and Welsh Gypsies and Scottish and Irish Travellers. However, breastfeeding rates are much higher among European Roma communities, where breastfeeding is the cultural norm, with some mothers going as far as to describe the practice of breastfeeding as being an integral part of their cultural identity as Roma mothers (Condon, 2015).

How did our breastfeeding rates fall so low? Well, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that our breastfeeding rates plummeted around the same time as formula feeding become normalized among the British working class around the middle of the 20th century. Certainly within my own community at the time bottle feeding (which may have been national dried milk, or condensed milk) was seen as a status symbol, something the better off women did. Breastfeeding was something for ‘hedgecrawlers’ (vagrants).

This cultural shift from breastfeeding to bottle feeding persists today. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities tend to be fiercely protective of their cultural practices. This is not surprising, given that history is filled with attempts to eradicate Gypsy, Roma and Traveller culture completely. So when something becomes an accepted cultural practice it can be very difficult to change that. This is further compounded by the fact that Gypsy, Roma and Travellers tend to live in very close extended family units. So even when a mother wants to breastfeed there can be enormous direct, and indirect pressure from her community to formula feed. Some mothers come home from the hospital to find that bottles, formula and sterilizers have already been bought for them. This is generally done with good intentions. Among many English and Welsh Gypsy, and Irish and Scottish Traveller communities it is simply accepted and expected that the family and community will help new parents. And while this village mentality has many advantages, one of the disadvantages is, that because bottle feeding is so prevalent, one of the ways people want to, and expect to help is by feeding the baby so mum can rest.

An additional problem faced by Irish Travellers is the increased incidence of galactosemia. Galactosemia is a genetic condition where the baby is deficient in the enzyme needed to digest galactose. Galactose is one of the two sugars that make up lactose. It’s important to remember that unlike in CMPA, where the mother can remove cows milk protein from her diet by  cutting out dairy, lactose is a naturally occuring sugar in breast milk, and there is no way to remove it. The treatment for galactosemia is a galactose free diet, if it goes untreated it can cause liver damage, bleeding, cataracts, and can be fatal. In the general population of Ireland the incidence of galactosemia is approximately 1 in 36,000, among the Irish Traveller population it is 1 in 450. Because of the increased risk of galactosemia babies born to Irish Traveller mothers who deliver in the Republic of Ireland are offered a blood screening shortly after birth. The guidance from the Irish Health Service Executive is that until the results of the screening come back the baby should not breastfeed, but should instead be given a soy based formula. If the mother wishes to breastfeed she should express her milk until the test results are back. Theoretically this test result should be back within 6 hours. In reality though some mother can be left waiting several days, and may have been discharged by the time the results come back, and end up never getting the results (UCD, School of Public Health and population Science). How this message is received by Irish Traveller mothers is that they are not allowed to breastfeed their baby, and should they attempt to do so they are putting their child at risk. While this practice, to my knowledge, only exists in the Republic of Ireland, and not in the UK, it can still indirectly impact Irish Travellers mothers who ordinarily reside in the UK., because they may have family or friends who deliver in the Republic of Ireland, and so the message that breastfeeding is potentially harmful spreads throughout the community.

Despite all this there are Gypsy and Traveller mothers who breastfeed. However,  those who breastfeed can face additional challenges. There is the strong cultural bias towards formula feeding that I mentioned earlier. As a result of this cultural bias, there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy. Because it is expected that Gypsy and Traveller mothers will not breastfeed, sometimes health care professionals don’t talk to expectant mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding, or pass on information about breastfeeding support services.  Let me be abundantly clear here, that is not a reasonable assumption to make. Gypsy and Traveller mothers, like all other mothers, have the right to make an informed choice on how they feed their baby. Small scale studies have found in interviews that Gypsy and Traveller mothers who choose to breastfeed cite the health benefits as a reason for doing so (Condon 2015). It is these mothers from a culture where breastfeeding is so rare that need support the most. Not to be written off before they’ve even begun.

