28 June, 2022

England’s National Breastfeeding Celebration Week, run by Public Health England (PHE), will take place from 27 – 3 July. We caught up with Ashley James – TV presenter, DJ, and mum to one-year-old Alf – to talk about her breastfeeding experiences.

What is National Breastfeeding Celebration Week?

The week will look at the evidence that exists. Showing breastfeeding’s wide and positive impact on a baby’s development. From strengthening immunity and providing nutritional value to emotional bonding and building mental resilience. Additionally, it will support the role that all healthcare professionals have in advising and supporting mothers to take up and continue breastfeeding for at least the first 6 months of their baby’s life. 

Breast Cancer UK encourages women to breastfeed. As evidence shows it helps lower the risk of developing the disease – with studies revealing the longer you breastfeed, the more the risk is reduced.  

Despite the benefits, the UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with eight out of ten women stopping breastfeeding before they want to. 

Ashley James’ breastfeeding story

We caught up with Ashley James – TV presenter, DJ, and mum to one-year-old Alf – to talk about her breastfeeding experiences. Why it was one of the things she loved most about her first year of motherhood. And, what advice she would give new mums who are struggling with breastfeeding. 

Despite openly admitting she’d always been quite ‘anti-motherhood’ for her own life. And, hadn’t been around many people who breastfed. Ashley knew she wanted to breastfeed when she became pregnant. 

“I knew about all the health benefits not just for Alf but for me as well, although Alf was obviously the priority. But I’d also heard about how difficult it was, and when I researched it, I learnt we had one of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world,” she said. 

Ashley’s main worry about breastfeeding was having to get her boobs out in public. After enduring years of shame and judgement due to having bigger boobs. “I was a 30GG when I was 14 years old, and there was a lot of shame and judgement with people questioning your morality and the way you dress,” Ashley said.  

She often felt the need to cover up. So felt breastfeeding was a way of reclaiming her body and her boobs after feeling they’d become overtly sexualised by society. 

Talking about those earlier years, Ashley, 34, said: “It kind of taught me that boobs were something to be ashamed of. But I also had a lump when I was 15, which was quite a traumatic thing that I went through. It turned out to be benign, which I know lots of people aren’t as lucky to get, but it (breastfeeding) was always something that I wanted to do to claim my body for myself.”

She understood breastfeeding wasn’t going to be easy. So she sought advice from a lactation consultant before Alf was born to boost her confidence. Ashley, who lives in London, also found support from an online breastfeeding community and by watching videos on YouTube. Two lactation consultant influencers she recommends checking out are Stacey Zimmels and Kathryn Stagg 

As with most new mums, Ashley worried whether she was doing it right. But the tips and advice she received from both the consultant and people online – such as how to change positions, use the rugby hold, and not panic if they don’t latch straight away – gave Ashley the confidence to continue breastfeeding Alf until recently when he turned one. 

Breastfeeding in the UK

In 2018, a report by Swansea University revealed the UK had one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world. Just 34% of UK babies are receiving breast milk at six months of age, compared to 62% in Sweden. 

Evidence shows that out of the 68% of women in the UK who start breastfeeding, only 48% continue beyond six to eight weeks, which is below the recommended six months advised by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

Breastfeeding protects women against developing hormone receptor-negative breast cancer – a certain type of cancer that tends to grow faster. 

Breast Cancer UK understands that breastfeeding is possible for everyone, but this NHS guide is a good place to start if you’re thinking about breastfeeding your child. 

What does Ashely think?

Ashley believes one of the main reasons there are such low breastfeeding rates in the UK is due to boobs being over-sexualised and women’s concerns at being confronted by people offended at seeing a boob in public. 

How you feed your child has become a very controversial subject, Ashley says but feels it shouldn’t be. “Women should feel empowered to do whatever they feel most comfortable with. I think we’re so used to seeing boobs from a male gaze… but arguably, what they are made for, and the function of them whether or not you have children, is to feed your child.  

“That’s not to say you’re a failure if you’re not able to do it,” she continued. “But we should not be shaming or expecting anyone to do that in private. If it’s not considered inappropriate to feed a child a bottle, it also shouldn’t be deemed inappropriate to breastfeed in public.” 

Social media sites such as TikTok have been reported to be removing videos of women breastfeeding because the content has been deemed ‘sexual’.  Ashley said: “TikTok believes that breastfeeding a child is sexual content, like who is sexualising that? The problem is with the person doing the sexualising as opposed to the mother feeding their child.” 

