One-to-one with Kate Quilton
When Dispatches documentary Breastfeeding uncovered, presented by journalist Kate Quilton, aired on Channel 4 it generated a hail of press coverage and debate. We caught up with the new mum to talk about the programme, what moved her to take on this emotive subject, and her own breastfeeding journey.
Kate Quilton is best known for fronting the series Food unwrapped and Superfoods, delving into the truth behind the foods we eat – but her latest project tackles nutrition of a different kind.
All about Kate
- Egg lover: Kate never leaves the house without a boiled egg: ‘They’re the perfect snack on the road.’
- Sleep-deprived: Now caring for a three-month-old, Kate’s favourite way to relax is sleeping.
- Keen musician: Kate plays the flute and saxophone. Now she is a mum and at home more of the time, she is determined to start playing with a band again.
In the Dispatches documentary Breastfeeding uncovered, Kate set out to investigate why the UK has some of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world, taking a look at issues such as cuts to support services, formula marketing, public attitudes, and the stigma around breastfeeding in public.
She also shares her own struggle with breastfeeding, speaking candidly about painful nipples and exhaustion in the weeks following the birth of her son in May.
The programme garnered a huge reaction in the press and on social media, and Kate was inundated with personal messages, including from mums who watched it ‘in tears because they’d just felt nobody out there shared their pain or understood it’.
‘I have been pretty overwhelmed at the reaction,’ she says. ‘I have received so many messages from mums saying “thank you so much for sharing the stories and shining a light on the fact that this isn’t easy – we thought we were the only ones”.
‘What I have realised is that there is an army of breastfeeding mums out there trying to do their best, really trying to stick at breastfeeding, but behind closed doors, are struggling and feeling very alone.’
However, it wasn’t her own struggles with breastfeeding that inspired Kate to take on the subject. The idea came a couple of months before her son was born when she visited the NHS breastmilk bank at Bristol while filming for the series Live well for longer.
‘We started talking about breastfeeding rates and I found out that shocking statistic that at six months less than 1% of babies are exclusively breastfed,’ she explains.
‘I was talking to the midwives and doctors about what the issues are – the lack of support, and the fact that it’s cultural, that breastfeeding is quite absent. We don’t see people breastfeeding much in public, we don’t see it in the media – I couldn’t name a film I’ve seen with a woman breastfeeding in it, and I’ve never seen it on TV.
‘I went to speak to the boss of Channel 4 to say people need to see this – even if I just happen to be breastfeeding while filming another documentary, it’s an important message.’
Channel 4 then suggested making a documentary in time for World Breastfeeding Week, says Kate, which would mean filming just weeks after she gave birth, but she and her husband, actor James Lance, both decided it was ‘too important’ an issue not to take it on.
‘I started meeting mums around the country struggling to breastfeed, and there were some really shocking stories. What was common across the board was that women felt really alone; they felt like their experience wasn’t something other women were going through. It was clear that we just need to start talking about this more.’
But the programme does not play into the polarising breast versus bottle debate, the lens through which breastfeeding is so often presented in the media, says Kate.
‘Our aim in making this documentary was not to alienate any mums feeding their babies out there at all. We really wanted to make it for the 80% of mums who want to breastfeed and who encounter issues for whatever reason. It’s not an easy time of life and we wanted to support mums and share their stories – we wanted to shine a light on it.’
She adds: ‘Now I’m in touch with this brilliant band of fantastic women really trying to make change in this space. We will just keep pushing this forward.’
Stigma of breastfeeding
A key focus in the documentary is how our society views breastfeeding, and the stigmatisation of mums who do so in public.
Kate herself has encountered reactions ranging from ‘warm smiles’ from ‘mums who have been there’ to tutting, whispers, raised eyebrows and even ‘low-level harassment’.
She recalls being approached by two women while breastfeeding her son on a bench at a local park who told her outright that they thought she shouldn’t be there.
‘They actually told me they’d just said the same thing to a woman breastfeeding in the pound shop up the road,’ says Kate. ‘I think they were going around east London walking up to breastfeeding women and telling them: “Go home. We did it behind closed doors and so should you.”
‘It’s a very vulnerable time in your life. You’re extremely sleep-deprived like never before, you don’t quite feel yourself, you’re riddled with anxieties, not just about breastfeeding, but about everything. In the first two months I felt more vulnerable than I have ever felt in my life.
‘You’re trying to go out into the world and regain some of your independence, do a few normal things. At that time, to be met with this low-level harassment is absolutely terrible – shocking.
‘Making this film and hearing all these women’s stories, you start to question how baby-friendly are we as a society? We could be a lot more baby-friendly that’s for sure,’ she adds.
So, what can we do to create a more baby- and breastfeeding-friendly culture?
‘I think every single breastfeeding mum can help with this,’ says Kate. ‘When I started my breastfeeding journey, when I went to a restaurant I was looking for the quietest table in the corner. After making this documentary, I think visibility is a big issue – now I go into a restaurant and pick whatever table I want, I pick my favourite table – not a table in the shadows because I may need to breastfeed.
‘Mums have to do whatever they are comfortable with – but the more that get out there and breastfeed, the better it’s going to be for the next generation of breastfeeding mums.'
‘We need to see more breastfeeding in the media, more in television shows, in movies – it doesn’t have to be central to the story – it can be that it just so happens that a mum is there breastfeeding her baby.
‘There needs to be better representation in government – at the moment, breastfeeding doesn’t land in anyone’s remit. Alison Thewliss MP is really pushing for there to be a representative – someone to take care of it.
‘And rules which don’t allow women to breastfeed in certain parts of the Houses of Parliament absolutely need to change – that is not an example for the rest of the country to follow.
More help for women
‘We need to improve support. I feel I have had a gold standard of breastfeeding support which has helped me. I know budgets are under a lot of pressure – but it would be brilliant if more could be done for all women.’
And as for her personal breastfeeding journey, despite the ‘ups and downs’ of the first eight weeks, Kate is still exclusively breastfeeding her son, something she would love to do ‘for as long as possible’.
‘It’s a journey,’ she adds. ‘You don’t know what’s around the corner; all I know is right now it’s going great – he’s happy and I’m happy.’
- Kate Quilton is a 34-year-old journalist and TV presenter.
- Since 2012, she has been the host of Food unwrapped, and has fronted Superfoods: the real story, since 2015. She also presents Live well for longer.
- When studying at Bristol University, she carried out a food experiment, eating just kebabs for a week. She recorded the results and the story was picked up by a national paper.
- She worked for ITV and the BBC as a student before becoming a broadcast journalist in Somerset.
- From 2010 to 2014, Kate was Channel 4’s youngest ever commissioning editor. She won a BAFTA for digital creativity and the Digital Emmy award in 2014, before moving to focus on presenting.
Breastfeeding in the UK
- Breastfeeding initiation was 81% in 2010.
- The prevalence of breastfeeding fell to 69% at one week and 55% at six weeks.
- At six months, only 34% of babies were still being breastfed at all.
- Only 1% of babies were exclusively breastfed at six months, as recommended by the WHO.
- According to a survey by Swansea University, exclusively given to the Dispatches programme, 67% of those polled thought there was no difference between breastmilk and formula.
(NHS Digital, 2012)