One challenge Gypsy and Traveller mother’s face is that within their communities there can be strong negative reactions breastfeeding in public. The mothers that do breastfeed get around this in a number of ways. Some choose only to breastfeed for a short time. Sometimes only while they’re in hospital, some for a few days after they return home, and then stopping, because it becomes too difficult to continue breastfeeding in private. It’s important to remember that these short breastfeeding journey are still valid journeys, and these mothers can still benefit from support. If a mother only plans to breastfeed for a few days, does so, and is supported, and isn’t in pain, and finds it a positive experience, then she will in turn pass that positive experience onto her peers, and to her own children. It is my view, that these short journeys are the baby steps towards improving attitudes towards breastfeeding, and eventually improving breastfeeding rates. Other mothers breastfeed for longer, and may use covers when in public, or in front of men. Some mothers make it known that they will be breastfeeding in their own homes, so if people come to visit they need to accept that. Attitudes towards breastfeeding in public are, generally, must more tolerant among European Roma communities, with mothers breastfeeding babies and toddlers quite openly.

Lack of support. I think we’re all familiar with this as a reason why mother’s struggle to breastfeed, and certainly this applies to Gypsy, Traveller and (to a lesser extent) European Roma mothers too, and they can face additional obstacles in accessing support.

Some Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities (but certainly not all) can have relatively low levels of literacy. In spite of this, written information leaflets are often given to mothers as sources of information and support. Even if the mother has made it known  that she can’t read them. Some European Roma mothers report that they are given leaflets in English, even if they have said that they cannot speak or read the language (Condon 2015). If a mother cannot read very well, or cannot read in English then giving them leaflets they don’t want is not only useless, it also makes those mother feel excluded, and like they’ve not been listened to. On the other hand some mothers are happy to take leaflets, even if they can’t read them themselves, because they say that they can ask someone else to read it for them, or if they have phone numbers on them they can be helpful to get in touch with someone they can speak to. It’s all about communicating with and listening to the wishes of the individual mother. Something as simple as saying ‘Is it OK if I leave these leaflets with you?’ can make all the difference.

It can be very difficult for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller mother to access support groups and drop ins. If the community is nomadic, then obviously it can be difficult finding drop ins, and services in different towns. However, the majority of the Gypsy and Roma community in the UK are not nomadic, but live either in houses or on a permanent site.  For mothers who live on a permanent site one challenge they can have is that sites provided for Gypsies and Travellers are often not located close to local amenities. In some cases they would have to travel several miles in order to access support. Drop ins and breastfeeding groups can also be an issue for many mothers in the wider Gypsy and Traveller community because in many communities it is considered taboo to discuss private, intimate matters in a fairly public setting. Finally there is a very real fear of encountering prejudice and judgement. Breastfeeding groups are generally perceived among Gypsy and Traveller mothers to be the haunt of older, middle class, non-travelling women who may look down on them.

For European Roma mothers this lack of support from outside agencies is less of an issue, because they tend to draw on support from within their own community, from their family, which is generally adequate because breastfeeding is the cultural norm. So within their community they often have the knowledge and the means to overcome any problems that arise. For English and Welsh Gypsy, and Scottish and Irish Traveller mothers though this lack of support is a major stumbling block. Gypsy and Traveller mothers tend not to access support from their health visitor or children’s centres for general parenting issues, usually relying on support from their family and community. Breastfeeding support, however, is one area where Gypsy and Traveller mother do try to access outside support, because knowledge of breastfeeding, and breastfeeding support have been lost in their communities. Unfortunately, many are not getting that support, but those who do often speak with great fondness, even decades later, of the people who supported them, and say that they wouldn’t have breastfed if it hadn’t been for the help and support of a midwife or health visitor who went the extra mile (Condon 2015).

