This post was most recently updated on June 27th, 2018
Today’s post is from Anna Le Grange, an IBCLC in Kent who is joining us to speak out against the cuts to breastfeeding support during ‘Breastfeeding Celebration Week’. If, like us, you feel there really isn’t much to celebrate (other than the amazing families who breastfeed in spite of the lack of support and those who struggle and stop – these are the people we should be celebrating) please do comment. If you’d like to add a blog post to this section, please contact me. After Celebration Week, we will be sending them all to NHS England to demonstrate why we find it frankly insulting that the only ‘celebrating’ they are doing is publishing a few blog posts by the Chief Nurse. Well, we can blog too! Read on for Anne’s take on the cuts in Kent.
In one way or another, Kent’s breastfeeding services have been there for me and my family for the last 11 years. In 2007, I was a service user and struggling a little with breastfeeding. A kind Peer Supporter took me under her wing and little did she know that she was planting a seed that would eventually change the path of my life profoundly.
They were there for me when I was pregnant with my 3rd child and decided to become a peer supporter myself. They trained me up and supported me whilst I supported the breastfeeding women in our community. They also provided me with many months of personal support to breastfeed my daughter following breast surgery. Those groups and clinics in Kent were a life line to me. A place where people got it, and really understood why breastfeeding my daughter was such a priority for us as a family despite being so difficult.
They were there for me when they encouraged me to take my breastfeeding training further and when I chose to become and IBCLC they invited me to work alongside them in busy clinics throughout the 18 months of training and taught me everything that they knew.
And once I was a qualified IBCLC and getting to grips with running a fledgling private practice they were there for me again, offering me ad-hoc work in the busy breastfeeding clinics that I had shadowed in before. I said yes of course! I knew from first-hand experience just how essential having access to a specialist is to families who want to breastfeed.
You see in 2014 Kent County Council made a bold move to bring all of the community breastfeeding services under one provider. After many years of funding various 3rd party specialist providers to run different services in Kent, the council decided that a service that provided a high level of support, of the same standard across the county, would benefit new families and increase breastfeeding rates.
This contract was given to 2 IBCLCs, who have been involved with various breastfeeding projects in Kent over the last 20 years. The scheme was ambitious, but comprehensive:
- Rolling Peer support training programs in each area of Kent, run by IBCLCs or Breastfeeding Counsellors.
- Around 250 trained volunteers, running weekly groups in 24 locations provided the front line to the service.
- Peer Supporter Coordinators managing the peer supporters, communicating with the Children’s Centres and coordinating the groups and training, ensuring the Peer Supporters were cared-for and nurtured themselves.
- 17 Specialist drop-in clinics, spread around the county, with Peer-Supporters working along-side IBCLCs and Breastfeeding Counsellors, to provide specialist clinics that often had a social and community feel to them.
These clinics were used. They were busy, frequently over-ran and as you’d expect full of exhausted, anxious, emotional, sometimes desperate families waiting patiently for somebody to help them feed their baby the way they wanted to. Referrals for these clinics came from a variety of places but undoubtedly the highest number of referrals came from Midwives and Health Visitors themselves, referring on problems that were too complex for them to help with.
Whilst Kent’s breastfeeding support model was receiving much interest and praise from around the UK, the local council had taken over Public Health and the Health Visiting Service and were making other plans for their local breastfeeding support. They wanted everything under one roof and started putting together a proposed service for all community breastfeeding support, funded by public health under the health visiting teams. They released a consultation asking for feedback on the proposals.
The proposed new service was so wildly different to that which was running at the time that the local community soon reacted and started up the Kent-wide Keep Kent Breastfeeding Campaign. Women and families started sharing their stories on social media. Local Radio, television and newspapers took up the story over several months and a petition raised almost 5000 signatures. People who had used the current service were in disbelief that it was being taken away. They had needed the drop-in option to see a breastfeeding specialist, close to their home. They had needed the 24 hour help line. They had needed to know that person who was supporting them not only completely understood why they wanted to breastfeed so much but also how to help them carry on.
