I can see this maybe developing into a series of posts.
Having watched and participated in a few twitter discussions recently between mums and professionals I’ve been thinking.
Can we ever really not be coercive in language?
With health professionals (I’ll include doulas and Counsellors within that label) we strive to give information that’s the best for the individual. As Doulas we are not bound by the stricter policies that are within the NHS but we do have to be careful that we provide evidence based information.
I think there’s a problem in that in itself. “Evidence”, by its very nature, is biased. There’s always an element of researcher bias in studies. A good researcher will eliminate that as much as possible but it still exists.
When giving information out there’s also an element of bias. I’ve witnessed it far too many times a health professional giving one side of evidence and this is not enough for informed choice. Informed choice being when a person makes a decision for themselves (autonomy) with all the benefits and risks for every option available. I know myself that I have my own views on what’s best for myself, yet that is not the same for everyone.
For instance, one particular Twitter conversation/topic I’ve been following recently is around breastfeeding. Some suggesting that the benefits of breastfeeding are negligible in a country such as the UK. I have read the research around this and it seems fairly solid, however, over the last 15 years I’ve read a lot more telling me the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh benefits of formula. I’ve always questioned that this doesn’t take into account the individuals. The benefits for one family is not the same for all. However, the health benefits of breastfeeding, without other factors, do outweigh those of formula. For instance formula does not have living immunoglobulins (the part of the immune system that helps fight diseases and infection).
An example I often remember is when I supported, as a Doula, two families who worked in NICU. One wanted all the drugs possible and to be in an obstetric unit. The other wanted a possible home birth. Both said they were choosing this because of their experiences in work. To me, I thought that was a fairly stark example as to what’s best for one is not always what another will choose for themselves. Medicine and health care should never be a one size fits all approach.
Back to the twitter topics around breastfeeding and I am reminded that maternal mental health is majorly important, not only to the mother but also to the baby and wider family. Successful breastfeeding may be important to mental health to one but being told “it’s ok to formula feed” could be of huge importance to another and, actually, for that family the benefits of formula could outweigh the benefits of breastfeeding. As a big advocate for breastfeeding and also mental health of new parents, it is definitely important to remember this.
There should still be better support around breastfeeding but I do feel that there should be more around mental wellbeing of new families. I think there’s better support for breastfeeding than there is for mental health currently in the UK, although this could vary in different areas. If we support better mental health care then this should include infant feeding and the relationships within this. It’s widely known that oxytocin if a hormone that helps with bonding and mental health (amongst other things, such as orgasm) and this is needed for breastfeeding. So simply biology would conclude that breastfeeding increases oxytocin and therefore is good for mental health. However, some have a negative feeling around oxytocin. There are theories about the “dark side” of oxytocin in particular in relation to trauma survivors and how the brain learns that oxytocin feeling can also be linked to not so pleasant experiences. In those who haven’t really experienced oxytocic feelings (there is some research that many women have not ever experienced an orgasm) then it’s also said that the feeling could be a little bit scary as any new thing is. So, it definitely isn’t a once size fits all.
Perhaps, currently in the UK, the risks to the whole family of current levels of mental health support outweigh the risks for the current level of breastfeeding support. It may be safe to say that the level of breastfeeding support for families is better that the level of mental health support. I’d suggest that is actually the case local to me where we’ve Gold standard BFI.
Giving a bottle of formula or expressed milk is not a fix to mental health for many but I do acknowledge that for some, to be told it’s ok to not breastfeed may be of huge importance. The pressure put on new mums is huge and detrimental in many ways. Society really should change this. (This is a whole other post!)
So, back to coercive language. Any policy, procedure, guideline, I would argue is coercive. They tend to require an outcome with certain ways to achieve. With little flexibility it can make it difficult for health care professionals to support, or inform, all choices. I’ve heard many say “I’m not allowed to tell you this but…” and actually that information/advice has been highly beneficial to the recipient.
I, myself, have been in trouble many times when I’ve worked in the NHS and other care services, from doing things “out of policy”, even though those professionals agreed that what I was doing was of benefit to the person. (Usually simply sitting and listening with a person who just wanted something simple.) The phrase, “against medical advice” is always a really manipulative one, I feel. “Against medical advice”, usually means against a policy, or even a personal belief. I have supported many women who choose to do things “against medical advice” and each one of those decisions has been from a place of being fully informed of all the angles, usually having only been given one side by those medical professionals and once the other evidence is presented the response is simply “well this is against medical advice.” There is a culture of power and authority seeming to come from medical professionals and that is very coercive in itself.
Let’s remember the authority should be with the woman and the family.