There is a perception that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller mothers will pay more attention to advice and suggestions from people in their community and family over information and suggestions from outside professionals. This is not entirely inaccurate. There is often a strong cultural belief that someone with lived experience is a better source of information than someone who only has ‘book learning’. Therefore a mother who has delivered and raised several children may be considered a better source of information than a midwife or health visitor. Outside professionals can also be viewed with a mixture of apprehension and suspicion. This is the unfortunate consequence of hundreds of years of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers facing some of the most appalling prejudice and discrimination that lasted well into the 20th and 21st centuries. For example 80% of Europe’s Roma population were murdered in the Holocaust but this wasn’t acknowledged until 1982 (Hancock 2005); and the practice of forcibly sterilizing Roma mothers was wide spread throughout Europe until the mid 1970’s  with the last known, case of a Roma woman being sterilized without her knowledge or consent happening in 2007, in the Czech Republic (Matache, 2017). So there is still a lot of work to be done in building bridges with Gypsy and Traveller communities.

However, it’s important to continue to provide Gypsy, Roma and Traveller mothers with information. While it may not initially seem like it information is getting through, and is starting to affect change. As I mentioned previously the Gypsy and Traveller mothers that do breastfeed cite the health benefits as their reason for doing so; and the practice of adding foodstuffs to bottles that was once particularly common in some Gypsy and Traveller communities is becoming less common among younger mothers as they’ve been made aware of the dangers associated with it (Condon 2015).

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller mother are just as capable as any other mothers of listening, and understanding information that is given to them in an appropriate way. They know, far better, than anyone outside their community, what sort of challenges they will face, and what sort of help and support they will need.  The key to supporting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller mothers is to listen to them, to treat them with respect, and not to make judgements or assumptions about what they want or need.

By Lisa Robinson

Breastfeeding Berkshire Trustee
ABM Breastfeeding Counsellor


Communities and Local Government Report, 2012, Progress report by the ministerial working
group on tackling inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers

Condon L, 2015,Roma, Gypsies, Travellers and infant feeding,

Hancock I, 2005, Romanies and the Holocaust: A Re-evaluation and Overview

Matache, M, 2017 Coercive and Cruel: Forced Sterilisation of Romani Women

Pinkey K, 2011 The infant feeding practice of Gypsy and Traveller women in Western Cheshire Primary. Care Trust and their attitudes towards breast and formula feeding

UCD School of Public Health and Population Science, Breastfeeding is natural, but it’s not the norm in Ireland




















How to increase supply when pumping.

OK, so let’s start by talking about that word ‘supply’, if you’ve been breastfeeding happily and your baby has been gaining weight and having plenty of wet and dirty nappies etc. you do not have a supply problem. You do not need to increase your supply.

What you’re going through is a release problem. You have the milk, you might have buckets of milk, but the issue is that when you feed your baby, or hold your baby, or smell the top of your babies head, your brain releases oxytocin, which in turn triggers the milk ejection reflex, which is what gets your milk flowing.

Oxytocin is the hormone of love. It’s the same hormone our brain releases when we fall in love with someone. So just think about that for a moment. The fanciest, most expensive, all singing, all dancing pump in the world is not going to trigger the release of that love hormone the same way looking down into your baby’s face is.

Sometimes then, we need to fool our breasts into releasing the milk. And fortunately there are a number of tricks we can use to do this.:

Warm compresses (or expressing after a relaxing warm bath or shower, but this might not be practical in some situations)

Breast massage Starting from the top of the breast, working around the circumference of the breast, and gently but firmly massaging from the back and top of the breast down towards the nipple

Hands on pumping This technique involves using the hands as well as a pump to remove more milk. This is a really good piece on hands on pumping and includes a video of a hand expressing technique that can be used to do hands on pumping while using a pump

You’re probably now thinking ‘How in the heck am I supposed to hold the pump, and do hands on pumping all at the same time! And I get it. Many, aspects of parenting cause us to feel like we should grow an extra pair of hands with each child, and this is one of those times. Using a pumping bra can help to hold the pump in place for you. You don’t need to spend a fortune on one. You can make a DIY on using a cheap sports bra, and cutting a hole in it to hold the pump.