Due to Ashley’s public profile, it’s something she’s experienced herself. However, it only motivates her to speak out about breastfeeding even more. Empowering other mums to have the confidence to do it in public too. 

“I had people saying online that I was attention-seeking. I shouldn’t be doing it, and my son will be bullied when he’s older. And I’m like, ‘let’s dissect that’ because why would he be shamed? I’m actually giving my son the best start in life. It shouldn’t be a weird thing – he’s a baby, he’s not 15, and that’s how he’s getting nourishment,” she added. 

She believes there are a lot of stigmas and misunderstandings about breastfeeding. Women who decide to breastfeed should be celebrated and supported.  

“Lots of people will say ‘they could do it in private, or they should go to the loo to breastfeed,’ but would you eat your meal in a loo – especially a public one? 

“I’ll sometimes ask the question back, ‘So are you saying breastfeeding mothers shouldn’t leave their house?’ which is obviously not a practical option. ‘Is that your expectation that women should be prisoners in their house as long as they choose to breastfeed?’. It’s crazy!” 

She experienced some anxiety about the first time she breastfed in public. But her overriding feeling was the determination to do it. The knowledge she had every right to do it and that she shouldn’t have to cover up or hide away. 

What can be done?

She believes better education can help improve breastfeeding rates in the UK. “Women should be supported, not shamed. I was so nervous when I was pregnant because I’ve always had such big boobs. It was even more intimidating because I’ve always wanted to cover them up. The thought of having to whip them out in public, when people would say it’s attention-seeking, I would think: ‘I don’t think you realise just how much I don’t want to get my boobs out; I promise you I do not want you to look at my boobs; I just want to get on with my life,” she explained. 

Ashley gave birth during the pandemic and was well aware of how overstretched hospitals were. The nurses didn’t have enough time to dedicate to helping new mums breastfeed. This was one of the main reasons she took the time beforehand to learn a few of the more practical aspects of breastfeeding so she felt prepared. 

Ashley’s top tips for mums-to-be are: 

  • Get in touch with local support groups. There’s lots of great advice here  
  • Call one of the advisors at the National Breastfeeding Helpline on 0300 100 0212 (9.30 am to 9.30 pm, daily) 
  • Watch breastfeeding tutorials on YouTube 

Another great piece of advice Ashley shared is to let the people you’re with, whether friends or family, know when you’re about to breastfeed. Ashley said: “Often people can feel uncomfortable. Not because of the actual breastfeeding. But because they don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable. I found it worked well just to say, ‘Don’t worry, I feel really comfortable, so you don’t have to get up and move’. That helps everyone in the room relax and know I don’t think they’re a lingering freak!” 

Research shows that a supportive partner and family can boost a mother’s confidence, encouraging her to continue breastfeeding. Ashley agrees and says support from her partner Tom has been invaluable. Tom took over most domestic chores, such as cooking and cleaning the house. “There’s a lot they can’t do, as the shared feeding, for example,” Ashley said.… “If they can alleviate all the other parts of life, that’s great. There are loads partners can do, like remembering to look after mum because breastfeeding is exhausting. So Tom ran me baths and did other nice things,” Ashley added. 

Ashley’s parenting podcast

Ashley, who has her own parenting podcast called Mums the Word, has spoken openly about hitting ‘rock bottom’ in the first year of motherhood and her struggles with postnatal depression. She started her podcast hoping it could help other mums who were struggling.  

After stopping breastfeeding around Alf’s first birthday, Ashley acknowledges she felt apprehensive about how both would cope. It was the thing she loved most about that first year of motherhood with Alf. It helped her through those darker times when she was feeling low. 

Ashley sums it up perfectly by saying most importantly, women should do what’s right for them. She hopes that the more we normalise breastfeeding in the UK, the more women will feel comfortable giving it a go. 

“I think it’s important to know that overall, I had a really positive experience. It’s very rare that anyone would say anything to me in person. I was actually really surprised by how supportive people were. So a lot of the worry is in our own heads,” Ashley added. 

As well as advice about how breastfeeding can reduce your chances of developing breast cancer, our Prevention Hub has lots of tips and guidance on how to reduce your risk through diet, exercise and limiting your exposure to harmful chemicals.  

For more information on breastfeeding, visit the NHS website. 

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