Women Face Enough Barriers to Breastfeeding – Incorrect Medication Advice Should Not Be One of Them

Photography: Tall Grass Photography by Chantal

By Amy Brown, Swansea University; Gretel Finch, University of Bristol, and Heather Trickey, Cardiff University

The challenges many new mothers overcome to breastfeed their babies are well documented. Despite a public health system in the UK that promotes breastfeeding, many do not have access to the support that enables them to do it. Every day, services are being cut, public attitudes are negative, and this is exacerbated by a culture that does not really understand how breastfeeding works and how best to support it.

Many women for whom breastfeeding is going well are told they cannot breastfeed while taking medication. In some cases, this is perfectly justified – and women who are breastfeeding should always seek professional advice before taking any medication. But research has shown that many medications are safe to take while breastfeeding. Despite this, some mothers are told that they must stop breastfeeding their baby when prescribed a new treatment, even when that treatment actually poses no risk to either them or their baby.

For our new report, commissioned by the Breastfeeding Network, we explored the experiences of 444 mothers who had been prescribed a medication. Each of these mothers had contacted the charity’s pharmacist-led Drugs in Breastmilk advice service or accessed its online factsheets for specific medications between August 2017 and August 2018. Set up to counter inaccurate advice about breastfeeding while on medication, the network estimates the service responds to 10,000 queries a year. It is the only independent service dedicated to offering this advice in the UK.

Over the counter advice

We found that the majority of queries received by the charity concerned medications that mothers had been prescribed to take while breastfeeding. The vast majority of these women had been told to stop breastfeeding, or not given any information at all. Most women sought advice after being prescribed common medications such as antibiotics or antidepressants, or wanting to take an over the counter medicine such as ibuprofen or cough medicine. It wasn’t as if they had been prescribed a rare drug that medical professionals might not be expected to have up to date knowledge on.

Of particular concern was that many mothers told us that when they were advised by a medical professional that they couldn’t take a medication, their decision was not to stop breastfeeding. Instead, they explained that if they had not been correctly advised by the service they would have refused to take the prescribed treatment.

Some felt that they were being forced to make a choice between their baby’s health and their own, and decided that for them breastfeeding was more important. Others simply wanted to continue because they enjoyed breastfeeding. Many talked about preferring to experience the symptoms of their illness, or delay a procedure, rather than stop breastfeeding their baby.

But the women in our research were the lucky ones. They knew about the service and could receive the information they needed to both take the medication and carry on breastfeeding. Based on the volume of other incorrect information the women we spoke to were receiving, we believe that many mothers who do not know about the service may be stopping breastfeeding unnecessarily after receiving incorrect advice.

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