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Should male midwives be in breastfeeding classes?


You may have seen the news story about a trainee midwife turned away from a breastfeeding class, because he was male. As someone who had a male midwife in labour, I felt compelled to write something about the story.

Basically Chris Butt, a male trainee midwife (one of only 132 in the UK), was told he could not attend an NCT breastfeeding class because it was a women-only session and some of the women attending may not be comfortable with a man in the room.

A clear case of discrimination, right? Yes and no. Let’s face it, a female trainee midwife wouldn’t have been turned away. But the trainee in question was offered alternative classes where it was felt he would be welcomed and which he chose not to attend, so I don’t think the NCT have any case to answer.

It’s a tricky one. It’s great that men want to take on traditionally female roles. Our children will have more options because of these pioneers. And of course a midwife needs to know about breastfeeding and the available support for new mums. We wouldn’t be surprised by a male GP, or a male gynaecologist – we might be offered the chance of a female instead, but few of us would be bothered. So why is this different?

Being fair to Mr Butt, his remarks were originally made in an opinion piece, “Upfront” in Midwives Magazine. His piece wasn’t the discrimination polemic the Daily Mail made it into. It was aimed at other professionals and voiced his frustrations at being seen as a male before a midwife. He made some good points:

Don’t women only drop-in clinics send mixed messages to women, suggesting that they can only breastfeed where other women are present?

Yes. Absolutely…ish.

I firmly believe that men have a place in breastfeeding, and that wherever possible they should attend breastfeeding classes with their partners. I firmly believe that breastfeeding is not a private activity that should be hidden away. I’m lucky that Mr MilkChic agrees with me. But not everyone feels the same. Why should those women and their partners miss out on breastfeeding support because they “should be OK with it”? Why should those babies miss out because their mums didn’t feel comfortable?

I would love to live in a world where these sensitivities don’t exist, and I would love to live in a world where every mum could feel confident about feeding in public, in front of their partners, other women and other men. But we’re not there yet and forcing the issue isn’t going to help.

As a midwife and as a professional, I feel Mr Butt has a duty to understand those sensitivities and put the needs of vulnerable mums and babies before his right to absolute equality in the workplace. Perhaps if there wasn’t such a shortage of midwives and support groups, we would be able to embrace the differences, with male midwifes attending mixed breastfeeding support groups and providing much needed support from a male perspective too?

The fact is that when you’re getting contractions one minute apart, and your midwife walks into the room and introduces himself with just the calm, unrattleable confidence you need, you don’t care about his sex. When he reads through your birth plan and listens, you’ll be damn grateful you are in his care. And you’ll tell your friends that, and they’ll tell theirs. And the next male midwife will get it just that little bit easier. And one day, when a little boy tells you he wants to be a midwife when he grows up, maybe it won’t seem strange.

What do you think? Would you have been comfortable with a male midwife at the birth or breastfeeding sessions? How would your partner have felt?

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NCT changes stance on breastfeeding

Baby breastfeeding (C) MilkChic. All rights reserved.

I was sorry to read the article in the Telegraph today about the NCT’s new stance on breastfeeding.

Of course they’re right on one level – the NCT is ridiculously middle class. But I don’t get why they think it’s their stance on breastfeeding that is the problem. I would have thought it was the “about £200” cost that stops people on lower incomes attending classes? Just maybe? Hmm??

Where do the NCT think that their “pregnant 15-year-old living in central Manchester” is going to find £200 for antenatal classes? Even if you have that sort of money available, it might not seem like the best use of your time and money (and yes, I do know that you can get NCT courses free through the NHS… but I didn’t until I read the article. Enough said).

Isn’t it a bit insulting to suggest that just because a mum isn’t earning a good salary, they will think that breastfeeding, something which medical research suggests has a hugely beneficial effect on future health and wellbeing, is just for “posh people”. That income has an effect on your ability to take in information and make the decision that is best for you and your child? The decision to breastfeed isn’t always a pious one – do the NCT even know how much formula costs and how much that can hit a low income?

As for the racial mix, doesn’t that suggest that there is something else going wrong too? I’m no statistician, but this 2006 study concluded that UK breastfeeding rates were considerably higher among black and asian mothers. So… Possibly not the breastfeeding that’s putting so many women off the NCT?

Having attended NCT classes myself, breastfeeding is a very small part of the mix, and in my experience, the teaching is factual not evangelical. There is certainly an assumption that most people will try to breastfeed, but as in the last Infant Feeding Survey UK mums overwhelmingly knew the benefits of breastfeeding, that’s not an unreasonable assumption to make for a charity concerned with child health and pregnancy.

I don’t think the classes made any difference to the way we fed our babies when they arrived. But they did give us a reality check on what to expect if we did breastfeed – knowing about latching, the signs of mastitis etc. was really useful.

I don’t think that mums who choose to bottlefeed should be villified, and anyone who does can leave now. But equally, I don’t think that they should be lied to. Mums have to make decisions every day about what is best for them and their family, and there are lots of factors that come into the equation. If organisations like the NCT don’t stand up for the things they believe in, and give us the facts without frills or apologies, then who will?

Perhaps before they start getting all “discreet” with their breastfeeding campaigning, and assume new mums can’t make informed decisions, the NCT should first see whether the more accessible and cost effective classes they are proposing help to win mums’ hearts and minds.