Thursday 7 March 2013

Breastfeeding and contraception – the support new mums need

Breastfeeding has been back in the spotlight over the last month, with calls for larger labels on formula packets explaining that "breast is best", the inevitable backlash, Maternity Action's campaign for the right of women to breastfeed on return to work, and a controversial new study of the benefits of breastfeeding.

Figures released a few months ago by the NHS also indicated that more new mums are attempting breastfeeding and are breastfeeding for longer. However, at bpas we are concerned to see women who have not been given the right information about safe contraception whilst breastfeeding, and as a result are experiencing the turmoil of an unplanned pregnancy within months of giving birth.

We recently conducted a survey with Mumsnet to find out what advice new mums are getting from medical professionals. The survey found that whilst many women were happy with the level of advice, for some women, and particularly those who are breastfeeding, this is unfortunately not the case.

There are a range of contraceptives that are safe to use while breastfeeding – including progestogen-based methods such as the coil and mini-pill. But the survey found that one third of women who were breastfeeding or planning to breastfeed said that safe contraception when breastfeeding was not discussed or raised at all by healthcare professionals.

Exclusive breastfeeding can act as an effective method of contraception if strict criteria are met. However, whilst more women are choosing exclusive breastfeeding at birth, the majority are supplementing breast feeding with formula by the time their baby was one week old and as a result they would not be protected from unplanned pregnancy. Worryingly, the majority of women we surveyed who planned to use breastfeeding as a method of contraception said that no healthcare professional discussed with them what form of contraception they would use when they stopped or reduced feeds.

There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all answer to contraceptive advice for new mums – and many women understandably find it laughable that they would want to discuss methods hours after giving birth. Some women may want to fall pregnant again very rapidly, so healthcare professionals always have to tailor their care to the needs of the individual.

But inconsistent and unclear advice is the last thing a new mum needs, and it is worrying to hear that this is the case for some. One woman responding to the survey summed up many others' experience when she said that she “found information on what hormonal contraception is suitable whilst breastfeeding very muddled.” And others spoke of how they had received “contradictory” advice from different medical professionals about whether or not breastfeeding would provide them with contraceptive cover.

Given the growing numbers of women breastfeeding and the encouragement of women to do so, it is more important than ever that women are given consistent and accurate advice about contraception whilst breastfeeding.

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