Fifty years on and still facing breastfeeding challenges  

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Megan Fox, local Australian Breastfeeding Association admin manager, with colleague Arianwen Harris who is feeding her seven-month-old daughter Niya. Photo: Danielle Nohra

DURING a time when breastfeeding wasn’t widely discussed and words such as “breast” or “nipple” didn’t appear in publications, a group of Canberra women came together to start an organisation focused around breastfeeding.

Established in the ACT in 1969, they wanted it to be called the Australian Breastfeeding Association (its name today) but were forced to call themselves the Nursing Mothers’ Association of Australia because it didn’t have the word “breast” in it! 

Now, 50 years later, the national association is celebrating and Julie Smith, who has been involved in the association in many roles since the early ‘80s, says there have been a lot of changes around breastfeeding over this time. 

Julie Smith… involved since the early ’80s.

Julie, 62, of Watson, first came in contact with the association as a struggling, single mum, who went back to work after 12 weeks, and says she’ll never forget the support from the association during that time.

“I have vivid memories as a young, unmarried mother of a newborn in 1981, finding an apricot chicken casserole on my front doorstep, delivered by a friend from my childbirth class who was involved in ABA,” she says. 

In the ‘90s Julie joined as a member before becoming a community educator and then a breastfeeding counsellor. 

During her time with the association, she helped get some local and Federal government grants, the Australian Breastfeeding Association program got accreditation and they rolled out “Breastfeeding Welcome Here” stickers in the ACT.

She also saw some big changes around breastfeeding. 

“People were a bit precious about the word ‘breast’ but there was more of an understanding that you’re just feeding your baby and getting on with it,” says Julie, who researches the economics of breastfeeding at ANU. 

“It used to just be pull your T-shirt up and stick the baby on. Now there are more social anxieties about it, I think.” 

Julie says Australia now has an industry making money from “breastfeeding covers”, which also helps formula sales if women feel they are embarrassed or restricted in breastfeeding when they’re out.

Another change Julie has seen over the years, is the pressure for mums to return to paid work within a few months as well as juggle babies and breastfeeding. 

“Mostly, in the past, women who returned to employment could afford to take unpaid leave for the year as introduced by the Whitlam government in the 1970s,” she says.

“Now, wages are not as good for a breadwinner and housing is more expensive and women also don’t realise they have 12 months of job protection by law, they wrongly think they have to go back when their paid leave runs out.

“Parental ‘leave’ isn’t leave it is ‘work’ – we need to rename it.” 

Megan Fox, the ACT/NSW branch office administration manager of the Australian Breastfeeding Association, has also seen a huge shift in mothers returning to work sooner than ever.

“When I first joined, there were quite a few of us that were stay-at-home mums,” says Megan, 49, of Calwell, who joined 10 years ago when her first child was a few weeks old.

“Now, there’s pressure to get back to work, which is financial in a lot of cases. It puts a lot of pressure on mums to fit in everything. And if their focus is on getting back to work, sometimes it means they don’t get to enjoy their baby.” 

Megan wants to celebrate the part every member, volunteer and supporter has played in helping to increase breastfeeding rates in the ACT. 

“Breastfeeding is a learned skill and the mother-to-mother support provided by the Canberra community is worth celebrating,” she says. 

“We’re trying to get people prepared for breastfeeding and have strategies around that.”

Megan says the Australian Breastfeeding Association groups and activities, which are run by qualified volunteers, are important for mothers who might not have family members to teach them these skills. 

“We have discussion groups where we talk about topics that the mums want to talk about like sleep and returning back to work,” she says.

“We also run informal activities where mums can come and hang out.”

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Danielle Nohra
Danielle Nohra is the assistant editor of "CityNews".

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