Friday, 7 August 2020

Peer Support in a Pandemic

Today I did something I haven't done in months. I went to a breastfeeding peer support group. And it was lovely.

In normal times, I'm a volunteer breastfeeding peer supporter. I help to run a local peer support group, which before lockdown was welcoming around 12-18 mums per week. That might not seem huge, but for those women, it was a chance to get support with feeding problems, meet up with others in their situation and generally feel heard and accepted.

And then, the week before lockdown, we had to cancel all sessions indefinitely. I was gutted. How were all these women, and the new mums to come, going to get the support they need?

Peer support since then has been difficult. We set up Zoom sessions but numbers dwindled and providing support with problems over a video call is a big challenge. We have a Facebook group which mums can use to share concerns which has been great for the more commonplace issues as other mums are often very ready to share their experiences as reassurance, but it's hard to address more complex problems via keyboard. And the backdrop of all this was not knowing which services were still running and not being able to signpost to breastfeeding counsellors who would usually offer home visits but, for obvious reasons, are unable to now. As a peer supporter, I am trained in the basics of breastfeeding support but much of my role is signposting, so this has made things really difficult.

This week a report was released called 'Babies in Lockdown' which highlights the challenges new and expectant parents have experienced during lockdown. One of the issues highlighted was the lack of breastfeeding support. Some of the stories women told almost made me cry with frustration at what they've had to deal with. It's genuinely heartbreaking to see mums struggling and being unable to provide or refer to the support they need.

Today, to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, we tried out a peer support group in a park, with strictly limited numbers and social distancing measures. It felt very different to the usual meetings we have in a children's centre - I kept getting the urge to offer tea and biscuits (another big part of my role usually) and not being able to get a sneaky cuddle was rubbish. Now I'm done with baby making myself, the biggest perk of peer support is being able to nab other women's babies for a cuddle on a regular basis. But that aside, it was so lovely to be able to talk to mums about how they'd been doing, offer support and reassurance, and see them chatting to each other and getting the social support that these women have so lacked in lockdown. It reminded me why I love the role. 

I really hope that as we weather the ups and downs of the next few months - because it's become obvious that it's not going to be a steady relaxing of rules, and situations can change very quickly - more thought will be given to the needs of new parents. They need support in so many areas, but breastfeeding definitely needs more protection. This isn't a judgement on formula feeding. My role is to facilitate mums to meet their own feeding goals, not beat them round the head with a 'breast is best' message. It's a recognition that there are challenges specific to breastfeeding than need support, and that for many mothers being able to feed their baby how they choose is a priority. 

I hope I will be able to get back to more regular peer supporting soon. I hope that mums get the support they need. I hope that the government will prioritise the families of infants and toddlers who have been almost entirely overlooked so far.