Distraction Stress and worry are the mortal enemies of oxytocin, which means they’re the mortal enemies of milk being released. A lot of mums get into a vicious cycle of staring at the bottle as they pump, seeing not much milk, worrying about how little milk they get, so the worry inhibits the milk release, so they get less milk, so they worry more, so they get even less milk, and round and round and round it goes.

So sometimes you need to tear your mind away from that pump. Put on a TV show, or a movie that makes you feel good, but is also fairly immersive. Or close your eyes and listen to your favourite music, music that makes you feel good or evokes happy memories. Download an app like Headspace and do some guided meditation. Anything, anything at all that makes you feel good and drags your brain away from the pump.

Massage As in someone else giving you one. This can help you relax, and release tension, and get the oxytocin flowing. The person doing it doesn’t have to be a master masseuse, but something as simple as your partner rubbing your shoulders, or even giving you a foot or a calf massage can help. This can ale be a way for your partner to feel involved. If your partner is seeing you stressed out about pumping they’re probably worried, and feeling helpless and actually really want to be able to do something to make life easy for you. This is a way they can do that.

Power pumping Power pumping is essentially a very intensive pumping  session designed to mimic a babies cluster feeding pattern. If you’re struggling with pumping output it can be an idea to do one power pumping session a day, for a couple of days. This site has info on power pumping and how to go about it.

Berkshire mothers and babies let down by devastating cuts to breastfeeding support

no breastfeeding

‘Let down’, that’s an innocuous little phrase isn’t it? It probably conjures up feelings of mild to moderate disappointment or annoyance. When Asda home delivery substitutes your loo roll with light bulbs- that’s being let down. When Yodel push a card through your door saying they were sorry to have missed you so they’ve taken your parcel back to the depot, because you left your vigil at the front window for 5 minutes to go pee- that’s being let down.

Breastfeeding cuts don’t just let parents down. The affects of breastfeeding cuts can be devastating on both a human and financial level

Babies who are not breastfed are at an increased risk of: ear infections, chest infections, gastrointestinal infections and necrotizing enterocolitis. Mothers who don’t breastfeed are at increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Improving breastfeeding rates could potentially save the NHS up to £48 million per year

But there is also much more immediate damage that  these cuts do to new mothers. A mother who can’t access breastfeeding support  may experience painful, damaged and bleeding nipples. Despite the fact that, with skilled and effective support, damaged nipples are one of the simplest breastfeeding problems to resolve, it is the most common reasons mothers stop breastfeeding. And it’s easy to understand why as the pain can be excruciating, and  the damage is repeated at every feed (and babies feed a lot!) and continues in between feeds. A mother going through this is at risk of developing a bacterial infection in her nipple, blocked ducts, mastitis, and possibly even an abscess in her breast. She is also at an increased risk of developing post-natal depression, partly due to the pain and anxiety , but also because, without help and support it is unlikely she will be able to continue breastfeeding and mothers who are forced to stop breastfeeding before they’d hoped are at much higher risk of PND.

This is not a let down, or a minor inconvenience. This is a major public health crisis with far reaching ramifications.

Breastfeeding support in Berkshire is a post code lottery (this is also true at a national level). Provision of breastfeeding support has been placed in the hands of local authorities, which has led to glaring inconsistencies in the levels of support available.

All families have access to support from midwives and health visitors, which is wonderful, however, as I’m sure many of those dedicated healthcare professionals can attest, the pressures of their workload means that they often don’t have time to sit for up to an hour with a new mother, observing a full feed, and  supporting breastfeeding. This is where the role of dedicated, specialized breastfeeding support comes in. Breastfeeding support services are needed to work in partnership with the health care professionals  to ensure mothers get the level of support they need.

