Recently, a bout of mastitis landed me in an after-hours medical clinic with an unfamiliar GP. I described the problem and he dutifully prescribed me antibiotics.

Having not had mastitis in over 12 months I was unfamiliar with how often I should be feeding from the affected breast, so I asked the Doctor. My question was met with the doctor exclaiming, “your son is 17 months old! I would take this as a sign that it is high time to stop breastfeeding”.

The look on my face must have given him a pretty clear picture of what I thought about this comment because he hastily added, “just breastfeed from the unaffected breast for a few days until the sore one stops hurting”.

For those of you who don’t know, this is unequivocally the wrong medical advice. Not only is this information incorrect, it is the opposite of the recommended management for mastitis.

Sudden cessation of breastfeeding from the affected breast will exacerbate the infection and increase the risk of the formation of an abscess. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners recommendations are to continue breastfeeding and to regularly empty the affected breast as fully as possible in order to relieve symptoms and reduces the likelihood of progression to breast abscess.

Fortunately, I was aware that the information provided to me by the GP was incorrect. I went home and sourced correct information from trusted sources.

However, I couldn’t shake this incident from my mind. This healthcare provider was in a trusted position of power and had I followed his advice, I would have put my health and my ability to continue breastfeeding at risk. The things that particularly struck me were his:

A)   Complete lack of knowledge on how to treat a common breastfeeding issue

B)   Total disregard for the proven benefits of breastfeeding

C)  Blatant negative attitude towards breastfeeding a toddler

It turns out that my experience is certainly not an isolated occurrence. When I spoke about this incident on social media I was inundated with messages from other mothers who had experienced similar encounters with their healthcare providers. One mother told me that upon becoming pregnant with her second child, her GP informed her that she would need to immediately stop breastfeeding her 9-month-old daughter because she couldn’t breastfeed whilst pregnant (which, for the record, is completely incorrect).

Common examples of inaccurate breastfeeding information provided by healthcare professionals have been accumulated in the Australian National breastfeeding Strategy: 2017 and Beyond. Some examples provided include:

“A GP recently told me that my 5.5 months old doesn’t need to feed at night and to give her water in a Sippy cup instead.”

“My GP advised me to start solids at 8 weeks old because breastfeeding is “obviously not giving him enough”

“I was told by a child health nurse that my daughter was too big and I should breastfeed her less”.

“I went to my GP about low milk supply. He told me that my milk was drying out because my body was failing me”

“Was told by the GP that as my son was 5 months old I’ve done my part and should just wean”.

General Practitioners play a critical role in providing information and support to breastfeeding mothers in the community. They have a significant influence on breastfeeding initiation and duration.

But sadly it seems that the vast majority of GPs in Australia are ill equipped to fulfill this role.

Research has shown that GPs receive little to no breastfeeding training in either medical school or subsequent formal professional development. Studies have indicated that Australian GPs lack the knowledge and conviction to provide support for breastfeeding women, with some reporting that their skills and knowledge are inadequate to provide competent care.

Is it any wonder that breastfeeding rates in Australia are so dismal when our sources of knowledge are so ill qualified to offer advice and support? Breastfeeding mothers in Australia are being set up to fail.

In Australia, studies have shown that 90% of mothers initiate exclusive breastfeeding but that only 15% of babies are exclusively breastfed to 5 month of age. This goes to show that mothers leave hospital wanting to breastfeed but are sadly unable to achieve long-term breastfeeding relationships with their babies.

GPs are doing the best they can whilst faced with a seemingly impossible job. They are expected to be experts on everything! They are tasked with providing comprehensive healthcare to all ages, genders, diseases and conditions. It is unsurprising that, without formal training, they are unintentionally doling out incorrect breastfeeding advice.  

GPs need to receive specific lactation education and training as part of their undergraduate education as well as mandated up-to-date professional development. It is essential that they be able to assess and treat common breastfeeding issues. Referrals to certified lactation consultants should be readily provided for in-depth support.

General Practitioners also have an obligation to positively promote breastfeeding. Studies have shown that mothers are more likely to begin breastfeeding and breastfeed for longer if their healthcare providers support and encourage this endeavor.

Investing in breastfeeding is a positive investment in the health and economics of our society.

When a breastfeeding mother walks into a GPs office asking for lactation support, she should not be given inaccurate information or dismissed with stop-gap slogans of “fed is best”. But rather, someone with adequate training should support and encourage her to meet her breastfeeding goals.


Love Phoebe

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