What came across overwhelmingly in the feedback from families was that many did not feel their health visitor had been able to help them and that in many cases they felt they had made their breastfeeding journey more difficult through a lack of understanding and knowledge. 3 weeks after the consultation was released, it was pulled and re-written in a way that perhaps was supposed to sound more palatable to the general public.
Kent Council started to take a lead in collecting consultation responses by taking them along to the Children’s Centre groups and speaking to range of parents about the plans, not just those who had used the previous breastfeeding service. They made it clear that their new service would be better for all. Highlighting how they support families what ever their feeding choice. Of course, this is an important stance for a health visiting service but a strange thing to include in a breastfeeding support service.
It started to sound a little like an apology for mentioning breastfeeding at all.
During this time the campaign met with the County Council on numerous occasions, including during a petition debate where I spoke on behalf of the families of Kent. I argued that their proposed service was going to let many many families down, especially low income families, those without transport and those who lived in rural areas. We made it clear that the BFI training, although an excellent starting point, did not equip Health Visitors with the knowledge and skills they needed to help mothers with anything more complex than basic breastfeeding issues. We asked how health visitors will have the time and capacity to run an entirely new service when they are already stretched and short-staffed.
The council said time and time again that they were listening and that they wanted an even better service than we already had, that they weren’t making cuts.
But a reduction from 17 Specialist Drop-in clinics a week with an IBCLC or Breastfeeding Counsellor to just 4 clinics a week with 6 bookable slots each, can be nothing more than a cut.
During the time of the campaign, breastfeeding rates statistics came in and showed that in Kent we had an almost 10% raise in breastfed babies at 6 weeks, whilst nationally the rates had decreased. Surely, we thought, you can’t argue with the evidence. But again, the council chose to ignore this. I can only assume because it didn’t fit their agenda. Never in my life have I felt more patronised than when a female councillor told us that we must “trust them” and “stop getting ourselves so stressed out” during the petition debate.
One positive thing that has come out of the campaign is that Kent County Council now understand that IBCLCs offer the gold standard in breastfeeding support and they plan to recruit IBCLCs and have a group of Health visitors that are now working towards the qualification. They also now realise that managing over 200 volunteers takes experienced management and coordination so that these mothers feel appreciated, cared for and listened to. Again these roles are being recruited for.
But the very sad fact is that Health Visiting took over the service in the 1st of June, and jobs are still going out to press and health visitors are just at the very beginning of their specialist training. What about the new families today? Those babies who have been born since the 1st June? Do they not deserve the very best support? A service where parents decide if and when they see a breastfeeding specialist? Where they have a community group, run just by breastfeeding peer supporters, where they feel comfortable to relax and ask anything that’s on their mind.
I look ahead 2 -3 years and hope that by having Health Visitors that are IBCLCs in every team, that Kent County Council has, again, a breastfeeding service to be proud of. But until then I will continue to support and fight for the newborn families of Kent. Public Health England are asking us to celebrate Breastfeeding this week. But we ask them to do the same, by providing support services, by stopping the cuts and by listening and really understanding what needs to happen in the UK to improve breastfeeding rates and reduce the number of women who feel let down and angry because their breastfeeding journey has ended earlier than they wanted it to.
Anna Le Grange is an IBCLC, Paediatric Nurse and Mum to 3. She supports Families with Mindful Breastfeeding, in their homes, in clinics and online, as well as teaching breastfeeding support to professionals.
If you live in or near to London, please get down to Parliament Square for a breastfeeding sit-in on Tuesday 26 June 1-4pm. Bring your banners saying “End breastfeeding cuts” as well as your local banners. If you live further north, please get over to join the Blackpool protest 10-11am on Wednesday 27 June at Bickerstaffe Square.