Reading no longer has a funded breastfeeding support service. Previously there was a funded peer-support service Mum’s could sign up for, where they could receive one to one support from a qualified per supporter by phone, text and on occasion home visits. That no longer exists. Against overwhelming odds there are some volunteer led drop in running

West Berkshire has an in house support service provided by the family hubs, families can contact their local hub to request support.

Wokingham still has the intensive phone and text support service provided by Breastfeeding Network peer supporters.

The Windsor, Maidenhead and Ascot Breastfeeding Network services were decommissioned at the end of March, however they have been able to secure lottery funding so are planning to re-launch this Autumn. It goes without saying that having to apply for funding in this way leaves service vulnerable to not being able to secure funding in the future, forcing them to stop operating at short notice. 

There are separate volunteer run support services still in operation, however, volunteer led support services are vulnerable because volunteers can leave (return to work, move away etc.) and there isn’t always funding to train new volunteers.

So, with the exception of the Wokingham area, things are bleak across Berkshire

Given that roughly 6000 babies per year are are born at the Royal Berkshire hospital alone these cuts equate to thousands of mothers and babies in the area being left without support.

What can you do to help?

You can help by tweeting, or emailing your local councillors, commissioners, MP’s and Ministers, letting them know how important breastfeeding support services are, and the devastating effects cuts can have on local families.


The dangers of the rise of self-professed breastfeeding experts.


It seems as if anyone can call themselves an expert in something these days. When you look across fields like nutrition and vaccination there are multitudes of self-professed ‘experts’ very vocally pedaling their opinions and ‘expertise’ in spite of the minor detail that they have absolutely no training or qualifications on the subject matter whatsoever. No, hundreds of hours of Googling don’t count.

The same is true in breastfeeding. There are many people who give themselves a fancy title, write a book, get a TV appearance or two, and claim to be experts in the field. It is alarmingly easy for people to do this in the field of breastfeeding because terms like ‘lactation consultant’ ‘infant feeding consultant.’ ‘breastfeeding specialist’ ‘infant feeding adviser’ are not legally protected terms in the same way that ‘midwife’ ‘dentist’ etc. are. So anyone can give themselves a title even if they have had absolutely no specific training in breastfeeding.

Sadly the UK provides fertile ground for these self-styled ‘experts’ to flourish. As highly social creatures we rely on our village to help us navigate life, particularly when it comes to parenting. Our breastfeeding rates have been so low for so long then when it comes to breastfeeding we’ve lost our village. Mums today can no longer turn to their own mothers, sisters aunts, friends etc. for breastfeeding support because chances are that they formula fed. So instead they turn to the ‘experts. Now, if the expert they turn to is qualified and trained, like an IBCLC or a breastfeeding counsellor or peer supporter, chances are they’re in safe hands. However if the ‘expert’ they turn to is someone with no training and is just someone who’s given themselves a fancy title, and written a book then the help and support they receive can be much less reliable.

The damage these supposed experts do cannot be over stated. On one hand they damage the breastfeeding support community as a whole by cheapening and damaging the credibility of properly qualified breastfeeding supporters who’ve spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours training, reading, volunteering, staying up to date etc. Imagine that you’ve dedicated your life to studying something and putting that knowledge into practice to try and help mothers meet their breastfeeding goals,and someone with no training comes along calling themselves and expert and giving out incorrect information that actively damages breastfeeding journeys. You’d probably be a bit miffed.

But far more importantly is the damage they do to mums and babies. I won’t go into the full importance of breastfeeding for mothers and babies short and long term health because that would be a whole blog post in itself, but one thing that I will mention is that mothers who aren’t able to meet their breastfeeding goals are at a dramatically increased risk of developing depression. When a mother wants to breastfeed (for however long, an hour, a month, a year or more) it is important to her, and therefore it is important that she is given whatever help and support she needs to meet that breastfeeding goal.

