Huge congratulations on winning this year’s Pam’s Prize, Jane. How do you feel about your award?
I had no idea that I had been nominated for Pam’s Prize so was very surprised and absolutely delighted to hear that I had won it. I felt very touched that a group of mothers from the local breastfeeding support group had taken the trouble to nominate me and that they managed to keep me in the dark!
What first inspired you to train as a breastfeeding volunteer?
My eldest child was 1 when I started to train as an NCT Breastfeeding Counsellor and I qualified 21 years ago, just before the birth of my third child. I had an experience when my son was about 3 months old which crystallised how important breastfeeding was to me. I needed an urgent test on my thyroid which would require swallowing a radioactive isotope and which would have put a premature end to my breastfeeding experience. When I expressed my concern at this, the doctor who was treating me (in Switzerland) said something along the lines of “what’s the problem, you have breastfed him for three months which is more than the average and I was bottle fed on Nestle and look at what a strapping bloke I am!”. All his words served to do were to make me even keener to carry on, and through a sympathetic paediatrician, I found a way of investigating the problem without the isotope and was able to carry on until we were both ready to stop. Once I started to train as a BFC, I found the whole subject complicated and fascinating, involving, as it does, something which is much more than simply a physical process but is fundamentally influenced by background, family, friends, education, hormones, society and more. I have continued to be fascinated by it ever since and really enjoy delving into it with every new group that I meet at antenatal sessions and with every family with whom I come into contact.
Many women receive excellent support from health professionals. However, I suppose that one of the main differences is that breastfeeding volunteers have to have had their own experience of breastfeeding at least one baby which is not always the case with health professionals. In addition, the training given by the volunteer organizations is very much based on listening and is based on a woman-centred approach. It is not about giving advice, but about helping someone understand their own experience using counselling skills and providing information. Women become breastfeeding volunteers because they have enjoyed their breastfeeding experience and want to help other women experience that joy.
I would say a warm welcome is the first thing. It is very hard for a new mother (or equally new parents) to walk into a group of strangers who all seem to know each other well. Many women have had to pluck up their courage to find a group and turn up and the first impression that they get is crucial to the likelihood that they will return. The group which I facilitate in Evesham has two long-standing and very experienced peer supporters who make sure that no-one is left out on a limb and who help integrate new mothers into the group. I also facilitate a group in Tewkesbury (part of the Gloucestershire Breastfeeding Supporters Network) where there is a small team of trained peer supporters who run the group with my help. I know from some of the comments in my nomination that cake is also seen as an essential feature of a good breastfeeding support group! There is something about a place where you can have a cup of tea and something homemade that is comforting and inclusive. I am proud to say that in both Evesham and Tewkesbury several of us were baking on a weekly basis years before Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood made it fashionable. I also think that the groups are general support groups where an alien landing from outer space might not realise that he/she/it was actually in a breastfeeding support group as the topics of conversation are very wide ranging (anything from Strictly Come Dancing, to the World Cup, via baby led weaning, feminist politics and the latest fitness regimes). Although there are times when women come for very specific help with positioning or worries about weight gain (of the baby!), there are other times when breastfeeding is scarcely mentioned but the groups provide an invaluable opportunity for making new friends. Even something as simple as a peer supporter holding a baby while a mother has her first actually hot, hot drink for the first time in weeks can offer great comfort and the groups are a source of information on all things relating not only to breastfeeding, but to other local groups, sling libraries, baby-friendly cafes and so on. This is especially important to first-time mothers, many of whom are new to the area or who have previously been out working full time and know none of their neighbours and have no local family to act as support. The risk of becoming isolated in the early weeks after birth is great especially for women who may feel anxious about breastfeeding out and about. The groups provide a perfect safe place in which to breastfeed for the first time outside the home.
Many women come to the group who have attended NCT antenatal sessions or who have heard about the group at parentcraft classes at the local Children’s Centres. Others are recommended to come by midwives, health visitors and breastfeeding support workers. The Evesham group has been running for over 15 years so there is a “word of mouth” effect and in addition many mothers return to the group with their second, third and fourth babies. Some mothers only come a couple of times when they have specific concerns but others continue to come every Friday lunchtime (in Evesham) or every Wednesday morning (in Tewkesbury) for months or even years. When antenatal mothers come, it is great to be able to introduce them to a regular at the group who may live in the same village and who is happy to answer their questions about the realities of breastfeeding in those potentially difficult first few weeks/months. I have often been told by women attending the group that they felt isolated and teetering on the edge of depression before they found it and started to establish a very supportive local network of friends who, for many, act as a surrogate family when parents are often far away. This is especially true for mothers from other countries and over the years we have welcomed women from all over Europe as well as Australia, Canada, the United States, Africa, Thailand and the Philippines.
I plan to carry on working as an NCT breastfeeding counsellor and continue to be involved in the breastfeeding groups in Evesham and Tewkesbury working with the peer supporters there who work so hard on a voluntary basis to help run the groups. It has been a great pleasure and a privilege to be so involved in breastfeeding support in my local community over the past 21 years.
“She came out to my house when I was near breaking point and calmed me down when I phoned her in tears a number of times, even late at night. I successfully fed my first child until over a year.”
“I don’t think I would have breastfed for as long as I did if it wasn’t for Jane. She is an unsung hero, one of a kind. Evesham would be a lesser place without her.”
“She urged us to take her personal number and call if we needed her, telling us her husband is used to receiving tearful phone calls from new mums needing help and reassurance. I didn’t really suspect I would be one of those mothers.”
“I’d had a lot of old-fashioned views drip fed to me. Without Jane’s support and that of the group I wouldn’t have carried on.”
Jane is our fourth Pam’s Prize Winner. If you wish to read about our last year’s winner click here.
In November 2010, our chair Pam Lacey passed away. Pam had touched the lives of countless families but also encouraged many other women to train and go on to support others with her infectious humour, wisdom and determination.
Pam’s Prize was set up in her memory. It is a way to give recognition to the way volunteer breastfeeding counsellors make a difference to so many families in their time of need. We wanted to celebrate those who go the extra mile as Pam did.