Women help each other through online breastfeeding support groups as support dwindles amid pandemic

The growth of breastfeeding groups on social media is seeing “women helping women” to nurse their babies for longer in the face of limited access to in-person support during the pandemic.

Key points:

  • The Australian Breastfeeding Project aims to support women online who may not have access to services due to the pandemic
  • A National Health Survey done during the pandemic shows an increase in the amount of time babies are being breastfed
  • But an expert says more studies are needed into breastfeeding rates in Australia

For Ipswich mother-of-two, Julia Collingwood, finding an online community to help her through the difficulties she experienced was a game changer.

“I had a village, I had a group of women supporting me in online support groups that I could go to for every single little issue and I felt like even if it was hard, I could work through it,” she said.

Ms Collingwood said it came as a shock when she struggled to breastfeed her first child, which led her to stop far sooner than she wanted.

“Not being able to feed the way I wanted to at the start, it was really disheartening, and I would describe it as a type of grief to be honest, of something that was taken from me because I didn't get the support,” she said. 

A study from the UK, released last month, has highlighted the value of well-moderated social media groups in supporting women to breastfeed. 

Not all women can breastfeed, but for those who can and want support there are now multiple Australian Facebook groups and they have amassed tens of thousands of members.

Women help each other through online breastfeeding support groups as support dwindles amid pandemic

Julia Collingwood with her husband Steven Collingwood and their two boys Alex (left) and Noah (right). (Supplied)

Ms Collingwood said the online support was instrumental in helping her breastfeed her second son who has food allergies, requiring her to cut out food groups from her own diet. She said for her, breastfeeding was “the greatest parenting tool” she had.

“It is hard work but it's also a sense of accomplishment and it's changed how I view things,” Ms Collingwood said.

“It actually forces me to slow down, I sit down and I feed my baby and I have to slow down and it gives me that sense of rest and reflection and not everything is go-go-go all the time.”

Improved figures 'don't show full picture'

Australia's National Breastfeeding Strategy aims to promote breastfeeding through measures including increasing the number of breastfeeding-friendly settings and strengthening regulations around the marketing and distribution of infant formula.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months of life then continued breastfeeding alongside safe complimentary foods for up to two years and beyond. 

The WHO is working to increase global rates of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months up to at least 50 per cent by 2025, a target also adopted by Australian health authorities.

National Health Survey data shows 35 per cent of babies in the survey were exclusively breastfed to six months.

Nearly three quarters (73.8 per cent) of babies included in the survey were still receiving breastmilk at six months and just over half (51.1 per cent) at 12 months, compared to 66 per cent and 41 per cent respectively in the 2017-18 National Survey.

However, researcher and breastfeeding medicine specialist at the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne Dr Lisa Amir said that might not show the full picture, because the study was carried out online and had a low response rate. 

Women help each other through online breastfeeding support groups as support dwindles amid pandemic

Julia Collingwood says she was able to seek support online to help her breastfeed her second son. (Supplied: Australian Breastfeeding Project)

“It's likely that this is an over-representation of the high-income families, and we know from previous national health surveys that there's quite a wide discrepancy between the breastfeeding rates in the low and high-income families,” Dr Amir said.

“The people who filled it in are probably not a representative sample, they're going to be the people who are more advantaged, who have the time to fill it in, who are interested in research.”

She said many women stopped breastfeeding earlier than anticipated due to a lack of support.

“I think it's well recognised in the community that breastfeeding is the best way to feed infants and so that's what mothers intend to do, but what we find is that many women stop sooner than they plan to, often because they face difficulties and they don't know what to do,” Dr Amir said.

Dr Amir said she was mindful that for some, all options have been exhausted and breastfeeding was simply not an option. 

“As a public health advocate, I talk about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, but as a clinician I recognise that not all mothers and babies are able to reach this goal,” Dr Amir said.

“For instance, some women who have a large postpartum haemorrhage may struggle to produce a full milk supply and we need access to safe infant formula for those situations.”

Dr Amir said it was important that support services were  available to women who wanted to access them and it was unfortunate that many were stopped during the pandemic.

“It’s not good enough because new mothers and babies are a vulnerable population and we need to be supporting them,” she said. 

The photo that sparked a movement

The Australian Breastfeeding Project, a movement aimed to empower women to breastfeed in public, was started by Victorian-based photographer Sarah Murnane who captured an image of her friends on Breamlea Beach in Victoria in 2015.

Women help each other through online breastfeeding support groups as support dwindles amid pandemic

The photo that sparked the beginning of the Australian Breastfeeding Project.(Supplied: Sarah Murnane)

“I had a mothers group, we all had similar values and so when I was unwell, or at the time I was also a birth photographer so when I had to go to work at the drop of a hat, they would then step in and breastfeed my daughter so that she was happy and fed so it worked out amazingly,” she said.

“I really wanted to capture the sisterhood and the village that I really feel is important, so I took that photo on a beach … that went viral, and I just had so many women asking can I please take photos of them doing the exact same thing.”

That photo became the catalyst for the project, an ongoing photographic series that aims to “create awareness of the beauty of breastfeeding, generate acceptance that prolonged breastfeeding has several health benefits and take action to eradicate the negative stigma associated with breastfeeding in public”.

It also led to a Facebook support group that now has more than 50,000 members.

“I couldn't have done it without my amazing admin team on the group, I've got midwives, I've got lactation consultants, I've got breastfeeding counsellors and more, we've got such an amazing team,” Ms Murnane said.

“It's pretty amazing to feel like you're making a difference, I've seen so many people struggle, including myself I was one of the ones that struggled especially with my first and to see people saying 'I've fed for two, three years or even longer because of the project', it's a pretty amazing feeling.”

Women help each other through online breastfeeding support groups as support dwindles amid pandemic

Julia Collingwood is now an admin on the Australian Breastfeeding Project. (Supplied: Julia Collingwood)

Ms Murnane said providing correct information about breastfeeding, including how supply and demand worked, was important.

“I definitely think it takes a village to breastfeed and unfortunately what I see a lot of the time is the generational information that would've normally been passed down has been lost and we are trying really hard to be the support that other women don't get now in their everyday lives,” she said.

Ms Collingwood is now part of the administration team running the Australian Breastfeeding Project's support and information group on Facebook.

“Being able to support other women in feeding their babies, the way I wish I had been able to feed my first, has been extremely rewarding,” she said.

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