Some of the advice and information given out by the ‘expert’s will actively damage breastfeeding journeys and make it far less likely that mothers will be able to meet their goals.  One of the most profound examples of this is telling mums that things like: frequent feeding, and low pumping out put are indicative of low supply. They’re not.  Anxiety over low supply is incredibly common among mothers though, and despite the fact that genuine low supply only affects a small minority of women, worries about supply is the second most common reason mothers stop breastfeeding (second only to sore and damaged nipples).

If you need breastfeeding support please make sure that the person giving support is trained and qualified to do so. This link provides a good overview of the different titles of qualified breastfeeding supporter you might speak to in the UK

This link will help you find a local IBCLC

And remember if in doubt always ask someone what their credentials are. Who trained them? When did they train? How much experience do they have? How do they stay up-to-date?

Someone who is appropriately trained will have no problem answering and will be happy to put your mind at rest.

Lactation Cookies. What’s the harm?

Spend enough time in breastfeeding support groups and soon you’ll start to see that whenever someone thinks they’re struggling with their milk supply people will start suggesting foods, drinks and herbs to increase their supply. These can include things like oats, yeast, avocado, chocolate, fenugreek, drinking more water etc. The list goes on.

So what’s the harm? I mean, these are all perfectly natural foodstuffs, many of which we probably eat as part of our diet anyway, what could possibly be the harm in these well meaning suggestions to eat and drink your way to more milk?

Well, for one thing, they don’t work. Nothing you eat or drink, no amount of water, oats, herbs, teas etc. will make your produce more milk.

Making suggestions that Mums need to eat certain foods in order to produce an adequate supply of milk undermines breastfeeding, and frankly undermines women. Female bodies do not need special foods, or teas to work properly. With the exception of very rare cases all your breasts need in order to produce the right amount of milk is this: Ensure that baby is latched on well, and is able to remove milk effectively, and feed responsively (if baby cannot feed then express milk when baby would normally feed).

The suggestion that we need special foods to make our breasts work just reinforces the constant societal message that low supply is a common problem, and that female bodies are generally faulty and incapable of fulfilling their biological purpose.

And while that’s bad enough the real harm lactation cookies, teas, herbs etc. do is to mothers with genuine supply concerns. While it’s very rare that a mother will be unable to produce enough milk for her baby, what is more common are milk transfer issues. Cases where the baby isn’t able to transfer milk effectively- due to issues such as a shallow latch, and it’s common in these cases where baby is feeding very frequently but not gaining weight well for a Mum to worry about her supply.

Regardless of whether issues are being caused by an inherent low supply, or milk transfer issues what that mother needs is skilled and effective breastfeeding support, and she needs it fast.

Suggestions of cookies, and teas and herbs and drinking a reservoir dry can delay or even prevent a Mum accessing the skilled support she desperately needs. Now you might be reading this thinking, well why not both? Why can’t she eat the cookies and access that support?  Because accessing support can be difficult for many Mums for a whole host of reasons. Ordering a box of cookies off the internet that claim to cure your problem is not.

Almost every story I hear from Mums who stopped breastfeeding because they thought they didn’t have enough milk includes an account of how they tried herbs, teas, cookies. And it’s honestly, heart breaking to hear from a Mum who clearly really wanted to breastfeed, who tried all these different things, none of which were ever going to work, and missed out on the one thing that could’ve actually helped- skilled support.

And some of this stuff is not cheap. OK, a pack of porridge oats isn’t going to break most budgets, but some of these packs of biscuits and bottles of herb capsules can cost more than £20 a time. For a desperate Mum who wants to make breastfeeding work and will try anything and everything, that can add up really fast. So vulnerable mothers are being coerced into spending an awful lot of money on products that don’t work, and won’t help them at all. That’s exploitation.

