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Peer Supporters

I want to post this to clarify my position on peer supporters - because I'm really quite concerned that a couple of people have suggested I'm anti peer supporters because of this article.

Peer Support is Necessary for Breastfeeding Success

This is absolutely totally not the case!  I believe peer supporters have a valuable and indeed essential role to play within the community - way back I WAS one!  It would be ridiculous to suggest people are only of value if they are a breastfeeding counsellor or IBCLC - all the roles are different and equally important in the bigger picture.  There is also ample evidence demonstrating peer support makes a significant impact -as per the image link.

The point I was trying (obviously badly) to make in the article is the current position we are in, whereby some areas are relying solely upon peer supporters to provide all the breastfeeding education and care - with nobody more qualified on hand for complex or even clinical cases.  In the same way it would be wrong to suggest peer supporters have no role, it's equally as wrong that when a mother is in a position of needing more help - the best they can hope for is someone who has done it themselves followed by a few short weeks training.  Furthermore the peer supporters in this situation are often unhappy too!  As per the quote from someone in the position of having nobody to refer to, there is no job satisfaction from feeling out of your depth with nowhere to turn.

As someone who answers a helpline which often involves calls from different parts of the country - there are times a mum needs in person support from within her local community.  Yep lots of time I can refer her to a local group or peer supporters - the mum needs that friendly ear and confidence boosting reassurance what she is experiencing is normal, or tips on how to say maximise sleep or tell if baby is getting enough.
But other times I know the case needs to be handed over to someone with a high level of competence to succeed, and I know the mum needs that NOW - not after seeing someone else who will then need to refer it on again.  Mum may have already seen local groups and is calling because it hasn't helped, it could be her case is complex - full of red flag indicators that baby could potentially be at risk if things don't improve dramatically, quickly.  In these cases I often spend long amounts of time on the phone, trying to track down someone I can hand over to and know the mum and baby will get the help they need.  It's hugely frustrating to be told ah you need to speak to our "breastfeeding experts", getting through and finding out they are peer supporters with nobody above them to refer the case to.  If baby is young enough, I grab the opportunity to call the labour & delivery ward -as the Acute Trust often have one IBCLC covering the hospital.   If baby is well into community care I can be going round in circles for hours and often end up having to turn to the voluntary organisations to track down a counsellor who can get involved.

This is not right!

The whole situation isn't made easier by the mass use of different titles - even my local community midwives and health visitors had no idea what all the different terms meant and who was qualified to do what, how on earth is a mother supposed to know the difference?   I've also spoken to peer counsellors who have innocently called themselves a breastfeeding counsellor, not aware that there was another role already with that title!  I really believe there should be fixed titles for the different levels of training, regardless of whether voluntary or NHS - but that will never happen.

To me, the new roles popping up (or were pre new government) are ultimately another way for the NHS to be seen to be doing something, whilst actually still totally undervaluing breastfeeding at the same time - another form of lip service.

Again, I hope readers can appreciate this does not mean I do not value the work peer supporters do or "disapprove" of their role!  Far from it.


  1. As a peer supporter who has received valuable encouragement and words of wisdom from you, I can attest to the fact that you're definitely not "against" us! ;)

  2. BTW, meant to add that I do not get paid to be a supporter, and our role was clearly definied by our course leaders. We're there to lend an ear and to perform "triage" in a sense - listen to the mother, try to figure out who may be best person to help, and be there to support her in conjunction with healthcare professionals (midwives, breastfeeding counsellors, HVs, etc.) We literally just support; we listen, empathise, reassure, encourage, and let them know they're not alone.

  3. I am a Peer Supporter too, and whole heartedly agree with both the article and above comment! Our role has frequently been refered too by out IBCLC's as "to get rid of all that personal stuff before we get to the BF stuff" as often ppl who walk through our doors have a LOT of things going on, that impacts Bf and they don't know! So we get talking, make them feel at ease, lend a hand so they can have a drink in peace, make sure they are registered with us and we know names and who they are, how many children they have, have they fed before, do they have home support, how did they find us, what do they think is going wrong etc etc, so when the IBCLC's are ready we can say "This is X mum and Y baby, 1st time feeder, 2nd time child, daddy is supportive, baby not gaining and HV suggested sumpliment, mum isn't keen" which means the IBCLC's can spend MORE time with each mum fixing that problem!

  4. So true. I train peer supporters but once the training had been completed the peer supporters have no further support from anyone with extra breastfeeding training; or any referal pathway fro mums they feel need extra support. the peer supporters continue to ask for a co-ordinator who knows about breastfeeding but there is no money available!!

  5. This is a really problematic issue in general, I think. The original article does sound slightly anti although as you've clarified, you aren't anti, just a little cautious about the amount of responsibility some peer supporters are given.

    I am a Peer Supporter in London - called a Peer Counsellor in this area, and it does sound like we have slightly more knowledge and training than you give us credit for ;). We have detailed information on all sorts of areas of breastfeeding - biological, social and historical, are taught to counsel rather than advise, are given child protection training, active listening skills training, counselling women from different cultures training, and the amount of women we see and help means that we have lots of experience with everyday, sometimes unnecessary :( problems women have breastfeeding and can offer lots of solutions and strategies that women can choose from to help them find their way forward.

    I suppose the issue for me is that peer support works really well if it is given early, as a preventative measure. It can then prevent some more complex issues for which an IBCLC or Breastfeeding Counsellor would be needed. I see lots of women that should have had better support in the early days which is frankly tragic. Ideally, women would have accurate information and support from support workers in the first 48 hours of returning home from hospital. Indeed, this is what the NICE guidelines stipulate. It is a shame it is not happening in many places.

    Thanks for raising it as an issue :)