It’s a cold morning, but at Honeysuckle Breastfeeding Café, run from Boing! at Lockleaze Hub, as part of Stoke Park Children’s Centre, breastfeeding counsellor Ann Watts smiles warmly as she rearranges chairs. She’s getting the room ready for the mums who will soon be arriving to socialise, receive support with breastfeeding their babies, access information and generally get some reassurance that they are doing brilliantly at what can be an unbelievably difficult job.
“We get women coming here from around Bristol – from Lockleaze, Horfield, Bishopston and elsewhere,” Ann says, casually placing a knitted breast on the table beside the sign-in sheet. She is employed by Barnardo’s and South Gloucestershire Breastfeeding Support Service.
“As breastfeeding councillors, our job is to signpost mums towards post-natal services, and give them information and support,” she continues. “We never give them advice – they are grown-ups and we treat them like grown-ups. They know what they want to do. But they always thank us for the advice!”
At 10am the doors open and Carol Sudworth, who originally set up this group, arrives with children in tow. Carol and Ann greet the women who arrive, and the atmosphere is welcoming and relaxed, with an excellent selection of cake on offer. A mum comes by with her newborn son in a pram, and helps her older son take his shoes off so he can play. “She came here with her first when we was a baby,” Carol says. “It’s nice when they come back.”
Ann sits down with a new mum and her tiny four-week-old daughter, who is wrapped up in a pink hat and blanket. Ann speaks softly with a calm authority as she speaks the woman through exercises and techniques that will help the baby latch on. She is kind and patient with both mum and baby, and when the mum winces in pain, she tells her: “You’re the most determined woman I’ve met for a long time”.
As well as new mums coming to the session for support from the professionals, there are also returning mothers who act as peer mentors. Becky Peach is a mother support volunteer, and her curly-haired son is soon running around in a Spiderman costume, while Becky sits down with mum Mel to chat about how she’s been since last week.
For Becky, the decision to support others was all about giving back after she received so much help from the group. “I had issues with getting him to feed when he was about 10 weeks,” she says. “A friend had mentioned these breastfeeding groups, but I had no idea how sitting in a room with loads of other women was going to help. I didn’t even know what it was. I ended up going along and it was terrifying at first, but things improved over the weeks from the suggestions that Ann and Carol gave me.
“When my son was about a year old, I was going back to work and there were lots of changes going on in my life so I came back here for some extra support. I heard talk of becoming a peer supporter with the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, and I wanted to do it because I believe in supporting women. Not every woman can breastfeed, but I wanted to support them to achieve their own goals.”
And, on the whole, Becky sees Bristol as a positive place to bring up a baby. “When you read about women being told to stop breastfeeding in public, it can feel exhausting: it’s one step forward when the rates of breastfeeding go up, and then a step back when someone shames a whole group of women and it becomes a fight when it should just be a woman’s choice.
“But we’re lucky in Bristol that we have so much happening here. There’s a breastfeeding group just about every day of the week if you want to go to one, and the Breastfeeding Bristol Welcome Scheme is really good.”
Research published in the Lancet last year branded the UK as having the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world – though rates have risen year-on-year since 2005/06, according to NHS data. In 2016/17, 75 per cent of babies were breastfed, though how long this continued for varied hugely. Bristol became the first ‘baby friendly’ city in England and Wales in March 2010, with maternity staff, health visitors and others trained to support mothers with breastfeeding.
Today only three mums have come along to the session today – lower than usual numbers, which can be as high as 25 – but it has allowed Ann, Carol and Becky to have more time working one-to-one with the women. “As of 2016, this was the most successful breastfeeding café in Bristol – we had more mums come here each week than anywhere else,” Ann says. “The best thing is when people say nice things about us, which we then report back to the council. My favourite one was ‘You’re the dog’s bollocks’!”
As the session wraps up and the mum Ann has been working with gets her daughter breastfeeding contentedly in her arms, volunteer Becky reflects on the importance of groups like Honeysuckle. “We need to help each other, because we all need support sometimes,” she says. “Breastfeeding can be hard and no one tells you how to do it. And you don’t even have to have a problem: you can just come to talk to an adult, have a cup of tea and eat some cake.
“Breastfeeding is pushed by midwives but you can feel like you’ve just been left without support when it doesn’t work for you, and you’re left with all this guilt. It’s hard to get through the problems. Groups like this are not about shaming mums, but helping them to live whatever works for them. It’s not about advice, but it’s about giving information and solutions. We’re just people who like boobs, really!”
Find a Barnardo’s breastfeeding group in your area, or, for more general information and support with breastfeeding in Bristol, visit www.bristol.gov.uk/social-care-health/breastfeeding-in-bristol.