Under the pump

Presentation by Helene Johns for the Three Minute Thesis Competition

Most women in Australia breastfeed. But did you know, even before going home from hospital, half of them don’t do it just at the breast!

under the pumpWhat do you see these days when you walk into a chemist, open a parenting magazine or venture into a baby shop?
We are surrounded by breast pumps, manual, battery operated, electric, quiet, efficient, subtle, reassuring, a “must have”, with single and double attachments, a research based solution for the problem of breastfeeding. Seductively named too: the Breast Exhauster of the late eighteen hundreds has been moved aside. Now we’re pumped up, in the eighties we had the Diana, the parade has continued with the Harmony, the Pump-in-Style, the Swing, and the Symphony. Recently we’ve seen the appearance of the Spectra - bulbous and pink with a central starter button, deep pink and enticing, a bizarre twist on a child’s toy.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a new baby’s life; and continuing for two years and beyond. What we don’t know however, are the consequences of the increasing technologising of breastfeeding (that is feeding via a pump) on breastfeeding duration.  This study aimed to answer that question.

Over one thousand Melbourne mothers of full-term healthy babies were recruited for a prospective cohort study.

  • 61% of women had a breast pump ready and waiting before the baby had arrived, alongside the cot and the pram.
  • More than half of the women interviewed had expressed their breasts in hospital before they went home, usually in addition to breastfeeding in the traditional manner.
  • Of the first time mothers just one third had fed directly at the breast only. 
  • At 6 months, 8% of women said they had expressed their milk to avoid breastfeeding in public

And importantly ... not feeding directly at the breast in hospital was associated with lower rates of breastfeeding at six months.

Breast pumps have become almost ubiquitous, they symbolise the position of mothers in our society: juggling competing roles and surrounded by ‘convenience’ retail solutions.

Is reaching for a breast pump likely to provide a short term diversion that might leave our mothers and babies lost along the way?

Helene Johns is a PhD student at Mother and Child Health Research and part of the Mothers and Infants Lactation Cohort (MILC) study.

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