But that’s not all. Chances are no-ones going to get ill eating some flapjack (not unless they eat an awful lot of it, that is) but some of the things being suggested are not as harmless as a packet of biscuits. Fenugreek probably won’t do you any harm if you’re using a small amount to season a curry. But in large amounts, like the amounts a Mum might be ingesting if she’s taking several capsules a day, it has some very real risks of side effects. These can include: Hives, swelling of the lips and tongue, difficulty breathing, hypoglycemia, diarrhea and abdominal pain.  In people with diabetes taking fenugreek can lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels. So essentially what this means is that Mums are being exposed to the risk of potentially serious side effects, when there’s no real evidence of any benefit.

So what’s the harm?

Undermining breastfeeding

Potentially delaying or preventing a Mum with genuine issues accessing support

Exploiting vulnerable mothers

Exposing mothers to the risk of serious side effects for no benefit

If a mother you know is worried about her milk supply sign post her to a local breastfeeding drop in, the national breastfeeding helpline, or an IBCLC. That will help her, and could save her breastfeeding journey.

Flapjacks will not.

lactation cookies



Breastfeeding as a survivor of sexual abuse

One of our trustees shares their experience of breastfeeding as an abuse survivor

The narrative around breastfeeding after sexual abuse generally centres around breastfeeding being something survivors will find very triggering and traumatic. This is certainly true for some, and it must also be remembered that pregnancy and giving birth can also be very difficult and triggering times for survivors, resulting in many survivors starting their breastfeeding journey traumatized, with reopened wounds.

This can certainly never be forgotten or disregarded, but the problem with centring the narrative around the negatives is that the positive effect breastfeeding can have on survivors is often entirely overlooked.

As an abuse survivor I found breastfeeding to be an enormously healing experience. Breastfeeding was incredibly important to me, in part because of the abuse I’d suffered as a child. Going into parenting, like most people, I was determined to be the best parent I could possibly be, but as an abuse survivor this was especially important to me because of the misconception that many abuse survivors go onto be abusive or neglectful parents. So I put myself under additional pressure to ensure that I did everything ‘right’, so that my son’s childhood would be as far removed from my own as is possible. Breastfeeding was part of that. From the moment I read in my antenatal books that ‘breast was best’, that was it. It became a non-negotiable. And that is probably part of the reason I experienced such intense breastfeeding grief when it didn’t work out the first three times.

Breastfeeding transformed my relationship with my body, for good and ill. When I wasn’t able to breastfeed due to a lack of support it confirmed and reinforced every negative feeling that I’d ever had about my body. That it, and I, were useless and worthless, unable to do basic things necessary to keep my baby alive. Being supported and empowered to breastfeed successfully did the exact opposite. It taught me that my body was valuable and important. That my body was an amazing thing capable of creating and sustaining the most precious little lives. It was a thing to be treasured, not something to be punished, cut, burnt and starved in a desperate attempt to punish it and transform it into something better. It, and  I were fine, just as we were.

Breastfeeding helped me to deal with other wounds a lifetime of abuse had caused. It helped me to cope with surrendering control. Many abuse survivors, like myself, attempt to control and micro-manage many aspects of our lives, this is as a result of having no control whatsoever during the abuse. Not feeling in control can cause intense anxiety and panic, like being in free-fall. As a result one of the most challenging things about breastfeeding was the lack of daily routine, feeds would occur whenever and for however long baby wanted. That was very difficult to come to terms with. I found baby wearing, and mastering feeding a sling helped enormously as it allowed me to structure my day, and feed my baby responsively. So everyone’s physical and emotional needs were met.

Breastfeeding also taught me to trust. The second aspect of breastfeeding that was incredibly difficult to deal with was not being able to see how much my baby was eating and drinking. I was aware of other signs to look for, weight gain, nappy out up and so forth, but for the most part I simply had to trust in my body to do what it was supposed to do. No mean feat for someone who’s entire life has been spent hating and believing their body to be worthless, but with a lot of emotional support from my local breastfeeding support group I got there in the end.

