Research finds autistic mothers are not getting the help they need to breastfeed

Swansea University research has found autistic mothers are not getting the help they need to breastfeed.

Kat Williams, a mother of two said that despite really wanting to breastfeed both her children, struggling with it left her feeling like a failure.

She said “I think I was coming across as a bad patient.

“The worst sort of experience from that period was a midwife came in and said I had given up far too easily, and that for me almost flipped a bit of a switch…and I was like, ‘I formula feed now’.”

Kat Williams, who was diagnosed as autistic after having her two children, felt staff did not believe her when she explained her difficulties with coordination, touch and pain.

She said “When you breastfeed, it makes your uterus contract and I know that most women feel that, but it was more painful than labour.”

She said she didn’t feel believed by staff.

She explained many women were diagnosed as autistic later in life, while others may find it hard to disclose a diagnosis to healthcare professionals at all.

She wants to see staff respond to individual needs and styles of communication, which she thinks could benefit all new parents.

She said “I did feel like I’d failed and again, I didn’t really have the knowledge that I have now to be able to say you know, ‘look, I’m going to need more help with this’.”

For Dr Aimee Grant from Swansea University, this is a familiar story.

The BBC reports the academic had been researching pregnancy and early infant feeding for almost ten years before being diagnosed with autism in 2019.

She said “I’m a curious person, I thought I’d see what had already been done in this area and when I looked there really wasn’t very much research.”

Despite some positive experiences, her new study, which looks at the experiences of more than three hundred autistic mothers, found many felt they were not getting the support they needed.

Aimee Grant said “That could lead to them stopping breastfeeding. We also had some who clashed with health professionals who couldn’t understand them, who suggested that they would report them to social services, which absolutely isn’t the right thing to do.”

She recommended making communication clear and direct, ensuring mothers were not touched without explicit consent, as well as better training for healthcare professionals.

She said “Autistic women exist, always ask them what their needs are and believe them when they tell you.”

She added that it would be best for autistic people to deliver any training, but acknowledged services were stretched with a shortage of midwives.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said it has been campaigning for better breastfeeding support for all mothers, including autistic women.

Clare Livingstone, a RCM policy advisor, said “With seriously under-resourced and under-staffed maternity services, this is a real challenge, and we know many women will not be getting the right levels of support as a result.”

She added that it was important maternity staff received appropriate training, but was aware this is not always happening due to staffing pressures.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said health boards should consider individuals’ circumstances when providing breastfeeding support.

They added “Our breastfeeding action plan sets out how we will support people to initiate and maintain breastfeeding when chosen.”

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