For 60 years, it has been the UK’s go-to charity for expectant parents in need of antenatal advice and breastfeeding support. But last week the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) was plunged into crisis amid acrimonious rows about infant feeding and the type of postnatal support it offers, following the abrupt resignation of its president.
Seána Talbot, a volunteer who has twice been elected president by the charity’s 50,000 grassroots members, resigned earlier this month, saying the charity was being led in a direction she could not support.
In her resignation letter, she accused the NCT’s executive team of taking the charity away from its core mission of birth and breastfeeding and towards more generic “parent support”, with an emphasis on postnatal mental health. It appointed its first male chief executive, Nick Wilkie, in 2015 and, in 2017, launched its first national campaign to tackle under-diagnosis of perinatal mental illness.
“There has been a step away from NCT’s core passion and its mission of supporting parents, particularly with preparation for birth, early parenthood and additional support for breastfeeding,” said Talbot in an interview with the Observer. “NCT is now an antenatal class business.”
While Talbot does not dispute that raising awareness about maternal mental health is “very important”, she believes that, since many other charities campaign on this issue, the NCT should not allow its limited campaigning resources to be deliberately diverted away from other, more controversial topics. She said the charity was shying away from publicly supporting breastfeeding in media debates and on social media, because its top priority was to be popular with new parents, including those who formula feed, as income and membership of the charity wanes.
Since 2016, the charity has seen a 55% decrease in its membership from 110,000 to 50,000. It also suffered a 10% drop in its income over the same period, from £17.3m to £15.6m. A raft of competitors to the NCT have sprung up online and in cities like London, offering “non-preachy” practical courses which aim to help expectant parents feel confident and happy about their decisions, regardless of how they birth or feed their baby.
Talbot thinks it is vital the NCT provides information, a campaigning voice and additional help for women who want to breastfeed because they do not get enough support from the NHS: “The evidence is really clear that breast milk is better for babies than formula milk. We have to use that information to make sure that women are fully informed when pregnant, so that they can then decide what choice is right for them,” she said, adding there’s “this awful kind of fear of annoying anybody who didn’t breastfeed… Of course, we support all parents, but we know this group of women need additional support.”
Sam Grimstone, the NCT’s spokesperson, denied the charity had changed direction. “For 60 years, we have supported mothers and families, preparing them for birth and supporting them with feeding. I don’t believe we are moving away from that in any way. I think what we are trying to do is build on that and support parents after they’ve had a baby.”
She said parents across the UK often feel they are failing their newborns and have been dropped by health services. “We want to make sure we support people through birth – but also catch them at that really vulnerable period and make sure they get support then, too.”
Talbot’s resignation reflects a rift in the NCT about the charity’s future direction. A breastfeeding counsellor and NCT practitioner, who did not want to be named, said she had been repeatedly concerned by posts by the NCT on Instagram regarding infant feeding. For example, social media influencer Naomi Courts, who lists baby bottle brand Tommee Tippee as a partner on her Instagram homepage, was given the opportunity to ‘take over’ the charity’s Instagram feed on Friday. Other posts have shown a mother with her head cropped off breastfeeding, immediately followed by a smiling mother formula feeding her baby.
“The odds are stacked against breastfeeding. The formula industry spends millions on promotion. There’s nothing comparable to support or promote breastfeeding,” the NCT practitioner said. “Promoting bottle-feeding as equal to breastfeeding goes against our infant feeding policy, which says we should talk to parents about informed decision-making and not compare breast and bottle as equal – because it isn’t an equal choice.”
Grimstone said the charity was in the process of addressing its handling of social media and simply wanted to support all new parents on their “feeding journey”. “We have brilliant breastfeeding counsellors who do that, and we want to do more of it. At the same time, we recognise that the wider healthcare support context for feeding is difficult, and there isn’t enough support and help for all parents,” she said.
She acknowledged that publicly offering support to parents who formula feed could be interpreted as a change of stance by the NCT. “If we’re making any change it’s about [wanting] to be here for all parents… Anybody who is either about to have a baby or has had a baby can come to NCT and get support and be welcomed. If that is a shift, then I think that is a really positive shift.”