Breastfeeding also taught me to trust other people. For obvious reasons many abuse survivors can be apprehensive and distrustful of others. This isn’t just as a result of having had the misfortune of crossing paths with an abuser, it’s also because people’s responses when you disclose you’ve been abused can be less than helpful. This can range from anything from being disbelieved, being pressured into reporting it before your ready, speculation about what you could’ve done to  have caused it, defence of the abuser. These damaging responses are not limited to friends, family and the general public, they can come from professionals, from the people you expect to help and support you. It was a counsellor who told me that my rapist was just as much a victim as I was. Also abusers themselves are usually people that their victim trusted, and respected, a relative, a teacher, a family friend etc. So it can be difficult for survivors to ask for help when they’ve learned not to trust the people who are supposed to help them.

I was privileged that when I reached out for breastfeeding support, not only was I met with nothing but with compassion and empathy, I also made some of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I’m grateful that those friendships have now lasted for years.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned the physical sensation of breastfeeding being triggering. That’s because I didn’t suffer from that to a large degree. The worst of that aspect for me was learning to unconditionally share my personal space. I was, and still am, someone who can accept close physical contact with others only on my own terms and in my own time. Of course with breastfeeding, and the importance of feeding responsively, that physical contact has to be largely on the baby’s terms..I found that distraction helped a lot with that side of things, when I was feeling ‘touched out’ but baby needed a feed. Things like reading or watching something immersive on the TV helped, thus began my addiction to Criminal Minds.

For some survivors though, that touched out feeling, and the physical sensation of breastfeeding can be very distressing, and can trigger flashbacks or panic attacks. Grounding techniques can be helpful. Take a deep breath when you start to feel panicky, remind yourself that you are safe, that it is just a memory, not something that can threaten you right now. Find something that makes you feel safe and anchors you in the present- for many people this can be focusing on a single object or a physical sensation; for example focus intently on something you can see, concentrate on every minor detail of it, or focus very acutely on something you can feel, the way the cushion feels under your hands, the roughness of the fibres, anything that anchors you in the present moment. Most of all be kind to yourself, don’t tell yourself that your silly, or that you should be over it. Get help, from local breastfeeding support services, and from organizations that support survivors like the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) Rape Crisis,The Survivors Trust or Victim Support.

Above all we need to change the narrative that breastfeeding as an abuse survivor will automatically be something difficult and traumatic, and therefore not worth doing. Rather the narrative needs to be, that while breastfeeding can present challenges for abuse survivors (and the nature of these challenges will vary from one person to the next), with adequate practical and emotional support breastfeeding can not only be a positive experience, but an enormously beneficial one.

For help and support with any aspect of breastfeeding and recovering from abuse please contact:

The National Breastfeeding Helpline: 0300 100 0212 (Open 7 days a week from 9.30 am-9.30pm)
NAPAC:  0808 801 0331 (Open 10m-9pm Mon-Tur and 10am-6pm Fri)

Rape Crisis England and Wales: 0808 802 9999 (Open 7 days a week 12 noon-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm)

The Survivors Trust:  0808 801 0818

Upcoming Event: BfN Big Tea Break – Tuesday 28th October 2014

This event is to raise money for BfNs Drugs in Breastmilk appeal;

It will be very informal. Please bring along whatever money donation you can and some treats to share. All money donated during the party will be donated to the appeal on Breastfeeding Berkshire’s behalf.

It will be held at Coley Park’s Children’s Centre. The Centre does have some parking, is about a 20 minute walk or £1.20 bus ride on the number 11 from town. This event will be held in their larger main room which has a small kitchen and a large play area.

We are in need of more volunteers to help me run this event. Please let me know if you can help!

Feel free to invite any of your breastfeeding supportive friends.

For more details have a look on the event page on Facebook